Boston’s Father ‘Jim’ Hennessey: Missionary Martyr

No one knows for sure how Cambridge, Massachusetts, native, Father “Jim” Hennessey died, but what is certain is that when the Japanese took over the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific in 1942, he was taken prisoner on Saint Patrick’s Day and put aboard a prison ship called Montevideo Maru. The US Navy records show that this ship was sunk by one of our submarines on July 1. According to some survivors, there was a time, prior to this ship’s sinking, that he and other prisoners were forced by the Japanese to labor in a rock quarry. Monsignor James H. Hannan, National Director for the Propagation of the Faith in Australia, later claimed that the prisoners aboard the Montevideo Maru were put on shore on the island of New Britain and executed. Hannan adds that “it is known where the remains are; but time and the jungle make any identification impossible.” Many missionaries died at the hands of the Japanese shortly before and after the US entered the war. The Zhengding Church Massacre in 1937, for example, when the Japanese had invaded China and slaughtered a Dutch bishop and eight priests from various countries. There is no question that Father Hennessey was taken in the line of doing his religious work. In that respect, he can be considered a martyr. Only God knows what took place in his last moments.

James Hennessey was born on September 24, 1908. He attended Saint Anselm’s Prep and College here in New Hampshire. He entered the seminary of Saint John’s in Brighton, Massachusetts, in 1925. He studied in Rome and was ordained in the Basilica of Saint John Lateran in 1930. Having been assigned to parish work in Malden, Massachusetts, and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he discerned a calling to do missionary work under the Propagation of the Faith. At the time diocesan priests were being offered a five year term as missionaries.

Bishop Thomas Wade, O.M.I., of Providence, Rhode Island was the overseer of the missions in the Solomon Islands northeast of Australia. In 1937, Father Hennessey was sent to Chabai, Bouganville Island. He acheived great things for the indigenous people, opening a school, training catechists, and inspiring some of the natives to enter the priesthood. This latter accomplishment was his greatest joy.

Father’s letters are full of stories of adventure and hardship, especially from monsoons. He was also proud of his students for their industry in making placemats and baskets to support themselves. But then, two years before his capture, he wrote home about the escalating danger: “The war has made difficulties for the whole mission. Prices of things we must buy are so much higher than before, and at the same time all sources of aid from Europe are cut off.” His letters are in the archives of the Propagation for the Faith and perhaps, too (although I am not sure) in the archives of the Archdiocese of Boston.

The information in this short sketch was taken from Father Jim Hennessey: Missionary and Martyr, from the Boston Archdiocesan Archive, Fall/Winter 2016)