Priest and Rosary Calm Tension – Oral History Interview

msgr devlin picture

Msgr. Devlin, in an oral history interview from 2008, reflects on his involvement with the Philadelphia Police Department​ as they joined forces to calm tensions in the inner city. Msgr. Devlin was later appointed Director of the Cardinal’s Commission on Human Relations.

Devlin: George Fencl, (Chief Inspector and head of the Police Department’s Civil Affairs Unit), would call me. And one time we were up there and I had to bring in Spanish priests you know. And they were good. They’d come out, you know and we decided that one way of calming the situation down was to have a rosary. We’d had a priest say a rosary in the vernacular in Spanish and then things would—and I still remember—one guy said, “All right, we know you’re a policeman because the kind of belt you’re wearing.” (laughter) I remember then a bottle going zoom—right past my ears. Things were getting panicky, you know. It was very quiet while everybody was saying the rosary. But then it started to stir up again and George Fencl comes up behind me and says, “Monsignor, you think you could say another rosary?” (laughter) 

Interviewer: Thank you for keeping the lid on that simmering violence in the neighborhood.

 Devlin: Yeah, we had, we developed a technique, with Monsignor Dowling and myself and a group, a particular cadre of priests, that you know, we could call on to do this anywhere. And we were in every area of the city. We were in North Philly, we were in the suburbs, we were in South Philly, you know, and all I had to do was call them and they’d be there. I remember a guy and he had his fists right up in my nose, like that. And he says, “You get back in your pulpit! You don’t belong out here. Arrrr arrrr.”  (laughter) And then finally when things settled down, he says, “Father, you want to come home and have dinner with me and my wife?” (laughter)

Centenarian Priest Speaks of Bells and Prayer – Oral History Interview


Monsignor Charles Monaghan, the oldest priest in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, turned 100 on March 31, 2015. In a 2007 taped interview, Msgr. Monaghan spoke of his earliest desire to be a priest, which came in the form of bells at Ascension of Our Lord Church.  Click the link below to listen to him describe this memory, or read the excerpt below.

And I remember going into the church and being there for the whole Mass. Now she had to carry my brother in her arms and my sister just about walking, and I was about 4 years old. 4-1/2, 4 years, and I remember seeing a priest, and I remember the Mass itself, very quiet, there weren’t that many people in church. This was the basement of the present church, and when it was all over, I said to my mother I’m gonna be a priest. And she says “How can you figure that out?” and I says “well, did you notice that the priest, when he put his knee on the ground a bell rang, and when he raised his hand, another bell? And I said I would like to do that.”


Msgr. Monahan was quoted in an April 14, 2015 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer ( as saying “I’m totally inactive, except for my prayers.” He mentioned in a 2007 taped interview that learning to improve prayer life is a key challenge facing Catholics today, especially children. He said that if we want to be Christians, if we want Christ living in us, we have to learn from Him, and His devotion to his own father.  Click the link below to listen to his thoughts on prayer, or read the except below.

We have to learn how to say prayers together. But we have to learn how to say the prayers individually, and hungrily. When children have problems we have to teach them to kneel down first and say their prayers. We want them to learn to find answers through prayer. Through prayer – I think prayer, and the teaching of prayer, and allowing a child to grow into the need for prayer, and to find out that in their needs, prayer comes first. Prayer comes first. You have to get a closer relationship with our divine Lord Himself, and that has to come through prayer and the sacraments. That’s the beginning, anyway.


Recently Processed Collection: John Gilmary Shea Correspondence

As an intern for PAHRC, I was tasked with processing the collection titled, John Gilmary Shea Correspondence, 1836-1891 (MC 51). John Gilmary Shea was not only a writer, editor, and lawyer, Shea was considered the leading American Catholic historian of his time.

Shea was only 14 years old when he published his first article, a short essay on Cardinal Albornoz in the Children’s Catholic Magazine. It wasn’t until the 1850s when Shea really began his work in American Catholic history. Between 1852 and 1855, Shea published several scholarly works that were critically acclaimed: Discovery and Exploration of Mississippi Valley (1852), History of the Catholic Missions Among the Indian Tribes of the United States, 1529-1854 (1854), An Elementary History of the United States (1855), and A School History of the United States (1855).

Shea was very passionate about his life as a scholar; so much so that over the next four decades, he published two hundred and fifty articles and books. His magnum opus was a four volume series titled, The History of the Catholic Church in the United States, published between 1886 and 1892. With all of Shea’s publications over the decades, it is reasonable to assume he relied on his expansive network of personal and professional relationships to obtain the pertinent information required for his extensive scholarly works. The Shea correspondence collection I processed in late fall 2012 provides a unique perspective and reveals Shea’s activities as a writer, researching scholar, historian, and friend.

During my initial review of the collection, I found that most of the correspondence was overstuffed in worn out archival folders and boxes—a preservation nightmare. I was fortunate enough to find one positive quality about the collection; it was previously processed at the item-level which may prove useful to researchers.

After discussing an appropriate processing plan with Faith Charlton, PAHRC’s then Reference and Technical Services Archivist, we devised a plan that included: keeping the item-level correspondence intact while updating correspondents’ names to Library of Congress Name Authority File (NAF) as well as their religious order (where applicable); performing basic preservation such as re-housing and removing rubber bands/staples/paperclips; and creating a finding aid in Archivists’ Toolkit. The most challenging aspect of processing the collection came from the fact that Shea had a substantial amount of personal correspondence; the collection is housed in approximately seven boxes.

The bulk of the collection is comprised of incoming correspondence. Some of the larger files with twenty or more letters are from notable figures who helped Shea during his scholarly years.

For instance, the collection contains a large file of correspondence between Oscar Wilkes Collet, a writer, scholar, and member of the Missouri Historical Society. Here is a postcard received by Shea requesting help locating research materials. 

February 2, 1885 postcard sent by Oscar W. Collet
regarding unpublished research materials.

Another notable correspondent was John Wesley Powell. Powell was a U.S. soldier, geologist, explorer of the American West, and director of the Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology.

Letter written by John Wesley Powell, Geologist for the U.S. Department of the Interior, on October 27, 1876 requesting Shea’s scholarly assistance.

Another large correspondence file comes from Michael Augustine Corrigan, Archbishop of New York.

Typed letter composed in 1891 by Archbishop Michael Augustine Corrigan asking Shea for clarification of sources to the assertion that there were large defections in the Catholic Church in America.

Other large correspondence files contain letters from Archbishop James Roosevelt Bayley, James Cardinal Gibbons, Peter DeSmet, John Ward Dean, Edmond Mallet, and Eugene Vetromile. 

The collection is open to researchers. The PDF finding aid can be found here. PAHRC also has the original finding aid with item-level information which includes specific dates. If you would like to take a look at the original finding aid or any of our other collections, you can schedule an appointment to visit PAHRC or email us at



The American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia. (1897). Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia Vol. VIII No. 1. Philadelphia: The Society.

The Battle of Antietam: a Philadelphia soldier’s experience

This past Monday, September 17, marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single-day battle in American history. The 69th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, with which Philadelphia native William C. White served, participated in this harrowing conflict. Several letters that White wrote to his parents shortly after the battle describe some his experiences.

In a letter dated September 19, 1862, White writes:

we had a terrible battle in which Sargent Neal Gillen a great friend of Jimmy Hughes had his leg nearly torn off from a solid shot and i am almost certain he is dead his brother our captain stayed with him and was taken prisoner our brigade was on the right and the left broke and [??] then the rebels got on our left and rear and we got out as quick as we could the rebels were behind us we had to get out the best way we could our company lost from eight to ten killed and wounded and prisoners…we expected another battle to day but they have skedadled…

September 19, 1862, page 1

September 19, 1862, page 2

One week later, White continues to discuss the horror he had experienced:

after i wrote the last letter i took a walk over to the battlefield it was an awful sight if it had been the first battlefield i saw it would make me sick it was worse than Fair Oak [Battle of Fair Oaks, also known as the Battle of Seven Pines, which took place in Virginia on May 31 and June 1, 1862]. it was four miles long and the dead lie all along in lines in one place there was a regular line of battle for about one hundred yards they lay in twos where Ricketts [Brig. Gen. James B. Ricketts] battery opened grape and canister it mowed the rebels down like grass i saw a great many of our dead, but twice as many rebels…

September 26, 1862, page 1

September 26, 1862, page 2

White began his service during the Civil War on August 19, 1861. His collection of letters to his parents recount his experiences in some of the most important battles of the war– Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. The letters provide a glimpse of Union camp life during the Civil War and insight into the psyche of a Union soldier. They also document the experience of Irish Americans, specifically in White’s case Irish Catholics,  as the men who made up the 69th regiment were mostly of Irish origin from Philadelphia.