By Sarah Mac Donald - 09 May, 2016
The Irish embassy to the Holy See and the Teutonic (German) College in the Vatican unveiled a plaque on Sunday to honour Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty’s role in saving thousands of Jewish lives and Allied POWs during the Second World War.
Members of Hugh O’Flaherty’s family and the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society joined Ambassador Emma Madigan in the German College for the unveiling of a plaque recalling his diplomatic skills and his vital contribution to the resistance movement.
In her address, which was attended by the Ambassadors of Britain, the US and Canada and Vatican officials, Ambassador Madigan said the Irish priest’s compassion was not bounded by lines of nationality or religious community.
Quoting Pope Francis, she said there are people who, “do not grow accustomed to evil. Who defeat it with good,” and she thanked the Irish priest who died in 1963 on behalf of all those he saved.
“There are occasions when quite ordinary people find themselves in very dark times. When people whose great passions are golf and Kerry football, find themselves, in Joyce’s phrase, in the midst of history that has become ‘a nightmare from which we are trying to awake’,” the Ambassador said.
“Directed and sustained by his faith, he gave up the comfort and security he had, to try and lead as many people as possible out of that nightmare.”
“Happily for so many people, Mgr O’Flaherty united that faith and that compassion with apparently bottomless courage and resourcefulness. Some would put that down to his Kerry roots!”
“But he would be the first to remind us, I think, of how many people, in the Vatican, in Rome, from Britain and the Allied nations, and from Ireland contributed to those courageous efforts to hide and protect people during the war.”
The Vatican ceremony followed a seminar hosted by the Ambassador on Saturday with two contemporary Irish missionaries celebrating Mgr O’Flaherty’s lasting legacy of charity, courage and compassion.
Spiritan Fr Michael Kilkenny, CSSp who spent 10 years in Angola 1985-1995 and Sr Elizabeth Ryan, FCJ who was based in South Sudan from 2008-2013, spoke about the humanitarian work that they as Irish missionaries do in and around conflicts that are often forgotten today, such as South Sudan.
Jerry O’Grady, Chairman of the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society, said that the sixty people who attended the ceremony included the sons of Major Sam Derry who was the other major player in the Rome Escape Line and the grandchildren of Henrietta Chevalier, the Maltese widow who gave her apartment to Monsignor O’Flaherty for use as a safe house.
“We feel extremely proud that one of our own is now remembered in a place such history but also of such tragedy. What he did to alleviate suffering during World War II and it has the same relevance today as it had 70 years ago … he is an inspirational role model.”
Mgr O’Flaherty became known as the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ for his ability to outfox Nazi efforts to capture him by using fake IDs, disguises and operating a communications network inside and outside the Vatican.
As a result he was able to give refuge to 6,500 Jewish refugees and Allied POWs, hiding them in houses, convents and monasteries across Rome and even inside the Vatican itself.
Ironically, much of his clandestine operation was conducted from within the Vatican’s German College, where Mgr O’Flaherty lived for 22 years.
The tiny Vatican city state was officially neutral during the war which meant O’Flaherty was on safe ground within its walls. However, had his activities been discovered, it would have given the Nazis a pretext to invade the Holy See.