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Captain Matthew Carlin Gleeson

Chaplain, Roman Catholic Priest, Navy Corps of Chaplains

Captain, Matthew C. Gleeson,
Chaplain, US Navy corps of Chaplains

On January 3, of 1870 in Englewood, New Jersey a new American is born, his name is Matthew Carlin Gleeson. He is the son of two Irish catholic immigrants, and very little is known about his early family life other that he did have at least 1 brother named William Gleeson who passed away on January 30, 1957.

Young Matthew Carlin Gleeson grew up in the New Jersey and New York areas and felt the call of God early in his life. Gleeson attended the St. Joseph’s Seminary in Troy, New York where he became a Roman Catholic Priest.

One of the earliest records of Father Gleeson comes from the wedding of May Evelyn Hickey and William A. Kane who were married by Father Gleeson on April 20, 1898. At the time Father Gleeson was the rector of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Brooklyn, New York.

St. Joseph's parish was organized in 1856 to serve the Irish laborers working on the Erie Railroad tunnel in the immediate area. This large stone church was erected in 1872-1873, and was designed by Brooklyn architect Patrick Keeley who designed several other Catholic churches in the city. It was intended to be the leading Catholic Church in the city, and sits within sight of City Hall on Baldwin Avenue between Magnolia and Pavonia streets.

By 1900 Father Gleeson was now living and serving at St. James Roman Catholic Orphans Asylum in Manhattan, New York. This is likely the St. James Parochial School at the corner of St. James and James Street in Manhattan. The School sits on a lot that is formed by the strange angle of the street and a 4 story red-brick building with late 1800’s style architecture and arched windows sets most unnoticed in the corner lot. The St. James Church is nearby and both are in a forgotten old part of Manhattan nestled away from normal traffic

Within 3-years time from his service at St. James, Father Gleeson felt another calling in his life. This calling was also to serve his beloved Holy Father, to serve in the military ministering to the men in the Navy. On October 5 of 1903 Father Matthew Carlin Gleeson was appointed as a Chaplain in the Navy Corps of Chaplains from the State of New York. His first duty in the navy was serving with the rank of Lieutenant as Chaplain aboard the USS Missouri under command of Captain William S. Cowles. The Missouri was a 12,500-ton coal-fired battleship built in 1901.

While serving aboard the Missouri Chaplain Gleeson awoke to a normal April day aboard ship, this however would turn for the worst in a split second. At 11 O’clock in the morning on April 13, 1904 Captain Cowles has the Missouri off Pensacola, Florida on the target range firing his main guns in rapid fire. On the fifth shot of the after turret there was a large explosion and a great ball of flame was observed bursting from the after turret.

On the Bridge Captain Cowles sounded Fire and Collision Quarters and gave orders for Lt. Commander F. K. Hull to take the Missouri into shoal waters where he managed to anchor the ship in 5 ½ fathoms of water. At the moment of the explosion Father Gleeson likely knew what had just happened, and as his feet sprang into action to carry him to the effected area of the ship, he was also saying prayers for those who would be injured and dying.

The other battleships on the firing range with the Missouri then followed her into the shoal waters to render any assistance they could. Aboard the Missouri things were bad and in Captain Cowles own words he gave a feeling of what the mood was like. “I believed the ship to be in imminent danger and went quickly to the fire. I found the turret impossible to enter as streams of water were already being directed into it. All entrances were barred with the dead and dying. Two men were on the top of the turret, one calling for help and everyone trying to reach him.”

Passing around the turret Captain Cowles ran into Chaplain Gleeson, where Gleeson ask the Captain if he wanted him to send a message to the Admiral stating their present condition. Captain Cowles gave the order and Gleeson carried it out. Captain Cowles then made his way below to the berth and splinter deck to find Lt. Commander John M. Orchard, a future armored cruiser commander, directing streams of water into the upper and lower handling rooms. Lt. W. R. White was also in the area of the lower handling room and was directing a fire control team there. Gunner Cox reported to the Captain that the Magazines were flooded but the fire was not under control at the time.

Lt. Davis then came up the ladder through the hatchway and yelled that there was a man at the foot of the ladder who was alive but needed help. Captain Cowles then descended the ladder and felt for the man and soon found Ordinary Seaman Donnelly and was assisted by Chief Machinist G. Crofter in bringing Donnelly up the ladder. There were then three more men pulled from the area of the ladder. Captain Cowles finally ordered up Midshipman A. G. Caffe who heroically remained in the lower handling room in water up to his neck and was becoming overcome by the fumes. Midshipman Caffe was so over come by the fumes that he was escorted out, only to resume his place on deck and again was assisting the Navigator in fighting the fire.

Lt. William Pitt Scott, who would one day command the armored cruiser USS Frederick, was the first to enter the burned out turret. Lt. Earl, Lt. Marshall and Paymaster Dyer all of who helped to get the wounded out of the smoldering coffin of the turret quickly followed Lt. Scott. Lt. Castleman supported the men who entered the turret with water from a fire hose. Everyone was quite overcome by the fumes from the burning powder and materials in the turret, which Lt. Commander Orchard and Lt. Davis were particularly affected. Father Gleeson as noted by Captain Cowles, “Was everywhere assisting everyone.” Dr. Urle and the navy corpsmen were looking after the wounded. Dr. Urle at one point fell down a open hatchway and hurt himself but got up quickly and no one even noticed this until much later did he say anything. According to Captain Cowles  “Everyone, officers and men were at their posts cool and collected.” In the final moments Master-at-Arms Elliot lost his life while saving others and Shipfitter Burgess and Electrician Leary were injured during the rescue efforts.

In the final analysis of the event it was found that a twelve-inch gun in the Missouri's after turret “flared back” hot gasses into the turret when the breech was opened for reloading. A bag of propellant was set afire and the conflagration spread from the turret into the ammunition-handling chamber below. Though the fire was confined to those two areas, it took the lives of 36 of the ship's officers and crew. It also demonstrated the dangers of contemporary gun and ammunition handling arrangements and spurred corrections to both that significantly reduced the risk of other accidents of that type.

For his actions that day aboard the Missouri Father Gleeson received a Presidential Commendation from President Teddy Roosevelt. Captain Cowles of the Missouri sent this telegram to President Roosevelt about Gleeson's conduct that day. It reads, "On April 13th [1904] Chaplain Gleeson did noble duty, not only as a Chaplain and Priest but as a man." In the aftermath of the fire and explosion Father Gleeson's work was essential to the physical and spiritual needs to the dying and injured men. Father Gleeson later remarked about that day "Thank God I am alive and well but I certainly had the experience of my life."

The next ship “Father Matthew” as he was known, served on was the Battleship USS Connecticut. While on the ship his rank was still a Lieutenant and his signal call letters were “FHAW.” President Teddy Roosevelt had called for his Great White Fleet to sail around the world on a good will tour and the Connecticut was the Flagship of the fleet of Battleships to make the cruise. “Father Matthew” was a very well liked chaplain among the crew and made many friends aboard the ship. Evidence of the fondness the crew had for “Father Matthew” is noted in the December 7, 1907 edition of the Washington Post. In an article it is reported that as the fleet is anchored in New York, aboard the Connecticut 250 sailors presented to “Father Matthew Gleeson” a $500 motion picture camera as a token of there fondness of the Chaplain. Thomas F. Foley, who was one of Chaplain Gleeson’s parishioners when Gleeson was the pastor at St. James Church in Brooklyn, gave the presentation speech. One can only wonder what those reels of film could show us today. Chaplain Gleeson served aboard the Connecticut from 1907 through at least 1909.

As the Great White Fleet is in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia on Sunday, August 23, 1908 Liberty was granted for 4,000 men of the fleet. Over 1,500 of the sailors attended High Mass at the cathedral in Sydney. There was a great crowd of local onlookers gathered to see the American bluejackets attending Mass. That evening there was a banquet given by the Catholics in Sydney and over 1,200 Catholic sailors attended. Several local Australian officials were also in attendance. Cardinal Archbishop Moran of Sydney, presented toasts to the King and to the President after which Cardinal Moran declared that “Catholics had advanced along the same line of material prosperity and religious liberty in America and Australia.” To which Chaplain Matthew Gleeson of the Connecticut responded, “American knew no religious problems, whether English, Scotch, Irish or other. Australian and American ideals and achievements were similar,” and he felt that the first and greatest honor was to be known as an American. The most memorial moment of the visit was when Cardinal Moran presented to the Connecticut a tame kangaroo. Cardinal Moran said, “He wished the men of the splendid battleship to have something characteristic of the country.”

At 10:30 in the morning of October 14, 1909, Chaplain Gleeson preformed a marriage ceremony in the All Saints church on Henry Street in New York where Anna Healy and William Dunn were united in holy matrimony.

Chaplain Gleeson was assigned to the Receiving Ship, USS Hancock at the New York Navy Yard for a period about 1910. On May 23, 1910 an open-air Catholic Mass was held at 10 O’clock in the morning at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This was an annual event and was the eight such Mass held. The Mass was held on the parade grounds near where the marine barracks were located. During the Mass soldiers and sailors who had given their lives in service to the United States during the Civil War and the Spanish-American War were remembered and honored. Chaplain Matthew Gleeson of the Receiving Ship USS Hancock was in charge of the Mass and was assisted by Chaplains Thomas F. McGronin, and Francis J. Sullivan. The Rev. Dr. John F. Nash the pastor of the Sacred Heart Church in Brooklyn also assisted, and Rev. Dr. John P. Chidwick, who was the Navy Chaplain aboard the USS Maine when that vessel was blown up in Havana Harbor, gave the sermon. In attendance for the Mass was the 69th Regiment, New York Volunteers, detachments of marines and sailors from the navy yard and veteran’s organizations of the Civil War and Spanish-American Wars. The public was also invited to attend the Mass.

On March 27 of 1914 Chaplain Gleeson applies for a United States Passport while serving in the navy in Manila, Philippine Islands. The reason for this passport was not known but it can be surmised that while serving with the navy in the Philippines it is likely that Chaplain Gleeson was going to travel into the interior of the country to visit Catholic missions. On his passport application he stated his name as Matthew Carlin Gleeson, born on January 3, 1870 in Englewood, New Jersey, was a Chaplain in the U.S. Navy and was 5-feet, 10 and one half-inches tall. His physical description was high prominent forehead, bluish grey eyes, straight prominent nose, small mouth, medium chin and long face with a light brown hair and ruddy complexion.

Chaplain Gleeson served on the Hancock through at least 1912 and at that time was now at the rank of Lt. Commander, and had been on sea duty a little over 5 years and another 2 1/2 years of shore duty while in the navy. By 1913 “Father Matthew” was now serving as the Chaplain aboard the USS Saratoga. She was an armored cruiser build in 1893 as the USS New York then renamed Saratoga in 1911 and then again renamed USS Rochester in 1917 and during WWII was scuttled to prevent her being captured as the Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands in 1941.

After his duty on the USS Hancock at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Chaplain Gleeson was assigned to duty at the United States Naval Training Station at Newport News. It was on the evening of November 17, 1915 that Chaplain Gleeson officiated at the naval wedding of Adele Magruder and Lt. Stuart O. Greig, USN at the home of the bride’s parents. Miss Adele Magruder was the daughter of Captain and Mrs. Thomas P. Magruder, USN, who was then attached to the Naval War College. The groom, Lt. Stuart O. Greig, USN was attached to the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla.

For at least the next two years Chaplain Gleeson served at the Newport News Training Station. His rank by then was now a Commander. On the first Christmas that the United States celebrated during the First World War at the Training Station in Newport the Chaplain’s of the station held a celebration. In the afternoon of Christmas Day all the children of the officers and enlisted men of the training station assembled in the main barracks hall where there was a large Christmas tree set up. Outside the barracks building Santa Claus arrived in a cart pulled by eight reindeer impersonated by apprentice seaman. Each child received a gift from Santa Claus, with the evening address given by Chaplain William G. Cassard. The Christmas letter was read to all from Navy Secretary Daniels, with Captain Rufus Z. Johnston making a remark to all. Also that day a smaller celebration at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Gustav S. J. White was held for apprentice seaman who could not be with their families. There in the White’s cottage was a Christmas tree filled with gifts for each of the seaman. Providing the evening entertainment for the small gathering was Chaplain Matthew Gleeson, USN, Lt. And Mrs. John Borland, USN and Paymaster and Mrs. William M. Hughes, USN, all of who were assigned to the Training Station. Later that evening the church bells were rung for 5-minutes as a symbolic salute to the men who were then fighting in the trenches of France.

By late summer of 1918 Chaplain Gleeson may have been on duty back at the New York Navy Yard. On August 30, 1918 during a Navy day celebration held at Coney Island, New York a great Knights of Columbus parade was held in which it was estimated there was a crowd of over 200,000 assembled. In the parade 2,000 navy bluejackets from the Brooklyn Navy Yard along with a detail from the USS Recruit and 200 girl workers of the Knights of Columbus in uniform marched. That evening a navy ball was held at the Hotel Shelbourne for 3,000 invited guests. Sgt. Irving Berlin provided the evening’s entertainment and the Camp Upton Men, who preformed parts from the “Yip Yip Yaphank” show and a delegation from Pelham Bay also preformed scenes from “Biff Bang.” The master of ceremonies of the evening was Chaplain Matthew Gleeson, USN.

On July 1, 1918 Chaplain Gleeson had been advanced to the rank of Captain and during 1920 was now serving at sea again as the Fleet Chaplain, U. S. Atlantic Fleet aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). At the time Chaplain Gleeson had nearly 11-years of sea duty with another nearly 7-years of shore duty in the navy.

When the 1920 Federal Census was taken aboard the USS Pennsylvania Gleeson was listed as; Captain Matthew C. Gleeson, Single, residence was listed as 1153 Boyant [possibly Boynton] Avenue, Bronx, NY.

After his duty aboard the Pennsylvania was completed he served as Chaplain at the New York Navy Yard starting on January 3, 1921, and in 1922 was the sixth highest-ranking Captain in the Navy Corps of Chaplains. Chaplain Gleeson would remain on duty with the New York Navy Yard until the close of his long career. Chaplain Gleeson at the height of his naval career was the first head of the Navy Corps of Chaplains. The New York Navy Yard was the headquarters for the Third Naval District. The Third Naval District, headquartered at New York, New York, was established on 7 May 1903 in accordance with General Order No. 128, signed by Acting Secretary of the Navy Charles H. Darling. Puerto Rico was initially part of the district due to good communications between New York and Puerto Rico. In 1919 Puerto Rico was removed from the district and placed directly under the control of the Chief of Naval Operations. In 1945 the district, still headquartered at New York, consisted of the following geographic areas: Connecticut, New York, the northern part of New Jersey (including Counties of Mercer, Monmouth, and all counties north thereof), and also the Nantucket Shoals Lightship. The Third Naval District was disbanded on 7 October 1976 and functions were transferred to the Fourth Naval District.

In May of 1926 while on duty, Chaplain Gleeson was stricken ill and taken to the Naval Hospital there at the navy yard. Likely it was from a heart attack and he remained there for some time. Chaplain Gleeson lived for another year and three months after he had been stricken ill.

During that time he applied for retirement from the navy. But while in the hospital he himself was able to get up and about. Being ever the servant of God “Father Matthew” gave spiritual comfort to many of the patients in the naval hospital, disregarding his own comfort. Many of “Father Matthew’s” old friends from his old church at St. James in Manhattan who he had made life-long friends came to see him. Among those were the Governor of New York Alfred E. Smith and Justice of the Court of Special Sessions Thomas J. Nolan, and the New York Transit Commission Chairman John F. Gilchrist, all of who were parishioners when “Father Matthew” was the pastor at St. James Church.

It was on the late evening of Monday August 8, 1927 that God called his humble servant, Father Matthew Carlin Gleeson, Chaplain, USN home for his final reward in heaven. After his death his body was prepared and was dress in his Captain’s uniform and lie in state in the chapel in the hospital. At the time Captain Gleeson had served 24-years in the United States Navy.

On August 11, 1927 the body of Father Matthew C. Gleeson was taken to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to lie in state. Now Father Gleeson’s body was dressed in the robes of a Roman Catholic Priest. On the evening of August 11 the Offertory of the Dead was chanted over the body by Bishop John J. Dunn, who was a classmate of Father Gleeson at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Troy, New York.

During the pontifical mass of requiem held at 11 O’clock on the morning of August 12, 1927 Cardinal Hayes presided with Bishop Dunn as the celebrant of the mass. Navy Chaplain John P. Chidwick, the chaplain aboard the USS Maine when blown up in Cuba, was to give the eulogy. Five hundred naval men from the Third Naval District attended the service, with another two-hundred and fifty men under command of Captain William B. Wells from the Receiving Ship USS Pueblo at the New York Navy Yard who marched in formation from a pier to the St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunket headed the Naval delegation at the funeral and the pallbearers of the body were; Rear Admiral J. H. Hicks, Captain W. L. Simonpietri, Captain Joseph Fisher, Captain R. P. McCullough, Captain L.L. Von Wedekind, Commander J. E. Stepp and Rear Admiral L. C. Palmer.

After the Mass Father Gleeson’s body was escorted by the 250-bluejackets past 59th Street on the way to the St. Raymond’s Cemetery. There at St. Raymond’s Cemetery the playing of Taps and a firing squad saluted Chaplain Gleeson in a final rite.

Today Father Gleeson is buried in the St. Raymond’s Cemetery located at 2600 Lafayette Avenue in the Throggs Neck section of The Bronx, New York. Today the cemetery comprises nearly 180-acres and has well over 250,000 graves. Just as in life with a mixture of characters, in St. Raymond’s Cemetery there is a mixture of burials. Among them are the likes of mobsters Joseph “The Baker” Catania (1902-1931) and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll (1908-1931) to heroes, Civil War Congressional Medal of Honor recipients John J. Nolan (1842-1912) and Christopher Nugent (1838-1898), who lie peacefully resting with a saint such as “Father Matthew.”

Father Matthew Carlin Gleeson

Photo is undated but likely taken before his service in the navy.

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