William Joseph Geary received this rosary when he attended a papal audience in the aftermath of World War II. “When the day arrives, I will pass Dad’s rosary on to my son,” says Bill Geary, who is state advocate for the Oregon Council of the Knights of Columbus. (Courtesy Bill Geary)
William Joseph Geary received this rosary when he attended a papal audience in the aftermath of World War II. “When the day arrives, I will pass Dad’s rosary on to my son,” says Bill Geary, who is state advocate for the Oregon Council of the Knights of Columbus. (Courtesy Bill Geary)
My father, William Joseph Geary, was born in June 1915 into a very Catholic, very American and a very historic Irish family.

His uncle, William M. Geary, was Knight number seven of the Knights of Columbus.

Considering the importance that the rosary plays in our family’s prayer life and in the lives of the Knights of Columbus, the story of how my father received his prized rosary beads — at the Vatican in the aftermath of World War II — is especially treasured.

Dad spent his early years, before the onset of the Great Depression, in the Richmond Hill section of New York City. When the full impact of the Depression began to hit American family life, my grandparents moved the clan to the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

My father attended Bishop Laughlin High School in Brooklyn, graduating at age 18 in 1933. With the Depression’s terrible grip firmly on the world at this time, his dream of a college education was dashed. Over the next seven years he apprenticed with a local butcher in the meat industry.

In January 1940, Congress passed a draft act as the war in Europe escalated. Dad was now 25, and his draft number came up.

On Valentine’s Day 1940 he reported for induction into the regular U.S. Army. He spent his pre-war time at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In 1941, the Army created the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Bragg. The division performed various stateside duties after the Pearl Harbor attack, then left the U.S. mainland in October 1942 for the Torch landings in Morocco. In November 1942 Dad went ashore with his unit at Port Lyautey. He would survive the battle of Kasserine Pass, Tunisia, be in the invasion of Sicily and later fight with the U.S. 3rd Infantry Division at Anzio.

These were terrible battles. At Kasserine, 300 American soldiers were killed; 3,000 were wounded and 3,000 missing. In a single day at Anzio, the 3rd Infantry suffered 900 casualties, the most of any American division on one day in the war.

Dad would also be in the Po Valley and saw the devastation to the beautiful abbey at Monte Cassino.

He then was with one of the first American contingents to free the city of Rome. His unit, a weapons recovery company, would be quartered about eight miles north of the Eternal City. My father was in charge of a group of Italian prisoners who worked for the allies. Prior to the war during his time in Brooklyn, Dad had picked up some “street Italian” and had a fair understanding of Latin from his high school days.

So as 1944 passed into 1945, Dad remained in Rome. Although he was in charge of the prisoners, the army still expected him to fulfill his duties as an armorer. His company received a new commanding officer in April 1945, a 25-year-old captain of Irish Catholic decent from Cleveland. He was a graduate of a small Catholic college and took a liking to my father. He promoted Dad to the rank of technical sergeant just after taking over command.

Soon after Easter 1945, the company’s first sergeant told Dad to report the next day to the captain at 0900 in a cleaned and pressed uniform and shined boots. Dad did so and Capt. Dwyer told my father he would be the driver that day. Dad got in and started the jeep. The captain said, “Sgt. Geary, take us to the Vatican. You and I are going to see the pope.”

Every time Dad would tell us this story, when he got to this part, he got a big grin on his face and his eyes would light-up. At this point in the war, audiences were being given for American servicemen, usually officers, to have brief visits to see the Vatican.

On this day, 400 American officers and a few enlisted men received Pope Pius XII’s papal blessing in person.

Dad stood in the back with the other “noncoms” who had been the driver escorts of their commanding officers. To their great surprise a group of deacons in vestments approached them first, the sergeants, and began passing out rosaries of assorted colors. Dad was handed a bright blue rosary and then they were blessed. The Holy Father gave his blessing in Latin. Dad and Capt. O’Dwyer understood the blessing.

Dad brought home a second set of rosary beads from Italy. They were of a rich brown color. When my mother passed away from cancer in 1974, Dad quietly slipped the brown rosary, which he had given to my mother before they were married in October 1945, into her casket before we said goodbye.

In the following 16 years, we occasionally saw the blue rosary on Dad’s dresser, but after he passed in 1990, it was misplaced — or even lost.

Ten years ago, about the time I became a member of the Knights of Columbus, the rosary reappeared in a small box of my father’s things we had forgotten about.

In reflection, I believe that many good things have been associated with our family and the holy rosary. My grandmother gave each one of her three sons a rosary before they left for WW II. All three came home.

When the day arrives, I will pass Dad’s rosary on to my son, and I hope he will pass the beads on to his son as well.

— Proudly I am William Ernest Geary, Oregon state advocate of the Knights of Columbus and U.S. Marine.