Loyola University’s Unusual Students: Italian POWs and Loyola University

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series of essays written by students of the Fall 2018 Public History course and based on research at Loyola’s University Archives and Special Collections. Check back over the next four weeks for new stories.

The Jesuit mission is to “to work for reconciliation every day — with God, with human beings and with the environment” [1]. As a Jesuit institution, Loyola University has used this statement as its guiding ideal in education and service. During World War II the world needed reconciliation more than ever before and Loyola University was compelled to extend its humanitarian mission of education to individuals who were otherwise considered enemies: prisoners of war.

Figure 1: Portrait of Marie Sheahan, head of the Home Studies Division and correspondent to Father Ferreri. (Photo Credit: “Mary Sheahan”, One Hundred Years of Knowledge in the Service of Man:  Loyola University of Chicago, 1870 – 1970”, Box 1, Folder 3, Correspondence Study Division, Loyola University Archives, Loyola University Chicago.)

From 1922 to 1985 Loyola University maintained a Home Study Division (later renamed the Correspondence Study Division), which allowed students who could not reach the campus to take courses in a variety of subjects [2]. Like others of its kind, this program was popular among students who were housewives, who lived in the countryside, and who had to work full-time. Loyola University’s division was unique as it was the only Catholic university that cooperated with the United States Armed Forces Institute (USAFI), which provided high school and college education to American service members [3]. In addition to providing correspondence courses to Americans serving in the armed forces, Loyola University partnered with Father Achilles F. Fererri (Captain, AUS) to offer courses to Italian prisoners of war.  The USAFI only covered American service members, so this decision went above and beyond Loyola’s contractual obligations.

Father Fererri was the chaplain at Camp Hereford, a prisoner of war camp in Hereford, Texas [4]. The prison held five thousand Italian prisoners of war who were captured in North Africa [5]. Out of these five thousand prisoners, fifty-four enrolled in correspondence courses through Loyola University [6]. English courses were by far the most popular with twenty-two imprisoned students enrolling in those courses. Spanish and French language courses were also popular with eleven and four students each.  Six soldiers enrolled in Sociology courses, five in law, four in Economics, and three in both Biology and Education. Psychology, Philosophy, Geology, and Latin each had only one student enrolled [7]. The Loyola University Archives does not have any record of what grades these students received.  Although the Correspondence Division kept records of all the enrollment fees and book purchases, all coursework was sent directly from the students to the professors [8]. Despite this lack of record, it is likely that these imprisoned soldiers worked diligently on their assignments.  After all, there was precious little entertainment available in prisoner of war camps.

Figure 2: Camp Hereford prisoners with priests, standing outside St. Mary’s church. (Photo Credit: St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Umbarger, TX. Accessed December 11, 2018, https://stmarysumbarger.com/)

Fifty-four students are a small percentage of five thousand inmates, but there were several factors that likely limited who among the prisoners at Hereford could take classes. First, such courses necessitated a certain level of language skills and education. Soldiers who were barely literate or who had left school at a young age would not have been able to take college classes. The second, and arguably more important limitation, was money.  Like any other students, these soldiers had to pay course fees and buy books and only a few could afford to do so.

Loyola University initially offered a half-rate discount only to prisoners of war who were not commissioned officers. In a 1944 letter to Marie Sheahan, the head of the Home Study Division, Father Ferreri explained that the commissioned offers were not paid as well as U.S. officers. Most of the officers interred at Hereford were first or second Lieutenants and received only twenty dollars per month to cover all the needs not provided by the prison. He also mentioned that Loyola’s neighbor, DePaul University of Chicago, offered a flat rate of $10.00 per course to prisoners of war regardless of rank [9]. While DePaul University also cooperated with the military for the benefit of foreign prisoners of war, DePaul was not a participating university in the United States Armed Forces Institute. Father Ferreri had originally believed that the discount rate applied to all of the students he oversaw and hoped that he could reach a similar bargain with Loyola so as not to disappoint his charges. Just over a week later Miss Sheahan replied that Loyola had not realized how small a salary the commissioned officers received and gladly extended the half-rate discount to all the students at Camp Hereford [10].


Figures 3 and 4: Left: Interior of St. Mary’s church prior to decoration by Italian POWs.  Exact date unknown. Right: Sanctuary of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Umbarger, Texas.  Interior decoration by Camp Hereford POWs and Loyola students.   (Photo Credit: St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Umbarger, TX. Accessed December 11, 2018, https://stmarysumbarger.com/)

Readers who are interested in World War II may have heard of Father Fererri and these Italian prisoners before as they were the subject of Donald Williams’ book Italian POWs and a Texas Church: The Murals of St. Mary’s. When food was scarce in Camp Hereford in 1945, Father Fererri found ways for the prisoners to use their artistic skills to work for food [11]. In the most remarkable of these activities Father Fererri and his friend the Reverend Krukkert arranged for talented artists among the inmates, mainly painters and carvers, as well as a few unskilled help-meets to decorate the interior of Krukkert’s St. Mary’s Church in nearby Umbarger, Texas [12]. Many of these same prisoners constructed used their skills in carving and painting to build a chapel that marks the graves of the five prisoners who died in the camp during their interment. 

Today the chapel is overseen by the Castro County Historical Commission and St. Mary’s Church likewise preserves the art of these imprisoned artists. In 1988, a group of the former prisoners returned for the chapel’s restoration ceremony. Only Mario De Dominicis’ name appears in both the student roster and Williams’ book, but this reunion leaves one to wonder how many uncredited Loyola students also worked on the chapel and St. Mary’s Church [13]. By working with the Armed Forces Institute, Loyola University uniquely contributed to the education of American service members as the only Catholic university to offer classes through the USAFI. By going the extra mile and offering classes to foreign prisoners of war who were not covered by the USAFI Loyola University fulfilled its Jesuit mission of reconciliation.

-Emily-Paige Taylor

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