Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

When people talk about Times Square, they tend to focus on one of a couple things: the massive digital billboards which surround the square, turning even the middle of the night into midday; the carnivalesque atmosphere, complete with street performers, vendors, and (nightmare) people dressed in (filthy) costumes who offer to pose for a photo (then insist you pay them for it); and TKTS, the (semi) discount theater ticket counter, with its glorious red-stair seating area, perfect for watching the world go by.

What almost no one mentions is the imposing eight-foot-tall statue of a stern, bald man in a leather coat and boots which stands directly in front of the TKTS stairs, the man’s gaze looking south over the crowds as though scanning for danger. His presence in the square is so incongruous to the setting, so bizarre—like your dad showing up on TikTok—that most people erase having seen him from their minds as soon as they look away. His identity doesn’t make things any easier to understand. Although he looks like an action hero from a war movie, he’s actually a Catholic priest, Father Francis Patrick Duffy.  And in truth he was a war hero, the most decorated priest ever in United States Army history. But he was also a university professor; a high school French teacher; a beloved pastor at a parish near Times Square; oh, and a Canadian. 

Francis Patrick Duffy was one of eleven children born to Irish immigrants Mary and Patrick Duffy in the Ontario, Canada, town of Couborg, today an hour’s drive from Toronto. After college he moved to New York and taught French at the Jesuit-run College of St. Francis Xavier in Chelsea, today known as Xavier High School. (Go Knights!) A few years later, he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of New York, and began teaching philosophical psychology at the archdiocese’s seminary in Yonkers. 

Known to some of his students as the “Irish Socrates” for the pointed questioning of his teaching style and keen to modernize the seminary’s curriculum, Father Duffy co-founded the New York Review: A Journal of Ancient Faith and Modern Thought, which for a brief time was considered one of the most forward-thinking Catholic publications in the United States. But, like many such endeavors in the church, the Review was viewed with suspicion, and shut down within a few years, its editors reassigned to other work. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the things that got the journal in trouble was its willingness to publish a Jesuit, Irish theologian George Tyrrell, who would later be expelled from the Society of Jesus and then excommunicated over his refusal to recant his belief that Catholic doctrine changes and develops over time.)

Duffy was reassigned to a storefront church in the Bronx, where he quickly grew bored and asked to be reassigned. When that got him nowhere, he began to volunteer as a chaplain for the 69th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the New York Army National Guard drawn largely from Irish and other immigrant groups in New York. 

Officers of the 69th Infantry Regiment, New York Army National Guard. Fr. Duffy stands second on the right. (Image credit: The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library)

It was in this capacity that he traveled to the Western Front during World War I to serve alongside his regiment. Duffy told the troops, I want to be your friend, whatever your religion may be. I know many of you are leaving families behind you and will have many worries. Come to me with them and you will find me ready with a wide word and a merry one.” Crossing the Atlantic, the line of soldiers to see him each day stretched “as long as the mess-line,” according to writer Joyce Kilmer, who served in the regiment. 

Duffy referred to the soldiers as his “itinerant parish,” and though he was in his forties at the time, he became famous for his refusal to stay out of the line of fire. Even during severe shelling, Duffy would travel with the medics to carry wounded from the field, or move from trench to trench hearing confessions and anointing the sick. He was said to have worked for 117 hours under fire without rest during one such period.  

At times his soldiers grew concerned about his capacity to handle such intense situations. He admitted that at times, “I felt as if I were running on four tires and one cylinder.” On one occasion while reading the dog tags of a dead soldier he burst into tears. “I baptized him as a baby,” he explained to those nearby. Years later General Douglas MacArthur revealed that Duffy had been such an asset to the 69th that he had recommended Duffy be put in command of the regiment during a battle. 

When Duffy returned from the war he was assigned to Holy Cross Church on Forty-Second Street, just a block from Times Square. Noticing that the printers at the nearby New York Times (for whom the square had been named) had shifts that forced them to work late into the night, Duffy received special  dispensation from the Vatican to institute a weekly 2:30 a.m. Sunday Mass specifically for them and their peers at the Herald Tribune, the Daily News and the Daily Mirror

The still wrapped statue of Fr. Duffy before its dedication in 1937. (Image credit: Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)

Duffy’s wake and funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1932 drew 25,000 people. Supposedly a wealthy matron tried to cut in line, insisting she was a friend of Father Duffy. The policeman who stopped her was said to have replied, “Lady, everyone in New York was a friend of Father Duffy.”

Today, few may notice the statue of Father Duffy as they hurry to shows or to add great photos to their ‘gram. But having been so many unexpected things in his own life, and known so many different kinds of people, he is actually kind of a perfect person to watch over Times Square—a person of great energy and vitality who committed his life to being an advocate, a protector, and a friend.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.