In two weeks, we will mark the day when the guns of World War I fell silent, the fighting stopped and the Armistice was signed. It happened 100 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918.
Observing that centennial, the City of New Rochelle can look back with pride on an emergency undertaking during the war that brought comfort to thousands of young recruits unexpectedly stranded in the city. Local residents of many backgrounds and faiths worked together. Among them was Father Andrew Roche, the founding pastor of Holy Family parish in New Rochelle in 1913. Organizations and religious groups including the Knights of Columbus provided meals, lodging and hospitality.
The crisis hit in December 1917. The United States had entered the war in April that year. The busiest recruiting depot east of the Mississippi River was Fort Slocum, on what is now called David’s Island, just off the New Rochelle shore. Enlisted men arrived by train and were transported to the fort by ferry.
The Army had announced eligible men could enlist only until Dec. 15; thereafter, they would be drafted. Thousands began enlisting late in the year, anxious to beat the deadline, and they poured into New Rochelle daily. The city had no warning about the exponential increase in recruits.
Several hundred young men arrived on Dec. 10, at the start of a week that was bitterly cold and snowy. They were followed by 2,000 on Dec. 11, 2,000 on Dec. 12 and several thousand more on Dec. 13. They were cold, hungry and tired, and Fort Slocum quickly filled beyond capacity.
New Rochelleans responded with enthusiasm and energy. According to a history of the city written by Condé B. Pallen, a Catholic author and editor of the era, “Scores and scores of people came to the Knights of Columbus Hall, asking what they could do to aid in the work of taking care of the men who were about to…go overseas to fight for the safety of the homes in this country.” Among the groups that also welcomed, fed and housed the men were the city’s Episcopal, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, Temple Israel, the YMCA and the YMHA.
At Holy Family, Father Roche went out into the 10-degree weather and tramped from house to house in the snow, notifying parishioners and asking them to collect bedding and blankets and bring them to the church basement. Parishioners responded as countless other New Rochelle residents did: they brought food, clothing, books, writing paper and stamps. They took soiled clothes home and washed them. They played the piano and sang. According to a parish history, the men stayed for a week; when they left, “they insisted on presenting Father Roche with a loving cup as a token of appreciation for what he and the people of Holy Family had done.”
Pallen wrote about an evening visit he made with a city leader to the First Presbyterian Church. It was filled with young men sprawled everywhere on cushions, sleeping or reading or smoking. If church members from another era could have seen the church that night, Pallen wrote, they might have been shocked, but he added that “it seemed to us…a proper and right use of the building.”
“These men were homeless and they were comforted,” he wrote. “These men were cold and they were warmed. These men were sorrowful and they were cheered. In what better way could the spirit of Christ have been exemplified!” The scene was the same, he wrote, at every other house of worship in New Rochelle.
“Protestant, Catholic and Jew knew no distinction one from the other...No one wanted to know what a man’s religion was. All that anybody wanted to know was—did the recruit need anything for his mind or his body, and if he did it was immediately supplied.”
While the war raged, the people of New Rochelle offered a biblical kind of peace. Along with the Armistice, that is worth commemorating. And this columnist, who was born in New Rochelle, takes pride in its spirit and heritage.