He was so brave during the battles of The First World War that he ran countless times into “no man’s land” to drag fellow soldiers to safety. He was so devout that he would get up and pray throughout the night every Thursday and would swim and pray in the early morning hours in an icy lake. Nevertheless, others saw him as “such a jovial character” that they wanted to hang out with him because of his wonderful practical jokes.
His name was Father Willie Doyle, and he was an Irish Catholic Jesuit, who enlisted as a Chaplain in the British Army in 1915 because he wanted to be on the battlefield when soldiers most needed a priest. Learn all about his amazing life, including his “Bravery Under Fire,” when EWTN’s newest docudrama hits the airwaves at 10 p.m. ET, Sunday, Aug. 12, and 3:30 p.m. ET, Thursday, Aug. 16.)
Even as a boy, the future Father Willie, the youngest of seven children from Dalkey, County Dublin, displayed an extraordinary kindness and sensitivity towards others.
“Father Willie Doyle came from quite a wealthy family, but as a young boy he would get up earlier than the servants to light the fire, to make sure the place was warm, and to set the table so the servants wouldn’t have so much to do,” said Director/Producer Campbell Miller.
“There are also stories about when he got his first shilling, [a former British coin worth about 12 pence]. He was off to a shop to get some sweets when he came across a homeless man. He stopped and chatted. When he heard about the man’s plight, he handed over his money to this man. He was seven or eight at the time. His brother said that after he had done this, he cried all the way to his uncle’s. It was such a thing for a young boy to give up his sweets.”
What fascinates Director/Producer Miller about Father Willie is that he was such a “three dimensional” character, which is what he hope makes this docudrama stand out. While viewers learn of the extraordinary penances Father Doyle imposed upon himself, they also see that he was quite the prankster.
For example, a friend says that once, when he and others in his group, were leaving Father Willie’s house, they saw a cassock fall from the window. For a moment, their hearts stopped because they thought Father Willie had jumped out the window. Fortunately, it was simply a cassock Father Willie had stuffed with pillows!
This fun-loving priest spent his early years as a cleric helping the “workingman.” He was well-known in Ireland and Great Britain as a mission director, and he spent time teaching at a local college.
However, while Miller calls Father Willie a “man’s man,” the priest had a great impact on everyone he met. For example, while in England, Father Willie passed two prostitutes on the street. He said, ‘Ladies, go home. Don’t offend Jesus,” and walked on. The women knew he was the “mission priest,” but that was the last he thought of them.
Years later, Father Willie was called into his superior’s office in Ireland and asked to go to England to speak with someone who had been arrested and who was about to be executed. When he arrived, he discovered it was one of these women. He had made such an impression on her that, in her final hours, she asked to see him. Before her execution, he baptized her and said Mass for her.
However, his life changed drastically after the outbreak of the First World War. The 42-year-old priest felt led to join the British Army, 16th Irish Division, as a Catholic Chaplain. Amidst the carnage, Father Willie’s story really comes to life.
“All denominations loved him,” Miller said. “They knew no matter what happened, even if they were out in no man’s land and left for dead, Father Willie would come for them. He didn’t just come once. He came multiple times a day. He would drag that soldier back if injured or, if they weren’t going to make it, he would lie down beside them and give them the last rites.”
Miller said all the soldiers wanted to be in Father Willie’s dugout because it appeared to them that no one who fought near him was killed. However, that changed in August 1917. Father Willie went out on the battlefield to rescue two men, and was caught in a mortar attack.
Says Miller: “Father Willie wanted to give the men that passed away a dignified Christian burial. It feels very odd that this could not be awarded to him because they never actually found his body. He was blown to bits.”
This might seem like a sad ending, but Miller says no one who looks at Father Willie’s life ultimately comes away sad.
“I would have wanted to hang out with Father Willie” he said. “Here was a man who gave up his life for his friends. You see that there was no fear. You see, in his limited time on earth, the respect people had for him and the impact he had on so many people while he was alive — and even afterward from the pamphlets he wrote. “Shall I Become a Priest?”, one of his pamphlets, brought many to the priesthood. When you see what he accomplished, you can’t help but get inspired.”
Father Willie’s cause for canonization, which was put forward in 1938, has languished. Miller says: “My hope for this film is that it will cause people to again look at his cause for canonization.”
Amen, Campbell Miller! Amen!