“Sitting with the wounded and dying, I knew I could do more,” said Fr. John McBride, SJ, while reflecting on his two tours of duty in the U.S. Army, first in World War II and later in the Korean War.
Born in his grandmother’s house in Idaho and raised on a farm in British Columbia, Fr. McBride tended cattle and rode a horse to and from school, galloping across the Canadian border to Washington. When he graduated high school in 1943, he was drafted into the Army and was sent to Europe to fight the Nazis. His infantry unit fought many battles, and the young men were among the more than 500,000 Allied soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, a six-week fight in the dead of winter in the forests of the Ardennes region of the Western Front.
Back home in the Northwest, he expected that after a visit with family and friends he would be headed back into battle.
“I thought I would be part of the first forces to invade Japan,” Fr. McBride said. By the time his leave ended, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had brought the war in Japan to an end. His time in the military was over, and Fr. McBride returned home to earn his bachelor’s degree in economics at Gonzaga University on the GI Bill.
Classes weren’t the only thing occupying his time in school. He liked his time in the military and thought he could do more, so he joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). Graduating with the first class that included women, Fr. McBride was soon commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army and was sent to Korea to lead an infantry platoon. Again, he was in battle.
According to a 2007 article in The Catholic Sentinel in Portland, Fr. McBride was known for being a tough but fair commander. One former soldier claims he saved many lives with his relentless pursuit of order and commitment to putting the men first.
Fr. McBride told the paper, “You don’t eat until your troops are fed. You don’t bed down until your troops are bedded down.” In his spare time, he said he would pray the rosary. He claims the black wore off the beads.
After being wounded, McBride served a stint in Japan as an aide to U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson of Washington before the Korea War ended and he headed home. But Fr. McBride still wanted to do more. In 1952, at 27 years of age, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. He was ordained a priest in 1961 and made his final vows to the Society five years later.
As a Jesuit, his battle-tested toughness and commitment to his men served him well as a teacher at Monroe Catholic High School in Fairbanks, Alaska, a and parish priest at the nearby Immaculate Conception Church.
Later, while serving as pastor at St. Luke Church in Woodburn, Oregon, Fr. McBride once again heard the call to do more: this time, as a prison chaplain. For the next 20 years, he ministered to men incarcerated in federal prisons in California, Oregon and Washington.
“In prison, I helped the men form an Inmate Welfare Fund. It was sort of like a United Way, where inmates helped other inmates doing things like finding shoes for an inmate whose family could not afford to buy them,” Fr. McBride said. “One time, we even raised money to buy a walker for an inmate’s child.”
A prison sentence, like war, is difficult to get through, and Fr. McBride led the inmates he ministered to through various battles. He taught self-improvement classes, led prayer groups, organized Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, celebrated Mass and even broke up a riot fueled by racial tension.
“The men I worked with learned that all we do is for the common good,” Fr. McBride said. “You are always teaching and asking, ‘how do you want to be treated?’”
When he retired from prison work, Fr. McBride served 15 years as a chaplain at Providence Hospital in Portland. “I worked on the floors visiting the sick and would say Mass,” Fr. McBride said. “I would meet with patients to find out what their needs may be during their stay.”
Whether on the battlefield or in a church, hospital or cellblock, Fr. McBride has always believed in the importance of putting his charges first.