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Army Chaplain Dominic Ternan, son of Brooklyn and Fordham University, honored on 75th anniversary of his battlefield death just after D-Day

2019-06-16

U.S. Army Chaplain Dominic Ternan, only 13 days after surviving the carnage of D-Day, was shot and killed by a Nazi sniper on June 19, 1944. (Holy Name Province)

U.S. Army Chaplain Dominic Ternan, only 13 days after surviving the carnage of D-Day, never saw the bullet coming.

The Brooklyn-born Franciscan priest was already on the move at 5 a.m. on June 19, 1944, as his regiment headed toward the critical Battle of Cherbourg. Outside the village of Valognes, as the U.S. forces battled German soldiers trying to protect the nearby French port city, Ternan and his comrades came under fire by a larger Nazi force.

A wounded sergeant shouted for Ternan, and the priest knelt quickly by his side to perform the Catholic Church’s last rites. A German sniper’s bullet tore into the cleric’s back, his last words a battlefield prayer as he anointed the bleeding soldier.

The chaplain fell forward, dying on the spot.

On Wednesday, the 75th anniversary of his death, Ternan will be remembered with a Manhattan memorial Mass at St. Francis of Assissi Church on W. 31st St. — the site of an August 1944 service honoring the slain 41-year-old who left behind a devastated family. His father died just three years later, and the loss haunted Ternan’s mother until her death in 1950, recalled his nephew Jim Doran.

“I can’t remember not knowing about his death,” said Doran, 76, who posed for a photo with the priest only months before the fatal shooting. “We had our prayers as kids, ‘Have mercy on Dominic’s soul.’ So we had that in our prayers from the very beginning.”

Ternan is pictured with with his niece, Julie Doran, and nephew, James Doran, in their family home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, in January 1944.
Ternan is pictured with with his niece, Julie Doran, and nephew, James Doran, in their family home in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, in January 1944. (Holy Name Province)

Ternan’s tragic passing was duly noted in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, and the hero priest received a posthumous Silver Star. A citation sent to his father detailed his only son’s heroism.

“His bravery and devotion to duty reflected highest credit on himself and upon the military forces of the United States,” it read.

While the priest’s memory lingered with Ternan’s famly, his death in the service of God and country faded from public memory across the decades. A Fordham University building named in honor of distinguished graduate Ternan was razed decades ago for a new campus center.

Leonard Ternan (later "Dominic" Ternan) graduated from Fordham University?s Rose Hill campus in June 1927. This is a class photo from "The Maroon" yearbook.
Leonard Ternan (later "Dominic" Ternan) graduated from Fordham University?s Rose Hill campus in June 1927. This is a class photo from "The Maroon" yearbook. (Holy Name Province)

Fellow Franciscan Father Brian Jordan, who years later hailed from the same Brooklyn parish as Ternan, said he only heard the martyred priest’s tale three years ago.

He was inspired to make a pilgrimage last year to the site of Ternan’s death, and visited the stone column in a French battlefield cemetery that pays homage to the priest’s selfless sacrifice.

The Irish-Catholic Ternan was born Nov. 8, 1902, joining two older sisters in the Cypress Hill section of Brooklyn. He attended Brooklyn Prep before earning a bachelor of arts degree at Fordham University. Ternan, known to his pals as Butch, played four years of football and one on the baseball diamond while earning the respect of his college classmates.

“Quiet and unassuming, he never sought the applause of the multitude,” one friend observed in the 1927 Fordham yearbook. “On the contrary, he possesses a certain modesty which greatly enhances his jovial disposition.”

Ternan appeared an unlikely priest, finding his vocation after five years working for New York Telephone in the Bronx. He was ordained at the relatively advanced age of 34, celebrating his first Mass at his home parish in Cypress Hills.

U.S. Army Chaplain Dominic Ternan was shot and killed by a Nazi sniper on June 19, 1944, as his regiment headed toward the critical Battle of Cherbourg in France.
U.S. Army Chaplain Dominic Ternan was shot and killed by a Nazi sniper on June 19, 1944, as his regiment headed toward the critical Battle of Cherbourg in France. (Holy Name Province)

He received approval from the Franciscans to join the U.S. Army Chaplains Corp. in early 1942, serving stateside at three military bases before shipping out to Great Britain in April 1944. Ternan was among those landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, surviving as some 4,400 Allied fighters were killed.

His final resting place is a plot in Totowa, N.J., just a short walk from a fellow heroic Franciscan: Father Mychal Judge — the first official fatality of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Much like the chaplain himself, the burial site inside Holy Sepulchre Cemetery is modest and understated: A small stone marker with a simple inscription: “REV. DOMINIC TERNAN O.F.M. 1902-1944.”

“Now every time I look at ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ when a priest is blessing bodies, I think of Dominic,” said Jordan.