Fr Michael Bergin SJ

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Fr Michael Bergin SJ from Roscrea, Tipperary died on 12 October 1917, serving as a chaplain in the First World War. He holds the distinction of been the only member of the whole Australian forces in the First World War to never to have set foot in Australia, and the only Catholic chaplain serving to have died as a result of enemy action. The exhibition at Roscrea Library, Tipperary, 2-31 October 2017, will focus on Fr Michael Bergin SJ, and the five other Jesuits, who served as chaplains with the Australian forces. Simon Mamouney, First Secretary and Deputy Head of Mission Australian Embassy, will launch the exhibition on Wednesday, 4 October 2017 at 6.30pm at Roscrea Library, Tipperary. All are welcome.

The graphic short entitled ‘A Perfect Trust’ by Alan Dunne, will be displayed in the Roscrea Library exhibition and has been nominated won an Irish Design Award.

Michael Bergin was born in 1879 at Fancroft, Roscrea, Tipperary. Educated at Mungret College, Limerick, he joined the Society of Jesus in 1897. After two years, Michael was sent on the Syrian mission as it was thought his health would improve if he worked in a dryer climate. He taught English in Beirut, and studied Arabic. He transferred to the French Lyons Province in order to work as a missionary in the Turkish-controlled Syrian region. After eight years abroad, Michael began his theology studies with the exiled French Jesuits at Ore Place, Hastings, England. After ordination in 1910, Fr Bergin gave retreats and missions in England before returning to Syria.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Fr Bergin was interned, then expelled by the Turks from Syria. While in Egypt in 1915, he become friendly with with the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), then training in Cairo. Fr Bergin applied to the AIF however Church authorities in Australia knew nothing about this Irishman and while they procrastinated, the 5th Light Horse Regiment were dismounted and ordered to go to Gallipoli. Fr Bergin, determined to go, enlisted in the ranks as 818 Trooper Bergin on 12 May 1915, as a stretcher-bearer. Trooper Bergin carried out his pastoral duties as a priest, and worked as a stretcher-bearer and medical attendant. After his formal appointment as a chaplain in July 1915, Fr Bergin suffered influenza, chronic diarrhoea and enteric fever at Gallipoli. Evacuated back to London to recover, he visited his family in Ireland, wearing his Light Horse uniform, complete with slouch hat with emu feathers. However, ‘to all who saw him it was clear that he was really unfit for further service’. By December 1915, he was back at Gallipoli, but due to his ill health, he was transferred to hospital work.

Arriving in France in June 1916 with the 51st Battalion of the 13th Brigade, Fr Bergin lived in the front trenches, hearing confessions and celebrating Mass. He accompanied his men through the battles of Poziéres and Mouquet Farm, the advance on the Hindenburg Line and was promoted from Captain to Major. On 10 October 1917, his battalion moved up to the Front line at Broodseinde Ridge. The next day, Fr Bergin was visiting the Advanced Dressing Station of the 3rd Australian Field Ambulance when German shell-fire severely wounded him. There are a number of different accounts of his death but he died the following day. Colonel Reilly commented, ‘Fr Bergin was loved by every man and officer in the Brigade…He was the only Saint I have met in my life.’ Fr Bergin is buried in Reninghelst Churchyard Extension, Belgium.

The citation for the Military Cross awarded posthumously but based on a recommendation made prior to his death read: ‘Padre Bergin is always to be found among his men, helping them when in trouble, and inspiring them with his noble example and never-failing cheerfulness.’