Famed war priest F.P. Gehring, 95
By Andy Wallace
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The Rev. Frederic P. Gehring, 95, the Vincentian priest who won fame as the Padre of Guadalcanal for his exploits during World War II, died of apparent heart failure Sunday in Orlando (Fla.) Regional Medical Center, where he was recovering from a hip fracture. He had lived in Florida the last five years, since retiring as pastor at St. Vincent's Church in Germantown.
At Guadalcanal with the Marines in the early stages of the war in the Pacific, Father Gehring earned the Legion of Merit -- for making three trips on a small boat into Japanese-held territory to rescue 28 missionaries trapped there -- and a Presidential Unit Citation, which was awarded to the First Marine Division for its actions there.
His six-month stay in the tents and foxholes on the South Pacific island has been the source of tales so vivid they still were being told decades after the war ended.
One of those tales, retold 50 years later on Christmas Day 1992, was about the Christmas Mass that Father Gehring said in a rain of Japanese shells before a group of Marines, Seabees and sailors on Guadalcanal. The service was in a tent near the beachhead, surrounded by palm trees whose tops had been blasted off by the explosions, and before an altar and a cross made from shell casings.
The man playing the little reed organ for the Christmas carols they sang that day was an Orthodox Jew, a boxer from Chicago named Barney Ross, who played because he was the only one who knew how. Father Gehring recalled, "At the end of the Mass, Barney said, 'I'm going to play something for your mother and my mother, wondering where we are tonight, My Yiddishe Mama.' . . . Everybody was practically in tears."
During the war, Father Gehring became a close friend of Ross' and helped him deal with injuries and the fevers brought on by malaria. In his book, No Man Stands Alone, the boxer gave the priest credit for helping him overcome drug addiction after the war.
Father Gehring's name is also linked to the improbable survival of a Chinese girl named Patsy Li.
Delivered to the priest's tent on Guadalcanal by two island natives, the 6-year-old was near death after having been bashed in the head by a rifle butt and bayoneted numerous times. He nursed her back to health and named her before she was sent to a nearby island to be cared for by other missionaries.
The girl's recovery was amazing, but no more so than her reunion with her mother.
Father Gehring later said he had named her Patsy Li because that name was similar to the one he had had as a missionary in China from 1933 to 1939.
It was also her real name.
Eight months before she was brought to Father Gehring, she had been with her mother, Ruth Li, and sister on a British ship that had been bombed and sunk by the Japanese 3,000 miles away from Guadalcanal. Mrs. Li saw one of her daughters drown, but watched helplessly as the other, holding on to a floating suitcase, was whirled away in the current.
Mrs. Li made it to the United States, and when she read a story about Father Gehring and Patsy Li, she began trying to find the girl, convinced it was her daughter.
She finally located her in an orphanage in the New Hebrides, identified her as her daughter, and brought her to the United States. Father Gehring, who later performed the ceremony at the girl's marriage, wrote about it all in A Child of Miracles.
A Brooklyn native, Father Gehring studied at St. Joseph's College in Princeton and at St. Vincent's Seminary in Germantown, where he was ordained in 1930.
After six years in China as a missionary, he returned to the United States in 1939. He volunteered as a Navy chaplain on Dec. 9, 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor. The next summer he was on Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division.
After Guadalcanal, he spent some time on a hospital ship, recovering from malaria and dengue fever, then returned to duty in New Guinea, Goodenough Island and Brisbane, Australia.
Father Gehring settled in Philadelphia in 1963, when he was named the pastor of St. Vincent's Church in Germantown.
Whatever his title, Father Gehring always prayed for peace, but he stood side-by-side with the military.
"My theory is that a good saint's work is being carried out to a great extent by our men in uniform," he said when he took over the Germantown church.
In 1965, during a demonstration in favor of the war in Vietnam, Father Gehring closed the program with a prayer: "Open the eyes of the unpatriotic, O Lord, so they may realize patriotism is a holy virtue."
For a time, he was the national chaplain of the 1st Marine Division Association, and of the Catholic War Veterans.
He is survived by a sister, Mariette Santangelo, and many nephews and nieces.
A viewing will be held from 3 to 5 and 7 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at St. Vincent's Seminary, 500 E. Chelten Ave. A Funeral Mass will be said at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in the public chapel at the seminary. Burial will follow at 2:30 p.m. at Vincentian Community Cemetery at St. Joseph's Seminary near Princeton.