Father William B. Farrell

During the last week of July 2015, I went to Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn, New York, to retrieve a new copy of the marriage certificate of my maternal grandparents. Paul Murphy married Catherine Farrell on Aug. 4, 1915. My extended family on my mother’s side planned a 100th anniversary memorial Mass on the closest Saturday which was Aug. 1, 2015.

What was meant to be an ordinary anniversary celebration turned out to be an extraordinary, startling discovery. On receiving the marriage certificate from the ever-gracious Waleska Soto, the present parish secretary of Sts. Peter and Paul, I noticed that the name of the priest who officiated at my maternal grandparents wedding Mass was Father W.B. Farrell. I asked myself who was this Father Farrell?

Sugar Strike Riot

I returned to my office at St. Francis College and conducted research on Father Farrell. Father William B. Farrell was the pastor of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish from 1908 to 1917. He was not your average parish pastor. One of the front-page stories on the July 29, 1910, edition of the New York Times was entitled “One Dead, Many Shot in Sugar Strike Riot.” The story explained that days before the shooting, workers went on strike at the American Sugar Company’s largest plant which was the Havemeyer and Elder Branch located on Kent Avenue between South 1st and South 2nd streets. The plant was a few blocks from the parish. Rioting began when the company was bringing in nonunion replacement workers which incensed the union workers who were simply looking for a just wage. Fighting between union and nonunion workers occurred with a strong police intervention that led to further violence.

The company realized their tactical errors and called in the local pastor Father Farrell for help. The same New York Times article writes, “Father Farrell was asked by the company to act as a peacemaker and try to get the men to return to work. He promised to do so and later went into a conference with the strikers.” Father Farrell convinced the men to return to work with the promise of increased wages. Father Farrell ministered at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the United States. He epitomized the words of Pope Leo XIII’s 1897 papal encyclical, Rerum Novarum (On the Condition of Labor), which emphasized dignity for the human worker. Part of that dignity was a just wage.

In addition to his duties as pastor at Sts. Peter and Paul, Father Farrell was the supervisor of Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Brooklyn. From 1913 to 1916, tensions arose between the city and the state over public funding for private institutions for orphans. In 1914, the New York City Commissioner of Public Charities, John A. Kingsbury, appointed a commission to inspect these private institutions (both Catholic and Protestant) to determine whether they were worthy of public funding or to recommend that all institutions caring for widows and orphans be placed under government control.

The Strong Commission

This incensed many Catholic religious leaders both in the Archdiocese of New York and in the Diocese of Brooklyn. They charged that this investigation was based in a covert, anti-Catholic bias. On Nov. 18, 1915, New York State Governor Charles S. Whitman appointed his friend Charles H. Strong to head a state commission to investigate public funding for private institutions. The Strong Commission held hearings in New York City from January 31 to April 24, 1916. It appeared that both the office of the mayor of New York City and the office of the governor of New York State were determined to discredit Catholic institutions who cared for orphans and widows.

An excellent, unbiased scholarly article written by Dr. June Hopkins, Ph.D., supported this claim and also explained the final results of both the Kingsbury and Strong Commissions in Widows and Waifs: New York City and the American Way to Welfare, 1913–1916, published by The Social Welfare History Project in 2014. In her work, Dr. Hopkins points out the prophetic response by Father William B. Farrell of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish who wrote open letters in the form of pamphlets to the governor of New York to criticize what appeared to be anti-Catholic bias in both the Kingsbury and the Strong commissions. The first three pamphlets in order were entitled: 1) “A Public Scandal: Being an Analysis of Men and Motives Underlying the Investigation of Charitable Institutions” (Feb. 16, 1916); 2) “How the Strong Commission Discredited Itself” (late February 1916), and 3) “The Mayor’s Best Man in the City” (early March 1916), which was a direct attack on John A. Kingsbury who led the city investigation into private institutions. All three pamphlets were distributed to every parish church in New York City, which included both the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn. This was one of the front-page stories of the March 6, 1916, edition of the New York Times entitled, “Subpoena Served on Father Farrell: Charity Investigator Strong Wants Brooklyn Priest to Explain Charges.”

Father Farrell Subpoenaed

These open pamphlets angered both the Kingsbury and Strong Commissions. On March 10, 1916, State Commissioner Strong issued a subpoena to be served for Father Farrell to testify at the Strong Commission. The March 11, 1916, edition of the New York Times reported that Father Farrell could not report that day and sent a family friend who was a lawyer because “his assistant was sick and he himself was busy with Lenten services.” The subpoena was carried over to the following Monday so Father Farrell could appear without worrying about the Stations of the Cross.

On Monday, March 11, 1916, one of the front page stories of the New York Times was “New Strong Attack by Father Farrell: Priest on Eve of Appearance Before Charities Inquiry Calls It a slander factory.” It appears that even before Father Farrell was served with a subpoena, he wrote his fourth and final pamphlet “Charity for Revenue” that was distributed in all the Catholic churches of New York City on Sunday, March 10, 1916. This pamphlet was his most powerful attack on Commissioner Strong’s commission members and their apparent conflicts of interest with Catholic Charities of both the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn. Father Farrell testified that his pamphlets were protected by the First Amendment which guarantees both freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Both Commissioners Kingsbury and Strong were confounded and frustrated with Father Farrell’s brave and prophetic stances.

The reaction of Mayor John P. Mitchel and Commissioner Kingsbury was unfortunate and set a dangerous precedent. According to the article by Dr. June Hopkins, Commissioner Kingsbury with Mayor Mitchel’s approval directed the New York City Police Department to wiretap the telephones of Father Farrell, Msgr. John F. Mooney (vicar general of the Archdiocese of New York), Msgr. John J. Dunn (chancellor of the Archdiocese of New York) and notable lay Catholic leaders. One of the front page stories of the April 15, 1916, New York Times edition reads “Says Police Tapped Phones of Priests: Lawyer Asks Swann to Investigate Alleged Eavesdropping in Charities Hearing.”

Phone Tapping

According to close sources in the New York City Police Department, this may have been the first time the telephones of Catholic priests were wiretapped for possible criminal intent. The police commissioner at the time, Arthur Brown, refused to answer any questions on this particular case. In the same New York Times article, the lawyer for the New York Telephone Company was asked about the extent of police wiretapping phones. His response was, “Nobody knows just how far they extend.” He continued: “There has never been a judicial interpretation of the powers of the police under the statute passed in 1905 giving them certain rights of this kind.”

In the same article, Father Farrell was justifiably angry at this invasion of privacy and was quoted: “The matters which have been discussed over the telephone in the hearing on eavesdropping have mainly concerned questions of matrimony and other sacred substances of private life. These were all taken in shorthand; we have positive knowledge at a police station. If such things are to be permitted, no man’s private affairs are safe. This is the most contemptible and mean infringement on personal rights that has ever occurred in this country.” According to legal scholars and historians, this case and many others led to judicial reform in which wiretapping phones was warranted only through a court order. This eavesdropping practice seems to be an early version of the Patriot Act — long before the tragic effects of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

When the priests and others discovered that they were being wiretapped, indictments were sought againt Commissioner Kingsbury and his attorney William Hotchkiss by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. On the other side, complaints were made in Manhattan Supreme Court against Father Farrell and Robert Hebberd of the State Charity Board. Mayor Mitchel claimed to know nothing about the indictments and complaints.

As a result of legal negotiations in both the Supreme Courts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, charges were dropped against Commissioner Kingsbury and his attorney in Brooklyn while charges against Father Farrell and Robert Hebberd were dropped in Manhattan by the insightful Judge Samuel Greenbaum. Robert Hebberd wrote a thought provoking article about this matter in America magazine, entitled: “The Charities Investigation: Its Inspiration” (America, XV, May 13, 1916, 101-102). Due to Father Farrell’s heroic, prophetic stance in defending Catholic institutions of social service, Manhattan College in the Bronx, New York, awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree. The New York Times ran a story about this honorary doctorate in their June 21, 1916, edition.

According to Dr. June Hopkins, the Kingsbury Commission released its final report in October 1916, and recommended that all matters concerning widows and orphans be controlled by the government and that religious institutions work in unison with the government on these matters. This meant that, despite the separation of church and state, both can be partners in delivery of services to the poor and unfortunate. This led to some state laws strengthening their control and a reformulation of how Catholic Charities conducts its ministry while abiding by state law and eventually with Federal law when the New Deal was introduced in the early 1930s. Catholic Charities USA today is the largest nonprofit social service agency in the country. By the way, the clear majority of those they serve are not even Catholic.

In 1917, the Catholic population of the United States mainstreamed into American culture by their participation in World War I. Proof of my claim was the extraordinary service of the Fighting 69th Regiment of the U.S. Army with many members coming from New York City. Although mainly Catholic, other soldiers in the regiment were Protestant and Jewish. The year 1917 also marked the end of the pastorate for Father William B. Farrell. During nine years of service, he was the epitome of a great Brooklyn priest — a caring pastor, an influential peacemaker and a fearless prophet!

As a Franciscan priest born in Brooklyn, I am proud that Father Farrell officiated the wedding of my maternal grandparents on Aug. 4, 1915. Who would think that retrieving a copy of a marriage certificate can lead to such an amazing discovery? Blessed anniversary Grandma and Grandpa and may you and Father Farrell rest in peace!

FATHER JORDAN, O.F.M., is chaplain at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, New York, residing at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Brooklyn.