The Vatican has recognised the “moral courage” of an Irish priest who helped save thousands of Jewish people and Allied PoWs from the Nazis during the Second World War in occupied Rome.
At the unveiling of the Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty memorial plaque at the Teutonic (German) College in the Vatican, the Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Emma Madigan, paid tribute to the Kerry priest’s contribution to the resistance and courage in “very dark times”.
The Killarney-born Msgr O’Flaherty had been involved in the Rome Escape Line. He was renowned as the ‘Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican’ for his ability to evade Nazi efforts to capture him.
Using fake IDs, disguises, and operating a communications network inside and outside the Vatican, he outfoxed the Gestapo and was able to give refuge to 6,500 Jewish refugees and Allied PoWs. He hid them in houses, convents, and monasteries across Rome and even inside the Vatican itself.
Much of his clandestine operation was conducted from within the Vatican’s German College, where Msgr O’Flaherty lived for 22 years.
The event of the unveiling was attended by members of the priest’s family and members of the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society, who travelled from Ireland, as well as the ambassadors of Britain, the US, and Canada, and Vatican officials.
In her address, Ms Madigan said Msgr O’Flaherty’s compassion was “not bounded by lines of nationality or religious community”.
Quoting Pope Francis, she said there are people who “do not grow accustomed to evil, who defeat it with good”, and she thanked the Irish priest, who died in 1963, on behalf of all he saved.
Jerry O’Grady, chairman of the Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial Society, told the Irish Examiner that the 60 people who attended the ceremony from Ireland and the UK included the sons of Major Sam Derry, who was the other big player in the Rome Escape Line and the grandchildren of Henrietta Chevalier, the Maltese widow who gave her apartment for use as a safe house.
“We feel extremely proud that one of our own is now remembered for what he did to alleviate suffering during the Second World War,” said Mr O’Grady. “It has the same relevance today as it had 70 years ago... he is an inspirational role model.”
A memorial to Msgr O’Flaherty was unveiled in his home town in October 2013. He died in Cahirciveen in 1963.
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