Every day, on my way to work in midtown Manhattan, I pass this bronze statue of the man for whom Duffy Square was named: Fr. Francis Duffy (1871-1932). If you’ve ever seen that old movie chestnut, The Fighting 69th, starring Pat O’Brien, then you know a bit more than most of the thousands of heedless, bargain-hungry theatergoers who line up at the TKTS booth in this square. You know that he became a legend in WWI for ministering to troops, hearing last confessions and even carrying some of the wounded to safety—enough to win him a Distinguished Service Cross.
As depicted, in this sculpture by Charles Keck (dedicated five years after the priest’s death), Fr. Duffy is far-seeing and resolute, and he was like that in civilian life, too, against adversaries within and without the Church he guarded. One of the manifold marvelous bits in Peter Quinn’s 1930s detective novel, The Hour of the Cat, is a short section on Fr. Duffy in peacetime. Early in the 20th century, the priest had been exiled from his position as an editor at a theological journal for progressive opinions that ran afoul of the New York Archdiocese. By the end of his life, as pastor of Holy Cross Church, he was giving himself, characteristically, as unselfishly as he had on the fields of France, only this time to the skid-row denizens of Hell's Kitchen.