Serving Those in the Service: Fr. Gabriel Zema, SJ’s Efforts During WWII

Pictured: Fr. Zema (back left, marked with the number “11") at the 25th anniversary reunion for the inaugural class of 1918, held on June 3, 1942. While organizing alumni events like these, Fr. Zema was dedicating significant time to supporting Regis graduates in service to our country.

When digging through Regis archival material from the 1940s, a common name to come across is that of Fr. Zema, SJ. For alums of that era, Fr. Zema served as moderator of the Regis Alumni Association and dedicated significant time supporting Regis graduates in the Service during World War II, particularly in consoling the families of those lost. The occasion of the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day presents a fitting time to tell his story.

Father Gabriel Archangel Zema was born on July 29, 1891 in a little village of Arno, in the Province of Calabria in southern Italy. When he was eight years old, the Zema family, “like so many thousands of their fellow countrymen of those days,” wrote Rev. Anthony I. DeMaria, SJ in the November 1962 Woodstock Letters, “settled in the lower East Side of New York. They lived in a tenement house not far from old St. Patrick’s Cathedral.”

In the summer of 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, Gabriel Zema was ordered to report to his local draft board. Father Zema had already felt God was calling him to religious life, and wrote in his diary that this presented “the most trying time of my life”. His draft board found him several pounds too light and an inch too short. From now on, he would be known as “Shorty.” He was humbled, but happy, because his vocation had been saved. (Source: Woodstock Letters, Volume XCI, Number 4)

Father Zema’s first stint at Regis took place from 1924 to 1926 as a scholastic. He was ordained in 1929 and returned to Regis in 1935, where he would remain for fifteen years as a teacher and a moderator of several organizations. Most significantly, he would endear himself to hundreds of Regis graduates as the moderator of the Regis Alumni Association. He brought much interest and energy with him, and the Regis Alumni Association became one of the most dynamic groups of its kind.

When the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, the call to service nationwide was immediate, and it was no different in the Regis community.

“‘Battle’ will be a word much upon our lips from now on,” wrote Rev. Joseph P. Gallagher, SJ ’28, Literary Adviser to the Regis Alumni News, less than two months after the unprovoked attack. “There were Regis men in the fighting at Pearl Harbor and there will be many more of our number in the far-flung battle lines of this war. The men too who cannot be spared from home responsibilities will know the sacrifice and self-denial by which victory is won. We must gird for battle.

“The years in those classrooms that border the Quadrangle would have been vain had they not imprinted upon our ideals the Regis seal——Deo et Patriae: it was to serve our God and country that we were prepared. And now there is need for our service.” (Source: Regis Alumni News, Vol. 8, No. 1 February 1942)

It was during this same time that Fr. Zema would begin corresponding with Regians on the battlefield and take on the responsibility of consoling the families of those lost. The Regis archives contain a great many letters addressed to Fr. Zema thanking him for his comforting words and kindness.

“Before the peace in 1945,” writes Rev. Anthony D. Andreassi in his book Teach Me to Be Generous, “Father Zema began holding an annual memorial Mass in November to pray for those alumni who had died in the war. In addition to the spiritual concern for both the deceased and those they left behind, Zema also arranged for the Alumni Association to work on practical support for Regians in military service.”

With the end of the war still off in the distance, the Association——under Fr. Zema’s leadership——began making plans to help Regis veterans transition to civilian life. To aid in this, in the late spring of 1945 the alumni raised $5,000, and soon a formal program was inaugurated to help Regis veterans with job placement and career counseling. In a card sent to alumni by the newly established “Regis Alumni Veterans’ Committee,” the men were reminded that the “veterans’ basic problem is postwar employment.” The school hoped that the older alumni could offer “young Regis vets many of whom had not worked for a salary before” guidance in vocational and career matters. By early 1946, several days were set aside for alumni veterans to come to the school during normal business hours to meet with alumni to help with their job search.

In 1950, with his health failing, Fr. Zema was transferred from Regis. Shortly before leaving, he helped organize one last event to honor Regians who had died in the war. Over the previous couple of years, the Alumni Association had raised $3,500 toward the restoration of the Regis chapel in memory of their fallen brothers. To commemorate this, a large plaque was made listing the names of the Regis dead, to be placed over the entrance of the rear (tunnel) door to the chapel.

Since attendance at this event was necessarily limited due to the size of the chapel, Fr. Zema sent photos of the plaque to the families of the alumni who were memorialized, and several of them wrote back to thank him for his kindness. Mrs. Helen Krall of Brooklyn wrote to thank him for the photo, which would be “fondly displayed in our home.” Her son, Edward, class of 1942, had been a first lieutenant in the Army Air Corps and had been killed in action in Europe not long before VE Day. Although bestowed posthumously, Edward received the Silver Star for valor in face of the enemy, the third-highest military decoration. In this note, Mrs. Krall also expressed her deep appreciation for “the interest and kindness you have tendered to the families of our boys who have departed——you have kept the ‘home fires’ burning constantly.”

Mrs. Krall concluded by saying that “the word ‘Regis’ is so warm to us all——we will never forget it——it produces boys a little different, especially their love for the faith.”

The archives contain another dozen letters from parents of Regians who died in the war with similar expressions of appreciation to Father Zema as well as their ongoing love for the school. (Source: Rev. Anthony D. Andreassi, Teach Me to Be Generous)

Pictured: Fr. Zema's grave, Saint Andrew-on-Hudson Jesuit Cemetery

Posted: 11/12/18