Vatican Honors Irish Priest Who Saved Nazi Prisoners in WWII

News: Investigations
by Richard Ducayne  •  •  May 10, 2016   

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An Irish priest who dodged the Gestapo for more than two years during the Nazi occupation of Rome was commemorated by the Holy See and the Teutonic College in the Vatican last weekend, which honored the priest for saving thousands of Jewish and Allied soldiers' lives during the Second World War.

Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was responsible for saving 6,500 Allied soldiers and Jews. His ability to evade the traps set by the German Gestapo and Secret Police by donning assorted disguises earned O'Flaherty the nickname "The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican."

"The Scarlet Pimpernel," a novel written in 1905, is a story set during the French Revolution that followed Sir Percy Blakeney, a.k.a. the Scarlet Pimpernel. Blakeney saved many aristocrats using different costumes and disguises, saving them from execution by guillotine at the hands of revolutionaries.

In the early years of World War II, Msgr. O'Flaherty toured many prisoner of war camps with the aim of finding soldiers who were reported missing. If he found missing soldiers at the camps, he would later reassure the concerned families through the use of Vatican Radio.

Vatican plaque honoring Msgr. O'Flaherty

Many Allied soldiers who escaped the POW camps when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was overthrown faced the threat of recapture by Nazis, who filled the void after Mussolini was toppled. As a result, many of the former prisoners made for the Vatican to seek O'Flaherty's help.

Monsignor O'Flaherty disguised himself from Nazi Secret Police and set up safe houses for thousands of soldiers all over Rome between 1943 and 1944. One of these safe houses was next door to the Secret Police headquarters in Rome. He also recruited priests, nuns and laypeople who volunteered their convents and personal homes to hide more escaped soldiers.

The Nazi Secret Police tried assassinating him several times and failed. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Kappler, commandant of the Gestapo in Rome, learned of O'Flaherty's plotting to save prisoners and ordered a white line to be painted across the opening of St. Peter's Square to delineate the border between occupied Nazi territory and Vatican City. He gave orders that O'Flaherty be shot on sight if he crossed it.

Ludwig Koch, head of the police in Rome, often spoke of his intention to torture O'Flaherty before executing him if he ever fell into his hands.

Following the liberation of Rome in August 1944, O'Flaherty received several awards, including Commander of the Order of the British Empire and the U.S. Medal of Freedom. He was also honored by Canada and Australia, and although given a lifetime pension from Italy, he refused to use it.

O'Flaherty regularly visited Kappler in prison every month, being Kappler’s only visitor. In 1959, Kappler converted to Catholicism — baptized by O'Flaherty himself.

In 1960, as O'Flaherty was about to be announced as papal nuncio of Tanzania, he suffered a serious stroke, eventually moving back to Ireland with his sister, where he died on October 30, 1963 at the age of 65.

O'Flaherty’s exploits were made into a highly acclaimed film in 1983 entitled "The Scarlet and the Black." The priest was portrayed by Gregory Peck, while Christopher Plummer played Colonel Herbert Kappler.

Sunday inside the Vatican walls, a plaque was unveiled at a ceremony in the Campo Santo Teutonico, followed by a Mass. Pope Francis also specifically mentioned the monsignor in his weekly Angelus to the general audience.


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