American military chaplaincies predate the Constitution, as do both the Army and the Navy. The United States Navy was established by the Continental Congress on 13 October, 1775, and the first set of “Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies” (commonly known as “Navy Regulations”) were promulgated by the Second Continental Congress on 28 November, 1775. Within the second Article of this first set of Navy Regulations we find:
"...the Commanders of the ships of the thirteen United Colonies are to take care that divine services be performed twice a day on board and a sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad weather or other extraordinary accidents prevent."
Thus was born the United States Navy Chaplain Corps. Chaplains in the Armed Services are commissioned officers, and wear the uniform of branch in which they serve. Some chaplains serve for only a few years, others serve for an entire career. I served as a medical officer aboard two United States Navy warships: USS Wasp (LHD-1) and USS Nassau (LHA-4). Aboard both, at 2100 hours (9PM) some version of the following would be piped over the 1MC (public address from the bridge): “All hands stand by for the evening prayer.” The the chaplain would come on and offer a short prayer. Generic, to be sure, but a prayer, nevertheless. On Sundays and Holy Days of obligation, when a priest was available (he usually was flown over from another ship on the ‘holy helo’ yuk yuk) there was Mass, sometimes in the medical spaces, occasionally on the flight deck, assuming no flight ops, a rarity except when in port.
Which brings us to this from US Naval Institute News regarding Fr. Aloyius H. Schmitt, Lieutenant (junior grade), Chaplain Corps, USN, and his sacrifice on the morning of December 7th, 1941. LT (jg) Schmitt was serving as Catholic Chaplain aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma.
The USS Oklahoma was the second of the Navy’s Nevada class battleships, laid down in 1912 and commissioned in 1916. Like many of the WW I era Navy ships, she underwent several modernizations through the period of the 1920s and 1930s, and eventually found herself as part of the Pacific Fleet moored that peaceful Sunday morning in berth F5, “Battleship Row”, Pearl Harbor Naval Base when the Imperial Japanese Navy carried out the sneak attack which brought the United States into World War II. The Oklahoma was torpedoed, capsized and sank during the attack.
From the Citation for Fr. Schmitt:
As Oklahoma was capsizing, Schmitt sacrificed his own life to assist many of his shipmates’ escape through an open porthole. Schmitt had been hearing confession when Oklahoma was hit by four torpedoes, according to the Navy.
Schmitt helped a small group of sailors escape, before he attempted getting through the porthole. He was struggling to get through when he noticed more sailors had entered the compartment he had been in, according to the Navy.
Schmitt realized the water was rapidly flooding the compartment, and soon this exit would be closed. Schmitt asked to be pushed back into the compartment, so others could escape, urging the sailors with a blessing, according to Navy. Oklahoma continued filling with water and capsized. More than 400 sailors, including Schmitt, died on Oklahoma…
The USNI article continues:
Last year (2016-TC), (Fr.) Schmitt’s remains were positively identified using DNA testing and were re-interred at the Loras College chapel, which was dedicated to Schmitt, a 1932 graduate. A memorial to Schmitt in the chapel includes his chalice, prayer book, military medals and more of his personal belongings recovered in the ship’s wreckage. The book is still marked with a page ribbon for Dec. 8 prayers, according to Loras College…
Before Fr. Schmitt died, he saved 12 of his shipmates. Christ the King Chapel at Loras College was built in 1946 as a memorial to Fr. Schmitt. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star on December 7th, 2017. Fr. Schmitt was the first American chaplain of any faith to die in World War II. December 7th, 1941 was the Second Sunday in Advent.
Since 1985, all Catholic chaplains (and, for that matter, all Catholics serving in the military and their families) fall under the Archdiocese for the Military Services USA) sometimes known as “AMS” or the “Military Ordinariate”) established by Pope John Paul II. Some details are here. For whatever it’s with, although the chaplains themselves are commissioned officers (and thus paid by their Service), that’s all that’s paid for. From the FAQ page (my emphasis):
The AMS is a church entity. It is not a part of the Armed Forces and is not funded by the federal government. It is a “home” mission diocese that depends almost entirely on financial support from individual donors including personal donations from its military and VA chaplains, gifts from military communities, gifts from dioceses, charitable bequests, and grants.
The military chaplains are members of the Armed Forces and, as such, are paid by the government. The AMS must pay all the considerable travel costs for its clergy to visit military installations around the world. They do not travel on military aircraft. The AMS receives limited support from certain US dioceses and foundations that support Catholic causes.
On a personal note, I and my wife went through RCIA under the auspices of the AMS while stationed in Italy, and we came into the Church in the military chapel at the Naval Support Activity Naples, Italy. I have been to I don’t know how many Masses offered by priests in the USN Chaplain service aboard several different warships, as well as in Italy, Spain, and various locals in the Persian Gulf. I cannot express how important these men have been to me in my life, and to others serving haze gray and underway.
Curate, ut valeatis.