Peter Paul Cooney was born in County Roscommin, Ireland in 1822. He went with his family to America at the age of 5. Raised on a farm in Monroe, Michigan. Studying at Notre Dame it was perhaps fated that he would become a Holy Cross priest, although he wasn’t ordained until the age of 37. When the Civil War broke out Father Cooney was at Notre Dame. Although at 39 he was rather old for a military chaplain, he enlisted in the 35th Indiana Infantry, nicknamed the First Indiana Irish, and served 44 months, the entire War, with the 35th.
In a regiment of brave mostly Irishmen, Father Cooney stood out. After the battle of Murphreesboro the Colonel of the regiment, Bernard F. Mullen wrote:
To Father Cooney, our chaplain, too much praise cannot be given. Indifferent as to himself, he was deeply solicitous for the temporal comfort and spiritual welfare of us all. On the field he was cool and indifferent to danger, and in the name of the regiment I thank him for his kindness and laborious attention to the dead and dying.
After the battle of Nashville, Brigadier General Nathan Kimball summed up the chaplain:
Of Father Cooney, chaplain of the Thirty-fifth Indiana, I commend him as an example of the army chaplin; meek, pious, and brave as a lion, he worked with his brave regiment in the valley of the shadow of death, affording the ministrations of his holy religion to the wounded and dying, and giving words of encouragement to his fellow soldiers.
Before battles, Father Cooney would stand before the regiment, lead the men in prayer and give them mass absolution. The commander of the Army of the Cumberland, Major General William S. Rosecrans, a fervent Catholic convert, was so taken by this that he ordered the Protestant chaplains in the Army to do likewise!
Father Cooney noted in his letters home to his brother that Protestant soldiers would often attend Mass, especially before a battle, and some of them converted. He believed that the courage of Catholic soldiers in the Army helped break down prejudice against the Faith that some of their Protestant fellow soldiers had originally harbored.
I have been for the last two months very busy in preparing the men to complete their Easter duty, otherwise I would have written oftener, to you. Our division consists of about twelve thousand men and there are Catholics in every regiment. Protestants attend the sermons by thousands in the open field. I have baptized many of them and prejudice against to the Church is gone almost entirely.
A short time ago I baptized and gave his first Communion to the Major General commanding our division. He is now a most fervent catholic and his example is powerful over the men of his command. I have every assistance from him in anything that I require for the discharge of my duties. He is extremely kind to me. (more…)