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Father Connors unites 9th Division; memorial at 50 years

Posted By November 1, 2012 | 1:15 pm | Featured Article #3
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By Bob Cronin

During wartime, many of the units adopted nicknames descriptive of what they were and what they hoped to be. The 9th U.S. Army Infantry was no different and had been given the title of “The Old Reliables” during the first World War. It carried that name proudly across the world at the outbreak of World War II. And so, through the vagaries of world history and military memories, the 9th Division has become part of the history of Worcester and the story of an “Old Reliable” legend who typified that epithet. Like the 9th Division itself, Father Ed Connors was always there when he was needed and saw things through to the end.

Father Connors was born in Whitinsville and graduated from Holy Cross College in the class of 1927. After ordination he was assigned to Saint Peter’s in Worcester and Sacred Heart and later to Saint Bernard’s in Fitchburg. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he was among the first priests of the Springfield Diocese to volunteer for service as an Army chaplain in early 1942. The 9th was just being re-activated and training in the Carolinas, and Father Connors joined them, the start of an epic and memorable association which would last through remarkable times.
He could never have imagined that he would experience the invasion of Africa at Casablanca, chase Nazi General Rommel through the Tunisian desert and would be up front with the troops through Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Belgium and finally into Berlin itself. He was known as the “soldier’s priest” by all who knew him and he joked that his congregation was Catholic, Protestant, Jew or anyone else who sought religious sustenance before a battle. There are many pictures still available of Father Connors in the front lines saying Mass for the troops just before fighting began. He had the reputation of knowing when and where things were going to happen and, fortunately it seemed, he was always there. And with him, the sacraments of Holy Eucharist, Penance and Extreme Unction, as it was known then. If “old reliable” could be personified, it had to be Father Ed Connors, serving “the boys” exactly where and when he was most needed. Only one who has lived through it can ever describe the comfort and solace the presence of a priest can bring when facing death on a battlefield. And Father Connors was there on every occasion.
Among the young officers in the 9th at that time was a captain named William Westmoreland who got to know Father Connors very well and to admire his concern and attention to the welfare of the soldiers in his group. Westmoreland stayed on in the Army after the war and later commanded all troops in Vietnam and finally rose to Army Chief of Staff, the highest position in the Army.
In 1945, the war came to an end and Father Connors, along with all the other “civilian soldiers” were mustered out and returned to civilian life. But strangely, his mail was constantly filled with letters from “his boys,” men in the unit who did not want to relinquish a relationship with this priest they had so come to admire.
Father Connors carried on a correspondence with his “pen pals” and developed a sort of newsletter. From this grew the idea of a reunion of the 9th Division with a get-together and ceremonies on the weekend closest to Veteran’s Day. This became an annual event for those old comrades who were able to make it. General Westmoreland was a regular attendee and took great pleasure in making the Worcester priest the butt of his comments. The general once remarked that Father Connors was the worst soldier but by far the finest priest that he had ever served with. This reunion became an annual event and at its height, some 600 or more members of the 9th Division would come back to pay tribute to their chaplain and enjoy the company of comrades of years before.
The organization grew so close to Worcester and their priest that they erected a memorial on the grounds of the Immaculate Conception Church where Father Connors was pastor from 1952 to 1980. The memorial very fittingly overlooks Gold Star Blvd. In this monument the names of the 4,581 members of the 9th Division who died in World War II have been enclosed as well as the names of the 250 members who died in the Vietnam conflict.
Veteran’s Day this year will be a very special event for the unit as it marks the 50th anniversary of the erection of the memorial in front of Immaculate Conception. It is further notable that it is within three days of the 70th anniversary that the 9th began their overseas quests and invaded Casablanca. The Ninth Division Memorial Mass is scheduled for 10 a.m., Sunday, Nov. 11 in the church.
To acknowledge the occasion, the Veteran’s Day Parade held annually on Grove Street will reverse its route of march. This year the parade will step off at the Lincoln Square armory, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m., and march to Immaculate Conception Church. There local officials and officers of the 9th Division will honor the 50-year span and re-dedicate the memorial to recognize all those who have served in the past and pay tribute to their accomplishments. Following the parade and ceremony, the parish will host a reception in the Father Connors Center.
When asked one time why they carried out this reunion for so many years, Father Connors explained, “We gather to pray for our beloved deceased, to pray for our Gold Star people and the pursuit of God’s peace on earth. This is our duty.”
When asked for his description of his chaplain, one old vet replied, “He was a soldier’s chaplain. Many a man died in peace in his arms at the aid station or more likely on the battlefield.”
Try to get to this dedication of the 9th Division memorial on Veteran’s Day to pay tribute to one of Worcester’s undecorated heroes and all his comrades who are honored by that monument standing on the hill at Gold Star Blvd. Remember them in a prayer or two, as well as all those who are with us or have gone on, who have served this great nation and have made sacrifices that are so easily forgotten. And, particularly, say a couple for Father Ed Connors who lived up to that challenge to be “Old Reliable.”
Have a happy Veteran’s Day and enjoy your Thanksgiving. May it be a festive and happy one. God Bless! See you at the parade.