A Fighting Chance for Veterans: The Catholic Church, Catholic University, and World War I
By Paul Burgholzer
World War I took place at a time when there were few of the official channels of support for our military members and veterans that we have today – there was no Department of Veteran Affairs, there was no GI Bill, there were only a handful of organized Veteran Service Organizations (VSO’s) to advocate for veterans. Benefits and treatments afforded to Great War veterans were limited.
However, there was enormous emotional support for the troops. As the United States entered World War I, public support for the war and for the military was very high.
Catholic Americans, and major Catholic organizations like the Knights of Columbus, joined the support effort and displayed spirited patriotism. One leader of that effort was John J. Burke (1875–1936).
Burke was a prominent Paulist priest in the United States, and editor of the widely-read Catholic World newspaper from 1903 to 1922. Burke saw a leadership role for the church, in helping the lives of the military members, as well as the lives of those veterans who were returning home.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the US followed Father Burke’s vision. They reacted to this American patriotism by creating the National Catholic War Council. This council helped Catholics unite through American nationalism. The Council managed 700 Catholic organizations that contributed to the war effort, supported the creation of student army training camps, and even helped with efforts to get women involved in the war.
Of the accomplishments of the National Catholic War Council, perhaps the most significant is its creation of St. John’s Hall after the war has ended. In 1920 the Council built St. John’s Hall on the campus of Catholic University in Washington DC, to house veterans and provide them with education and vocational training. This program often targeted illiterate veterans and provided them with the skills and education necessary for them to stay out of poverty and homelessness.
St. John’s Hall eventually got absorbed into university, where it became a dormitory and home of the engineering department. The building was eventually demolished in 1992; however, its impact on World War I veterans was significant, and long-lasting.
Paul Burgholzer is a Summer 2017 intern at the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission.