Honors for a nun who lauded heroes
October 23, 2011
Former U.S. Army Sgt. Francis S. Currey was awarded a Medal of Honor for repelling a German tank attack in Belgium in World War II to rescue five comrades during the Battle of the Bulge.
Medal of Honor recipient Hector A. Cafferata Jr., a private in the U.S. Marine Corps in Korea, was recognized for heroism during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in 1950. And as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Harold Arthur "Hal" Fritz was presented his medal for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action" near Quan Loi in South Vietnam in 1969.
On Saturday, they and three other Medal of Honor recipients from the Vietnam War placed a floral wreath at a simple block of white marble in Malvern marking the grave of a nun - Sister Maria Veronica Keane of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).
As a volunteer archivist at the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, "Sister Veronica," spent 17 years researching the lives of every person who had received the nation's highest military honor.
"Sister Veronica was very special to me and to all the recipients," said Walter J. Marm, who had been a first lieutenant in the Army when he was honored for leading his platoon in the First Cavalry, airborne division, through intense fire in Vietnam's la Drang Valley in November 1965.
Marm, who was a colonel when he retired from the Army in 1995, said he recalled visiting Sister Veronica at the Freedoms Foundation and at Camilla Hall, the convent home for sick and aging sisters from her religious community.
"She was like a stepmother to us," he told the gathering. "Any time we had a concern or a problem we could call on her for advice and assistance, and many of us did."
Sister Veronica devoted her life to the Medal of Honor project when she retired after 50 years of teaching government and history and coaching debate teams.
She was 93 when she died Nov. 4, 2002, and was buried at Immaculata Cemetery adjacent to Camilla Hall. She had turned down burial at Arlington National Cemetery to remain with members of her religious community.
Sister Marie Lareine Spain, who joined the order after serving four years as a lieutenant in the Waves, the U.S. Navy's women's division during World War II, offered a prayer Saturday paying tribute to heroism and service.
"We thank you for those who keep alive the memory of our heroes," she said, "especially Sister Maria Veronica."
More than 20 nuns residing at Camilla Hall attended the ceremony along with State Sen. Andrew E. Dinniman (D., Chester), who has mobilized support for the Freedoms Foundation's Medal of Honor Grove in Phoenixville.
A bagpiper from the Irish Thunder Pipes Band closed the program with "Amazing Grace."
The six Medal of Honor winners had traveled from Maryland, Florida, Illinois, New York, and North and South Carolina to participate in the first fund-raiser for the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove. The nonprofit was created recently to maintain and upgrade the 52-acre woodland park the Freedoms Foundation created to honor Medal of Honor recipients.
Each state, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have one-acre plots in what the Friends group calls "a living memorial to the 3,458 recipients of our nation's highest military decoration."
Sister Veronica was born Angela M. Keane to Irish immigrant parents. She grew up in Philadelphia's Harrowgate section and entered the convent when she was 18.
During her long teaching career, her assignments included John W. Hallahan High School, a Catholic girls' school in Center City. When she left the classroom at 70, she turned her attention to the Medal of Honor project.
Sister Veronica found photographs and sketches of medal recipients, completed their biographies and created handwritten citations to accompany each medal. Her work fills more than 90 volumes at the Freedoms Foundation.
When she was asked in 1979 why she spent her days collecting information about medal recipients, she replied: "I have always been a woman with deep religious convictions. I hate the idea of war . . . but I love the men who have given me the privilege of worshiping my God as I please."
In an 1986 Inquirer interview, Sister Veronica called her medal project "a labor of love." "To me," she said, "they're all heroes."
The Medal of Honor was established by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Regulations call for the president to award it on behalf of Congress to members of the military for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States."
The medals often are granted posthumously.
A few hours after the graveside ceremony, 140 people attended a $500-a-plate dinner at the Freedoms Foundation to raise money for the Friends of the Medal of Honor Grove for grove maintenance and improvements.
Medal of Honor Archivist for 17 years
Christine M. Flowers: Sister Veronica of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and Medal of Honor recipients
October 21, 2011
By Christine M. Flowers
Philadelphia Daily News
THEY SAY there are no atheists in foxholes, even though the nonbelievers have started clamoring for their own "chaplains" anyway (kind of a "Don't Pray, No Hell"). That old proverb sheds light on the way faith and combat are deeply intertwined, on the battlefield as well as in the minds of those who serve both God and country.
So, it's not really surprising that one of the most devoted champions of American heroes wore a uniform of another type: that of the Roman Catholic nun. Sister Veronica, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, spent five decades whipping her young archdiocesan recruits (girls in plaid kilts, boys in blazers) into shape. When she retired, she moved on to the real thing: combat veterans.
Sister spent the last part of her life, almost two decades, compiling detailed and moving records of the people who received the Medal of Honor, the highest award that our country can bestow on its soldiers. Established in 1861 by Abraham Lincoln, the award was designed to honor exceptional bravery in combat, destined only for those men (and women) who, as Sister noted, "placed their lives in danger while serving in the armed forces, above and beyond the call of duty."
Some of the recipients are legendary, including Audie Murphy, Pappy Boyington and Douglas MacArthur. Others are less well-known even though their heroism was no less compelling. That's where Sister Veronica came in. It was her belief that every combatant who fought, bled, suffered and, in many cases, died for this country deserved to be remembered, and to have a face attached to his or her name. She spent countless hours, from 1970 to 1987, compiling records of these troops as the chief archivist for the Medal of Honor Grove at the Freedoms Foundation, in Valley Forge. She pored over books, articles, microfilms and everything else she could get her hands on to breathe life into the memory of these patriots. For her, as long as they were remembered, they were alive.
Some found it strange that a nun, a woman who had devoted herself to Christ, would choose a second vocation like this one, tied as it was to the horrors of the battlefield. She had an answer for them, one that conjures the image of pacifist Alvin York and Father Francis Duffy, the most decorated cleric in the history of the Army:
"I once spoke with a family that didn't want to accept a posthumous medal because of religious reasons. I told them that I, too, hate war, but I love these men who have made it possible for me to worship my God in a manner of my choosing."
That is the fundamental difference between those who are intent on pounding their swords into plowshares, at all costs, and those who understand that peace must be bargained for with the blood and treasure of courageous men and women. The fact that a Roman Catholic nun was able to articulate the symbiotic relationship between faith and freedom is a tribute not only to her, but to the men she loved.
One of those men, retired Army Col. Joe Marm, spoke with me this week from his home in North Carolina. Marm, a native of Pennsylvania, was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1966, after having taken part in the la Drang Valley battle memorialized in We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young. This is a part of the citation given to him: "Although severely wounded, when his grenades were expended, armed with only a rifle, he continued the momentum of his assault on the position and killed the remainder. His selfless actions reduced the fire on his platoon, broke the enemy assault, and rallied his unit to continue toward the accomplishment of this mission."
And, yet, he's a humble man. As with most heroes who tend to deflect attention outward, he wanted to talk only about Sister Veronica during the conversation. When asked why she was so important in the lives of the medal recipients, he observed:
"Sister Veronica was a legend in her own time, a mentor to veterans who they could call on, talk to, and share their tales of woe. A confidant."
Sister Veronica passed away in 2002, and was buried among her fellow nuns, even though it's been rumored that she was offered - and refused - a spot at Arlington National Cemetery. That would be typical of her, as humble as many of the men she memorialized.
Tomorrow, at Immaculata University, surviving medal recipients will lay a wreath at her grave site. It's a fitting tribute to this Mightiest of Macs.
The Medal of Honor is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States. Generally presented to its recipient by the President of the United States of America in the name of Congress.
“I hate the idea of war, but I love the men who have given me the privilege of worshipping my God as I please,” Sister Maria Veronica Keane, IHM
Sister Veronica, as she was known, served as archivist for the Medal of Honor Grove, maintaining the archives of the U. S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society for 17 years. She compiled the only complete record of recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor since its inception during the Civil War. Her efforts resulted in a hand-written portfolio for each of what was then 3,387 recipients, one that detailed their acts of valor in service of their country. She also obtained photographs of more than 40 percent of the men and one woman who earned the country’s highest military award for valor against an enemy force. Because she came to know many of the living Medal recipients, she had strong opinions about how their stories should be told.
“Please,” Sister Veronica said bluntly in one interview, “when you refer to Congressional Medal of Honor holders, don’t call them ‘Medal winners.’ There was no lottery; no games; it was nothing but pure grit and bravery that got them those medals.” Read more
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