Night, February 15, 1898, the American battleship USS Maine lay at anchor in the harbor of Havana. Although tensions were running high between the US government and Spain, the colonial power occupying Cuba, the night was calm. Suddenly, at 9:40 PM, a huge explosion devastated the forward section of the Maine, an external explosion setting off the powder in the magazines of the Maine. Into this vision of hell on Earth strode the Catholic Chaplain of the Maine, John P. Chidwick.
Born in New York City on October 23, 1863, John Chidwick graduated from Manhattan College with a BA (1883) and an MA (1885). Ordained at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York in 1887, he spent several years serving as a parish priest before being commissioned in 1895 as the third Catholic Chaplain in the history of the United States Navy. He was eventually assigned to the Maine. He rapidly became popular with the members of the crew, no matter their religion. Friendly and outgoing, he did whatever he could to help the crew and was always available to listen to their problems.
When he arrived on deck on the night of the destruction of the Maine, Father Chidwick instantly gave a mass absolution. He then sprang into action, rescuing wounded, giving first aid, and giving the last rites. He seemed to be everywhere that grim night. W. T. Culverius, who was serving on the Maine as a naval cadet and who later rose to the rank of Rear Admiral had this to say about Chaplain Chidwick : “On that dread night in 1898 when the MAINE was destroyed, Chaplain Chidwick was everywhere present. He had a word of cheer to the injured which soothed their pain. Without thought of himself he helped the helpless and he ministered to the dying who will welcome him now in that Great Ship’s Company above, where shipmates never part.” It should be remembered that Chaplain Chidwick and the other men engaged in the rescue of their stricken crewmates had no way of knowing that at any moment further blasts might send them all to eternity. Father Chidwick was one of the last men to leave the Maine that night. 266 sailors died in the sinking of the Maine and 89 survived.
The funeral of the dead of the Maine was held in Havana on February 17, 1898 in the Christobal Colon cemetery in ground donated by the Spanish government. Father Chidwick conducted the burial service.