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Father Francis Caffrey – A Priest for the Stars and Students Alike

In my previous columns on Maryknoll clergy, I profiled several noteworthy priests and nuns who assisted Japanese Americans during their wartime incarceration. The vast majority of these clergy worked in Los Angeles, where the largest Japanese American enclave in the United States existed until 1942. While most priests worked solely with the Japanese communities, several priests reached out to the greater community in Los Angeles.

Father Francis J. Caffrey (Maryknoll Seattle Collection, Densho Digital Repository [ddr-densho-330-70])

One such priest, Father Francis J. Caffrey, who served at the San Juan Bautista mission in the prewar years, developed a unique connection with several Hollywood actors and writers, and used his connections with them to support Japanese Americans in their time of need. During the war years, Caffrey became an active member of the National Student Relocation Council, and helped hundreds of Japanese American students from Los Angeles transfer to schools outside of the West Coast.

Francis Joseph Caffrey was born on July 17, 1895 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the oldest of six children of Andrew Caffrey, a wood and coal salesman, and Julia Caffrey. He attended St. Mary’s Parochial School and St John’s Preparatory School, graduating in 1913. In 1917, Caffrey graduated from Boston College with high honors. He then enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in France during World War I. After two years of service, Caffrey left the Army in 1919.

In October 1919, Caffrey enrolled in the Maryknoll Seminary at Ossining, New York, with the intent of becoming a priest. Following the completion of his studies, Caffrey was ordained a priest on June 15, 1924. In the same graduating class was Hugh Lavery, the future leader of Maryknoll’s mission in Little Tokyo, with whom Caffrey would work together in Los Angeles.

In 1925, Maryknoll assigned Caffrey to be the superior priest at the Seattle parish. In 1928, Father Caffrey was transferred to the Maryknoll church in Little Tokyo, where he worked as Lavery’s assistant. Within a year, however, Caffey was appointed to manage the congregations of San Benito county, California. Based at Mission San Juan Bautista, Caffrey spent the next eleven years serving San Benito’s various communities.  

During his time at San Juan Bautista, Caffrey organized efforts to restore the old mission structure and promote the history of the California missions. On Christmas Day, 1929, Father Caffrey organized the first of several annual Christmas masses at the mission. Shortly after, Caffrey discovered in the archives of the mission what he touted as the first census taken in California – a record dating from 1822 describing the Indigenous population surrounding the mission. As a result of his work in restoring California’s missions, Father Caffrey was appointed a state parks commissioner.

Sometime in 1930, Father Caffrey entertained famed Los Angeles Times columnist Harry Carr at Mission San Juan Bautista. Carr had begun his career as a Hollywood screenwriter, working with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim, before establishing himself as one of the Los Angeles Times’s most celebrated columnists. In his Times column “The Lancer,” and in several books, Carr profiled famous sites in California history and commented on life in Hollywood.

Carr first profiled Caffrey in his January 27, 1930 column, and in subsequent columns praised Caffrey’s work to restore Mission San Juan Bautista. In his May 25, 1933 column, Carr specifically referred Caffrey as “a friend.” In September 1932, Carr revealed in his column that he had orchestrated a large donation from Moses Hazeltine Sherman, founder of the Los Angeles Railway, to Mission San Juan Bautista to help with restoration efforts. Carr proclaimed that the most difficult part of the task was not confessing to Father Caffrey his good deed.

On January 10, 1936, Carr died of a sudden heart attack. Although Carr was not a Catholic, his family invited Father Caffrey to preside at his funeral and give a eulogy in his honor. A photograph of Caffrey featured prominently in the Los Angeles Times’s coverage of Carr’s funeral.

At the same time, Father Caffrey maintained a relationship with Father Hugh Lavery and the Little Tokyo diocese,. On September 21, 1936, Caffrey and Lavery arranged a meeting between eight Japanese American schoolgirls and Hollywood child star Shirley Temple at the 20th Century Fox studio in Hollywood. The meeting, organized as part of a celebration of Temple’s birthday, received significant publicity in the Los Angeles and Japanese American press.

Nippu Jiji, Sept 22, 1936 (Courtesy of Hoji Shinbun Digital Collection, Hoover Institution library & Archives)

On October 21, 1938, Father Caffrey gave a tour of the mission to James Roosevelt, the eldest son of President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1939, Los Angeles Times columnist Ed Ainsworth praised Caffrey for his “aggressive leadership” in restoring Mission San Juan Bautista. Ainsworth described the mission as one of the last “unspoiled spots” in California, where Caffrey brought Old California to life with his annual Fiesta Days that celebrated the state’s Mexican heritage.

Although Caffrey garnered attention from mainstream media outlets for his work restoring San Juan Bautista, his primary work was with Japanese American parishioners. Father Caffrey regularly attended meetings of the JACL’s San Benito County chapter, and served as an intermediary between the community and government officials. In November 1939, Caffrey invited several state and local officials, such as the mayor of San Juan Bautista and State Assemblyman J. Leonard, to a meeting of the JACL in Hollister. On January 30, 1940, Caffrey spoke before the San Benito County JACL.

On January 6, 1940, the Nichibei Shinbun reported that Father Caffrey had offered to serve as an intermediary between striking Filipino farmworkers and farm owners in San Juan Bautista. The strike, which had entered its fourth week, had escalated after labor organizers allegedly threatened workers who returned to work before settlement with deportation. After conferring with Attorney General Earl Warren, Caffrey confirmed that such threats were illegal.

Father Francis J. Caffrey of San Juan Bautista Mission at Harry Carr’s funeral in Los Angeles, 1936 (Photo courtesy of University of California, Los Angeles. Library. Department of Special Collections)

In 1940, Father Caffrey announced that he would be leaving San Juan Bautista to work with the Maryknoll mission in Little Tokyo. Shortly afterwards, he offered his resignation from the State Park Commission to Governor Olson.

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the rise of anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast, Father Caffrey was stirred to action. On March 22, 1942, Fathers Caffrey and Lavery, together with Togo Tanaka and Joe Inouye of the Rafu Shimpo, Frank Yamaguchi, Koichi Kiyomura, and Henry Nagamatsu, organized the movement of Japanese Americans from the Maryknoll church in Little Tokyo to Manzanar incarceration camp in the Owens valley.

In April 1942, as Japanese Americans were forced to the camps, Caffrey and several priests helped take and store the property of the LA Japanese community. According to sociologist Dorothy Swaine Thomas, the federal government failed to adequately inform Japanese Americans that the Federal Reserve could provide protection for the property of Japanese Americans during their time in camp. As a result, hundreds of families either sold their property to unscrupulous neighbors or took their belongings to the Maryknoll church.

Thomas stated “the Maryknoll school is now performing a duty of the Federal Reserve, that of storing personal property, while the Buddhist Temples have provided food and shelter.” Caffrey claimed to a member of Thomas’s staff that Maryknoll was connected with 23,000 out of the 37,000 Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.

During the early months after Executive Order 9066, when the majority of his congregation was confined at the Santa Anita Assembly Center, Father Caffrey made several visits in order to lead services and offer communion. At one point, he and Father Hugh Lavery delivered reels of Hollywood films for the confined population to watch.

When the National Student Relocation Council was organized to assist Japanese American college students to leave camp and enroll in schools outside the West Coast, Caffrey also served as a board member. He specifically took up the case of Catholic students incarcerated at the Santa Anita, and organized their transfer to Catholic universities elsewhere.

However, in August 1942, Caffrey became engaged in a dispute with the head of the NSRC, Joseph Conrad. Caffrey insisted that any Nisei Catholic students be sent to attend Catholic schools, and asked that their dossiers be automatically sent directly to him as the Catholic representative. Conrad instead preferred to wait for individual students to grant permission before sharing their files with Caffrey and the Church. In response, Caffrey wrote an angry letter to Conrad threatening to withdraw from the organization. Conrad offered an apology to Caffrey, and granted Caffrey permission to handle the transcripts of various Nisei students.

After 1942, Caffrey’s involvement with the Japanese American community dwindled. In 1944, Father Caffrey moved to Hawaii, where he was appointed pastor of the Immaculate Conception Church at Hulualoa, Hawaii. A year later, he was reported as working with the Saint Louis, Missouri parish. In the late 40s, Father Caffrey returned to Los Angeles to become director of the Maryknoll center.

During the 1950s, Father Caffrey launched a radio talk program Titled “Sunday in Hollywood.” The show featured several Hollywood personalities as guests, including John Ford, Bing Crosby, Perry Como, and Lorretta Young, as well as boxing champion Rocky Marciano. Caffrey earned national recognition for his program, and his interviews were later recorded and sold as records.

In 1951, Caffrey convinced actor Ricardo Montalban to record the voiceover for a Maryknoll documentary on missionary activity in Bolivia. The story was later covered in Field Afar magazine, and a photo showed Caffrey listening to the voiceover with Montalban.

In 1958, Caffrey was photographed with famed actress Loretta Young, a longtime supporter of Maryknoll, during her visit to Maryknoll headquarters. In June 1959, Caffrey provided a eulogy at the funeral of his friend, actor James Gleason.

Along with Hollywood stars, Caffrey met with several dignitaries from Japan. In May 1952, Caffrey welcomed the Bishop of Japan, Paul Furuya, to Los Angeles and provided him a tour of the major movie studios. In June 1956, Mineko Tanaka, the wife of Japanese Justice Kotaro Tanaka, visited with Caffrey at the Little Tokyo parish. Caffrey interviewed Tanaka, a devout Catholic, about her work as Vice President of UNICEF Japan and the need for more Catholic clergy in Japan.

In January 1958, Caffrey escorted the Chief Justice of Japan’s Supreme Court, Kotaro Tanaka, during his visit to Los Angeles. Perhaps the greatest celebrity encounter that Father Caffrey had was with Crown Prince Akihito of Japan and his wife Princess Michiko, in 1961. The royal couple visited Little Tokyo, where they were greeted personally by Caffrey and several dignitaries.

In his later years, Father Caffrey embarked on a campaign to support the song “An Open Letter to Man.” Originally written by the songwriting duo of Sy and Jill Miller, the song criticized the sexualized depictions of women in media and called on men to respect women. For the last ten years of his life, Father Caffrey shared the lyrics of the song with news outlets throughout California – both to decry the increase in pornography and as a self-proclaimed “women’s liberationist.” Caffrey’s crusade garnered the attention of several media outlets in California, and Congressman Robert Dornan included a mention of Caffrey in the Congressional Record.

Several Japanese Americans, specifically Pacific Citizen editor Harry Honda, took note of Caffrey’s campaign. In the July 4, 1969 issue of the PC, Honda reprinted the lyrics of “An Open Letter to Man” and a message to readers from Father Caffrey. Honda reminded readers that Caffrey had worked with the San Benito County JACL back in the 1930s, and was a common sight at the Maryknoll school in Los Angeles. (Honda would later reference Father Caffrey in his 2012 article on actor Danny Thomas’s connection to Maryknoll).

On December 14, 1979, Father Francis Caffrey died at the age of 84. During his long years of service with Maryknoll, Caffrey used his status among Hollywood stars to garner support for Japanese Americans. Although better known for his role in resurrecting popular interest in California's missions and Spanish California, Caffrey was among a select few of Los Angeles Catholic leaders who advocated for improving postwar U.S.-Japan relations through his speeches and goodwill tours with Japanese politicians.


© 2022 Jonathan van Harmelen

clergies Francis J. Caffrey Hollywood Maryknoll Mission San Juan Bautista National Student Relocation Council