The Irish Priest Who Saved Thousands: Hugh O’Flaherty

The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican

Hugh O’Flaherty was an Irish Catholic priest and the leader of an anti-Nazi resistance group in Rome.  He saved 6500 Jews and Allied soldiers, and his ability to outsmart the Gestapo earned him the nickname “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”

Born in Ireland in 1898, the O’Flaherty family lived on a golf course where Hugh’s father worked as groundskeeper. Young Hugh was a scratch golfer by the time he was a teenager, and could have been a successful pro golfer. Instead in 1918 he enrolled in a Jesuit college and prepared to enter the priesthood.

After ordination Hugh was posted to Cape Town, a long way from home for a boy who’d never been outside of southwest Ireland. Over the next 15 years, he served the Holy See as Vatican diplomat in Egypt, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Czechoslovakia. In 1934, O’Flaherty was a appointed a papal chamberlain with the title Monsignor.

In the early years of World War II, Monsignor O’Flaherty toured POW camps in Italy. Shaken by the human suffering he witnessed, he organized a group of priests and diplomats to shelter Jews, resistance fighters, escaped POW’s and refugees.

When the Nazis started deporting Roman Jews to concentration camps in 1943, Monsignor O’Flaherty  provided many Jews with false Vatican papers stating they were Catholic, and he personally would accompany them through the streets to protect them from German soldiers.

Monsignor O’Flaherty and his associates hid more than 6400 people wanted by the Nazis in homes, farms, churches and convents.

When the Gestapo found out about O’Flaherty’s activities, they painted a thick white line across St. Peter’s Square, dividing the neutral Vatican from Nazi-controlled Rome. They placed guards there ready to arrest the Monsignor if he tried to cross the white line. Amazingly, O’Flaherty adopted multiple disguises which enabled him to continue helping Jews and other refugees. Gestapo colonel Herbert Kappler tried multiple times to kidnap Monsignor O’Flaherty, but failed.

Monsignor O’Flaherty continued his rescue operations until Allied forces liberated Rome in June 1944. Herbert Kappler, the Gestapo colonel who’d tried to arrest him, was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to life behind bars. The Monsignor visited Kappler repeatedly in prison, leading the Nazi officer to convert to Catholicism.

After the war, Monsignor O’Flaherty received many awards, including Commander of the British Empire and the U.S. Medal of Freedom. He spent his last years living with his sister in Ireland and died there in 1965.

In his hometown of Killarney, O’Flaherty’s friends put up a statue in his honor featuring his personal motto, “God has no country.”

Monsignor O’Flaherty was the subject of a TV film starring Gregory Peck in 1983, and a documentary for Irish television in 2008.

For risking his life to save Roman Jews and others targeted by the Nazis, we honor Monsignor O’Flaherty as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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