Hero:  Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

By | November 28, 2020

[November 28, 2020]  The hero’s journey is a common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.1  Hugh O’Flaherty, a Roman Catholic monsignor, fits that mold.  Monsignor O’Flaherty is a hero for saving the lives of thousands of Allied POWs and Jews during WWII.

Hugh O’Flaherty was born in 1898 in Ireland and raised playing golf on a course that his father managed.  Hugh became a “scratch golfer,” meaning he was quite good.2  He was intelligent, earning a scholarship to a teacher training college.  Instead, at 20 years of age in 1918, he enrolled in a Jesuit school training as a missionary.

With the Irish War of Independence in 1919 and making life difficult, O’Flaherty was sent to Rome to finish his studies.  He was ordained three years later as a Catholic Preist.  Impressed with his abilities, he was appointed to the Holy See, the Vatican’s governing body.  In 1934, he was appointed Monsignor.

By 1943, the Italians had suffered a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Allied powers. They deposed Mussolini and freed all Allied POWs.  Hitler was furious at the betrayal and retaliated by invading Italy.  With a portion of Italy under German occupation, those POWs were at risk of being recaptured. The Monsignor decided to help.3

Estimates vary, but most believe that Monsignor O’Flaherty’s group hid over 6,500 people for the remainder of the war in farms, convents, churches, and private apartments.  The Nazi SS governor Colonel Herbert Kappler didn’t take long to figure out who was behind it.  A white line was pained at the entrance to St. Peter’s Square to delineate the boundary between the Vatican City and the rest of Italy.

Monsignor O’Flaherty was informed that he would be killed if he crossed the white line, but that didn’t stop him from going about coordinating the effort to hide escaped POWs and Jews.  He donned disguises, hence his nickname, “The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican.”4  The Scarlet and the Black (1983) is a movie starring Gregory Peck and Christopher Plummer that is based on events during the war.

The Allied capture of Rome occurred in June 1944.  Colonel Kappler was captured and sentenced for several atrocities.  While imprisoned, Kappler asked to speak with the Monsignor and was surprised when O’Flaherty agreed.  Over the years, a strange friendship developed.  Kappler’s only visitor was O’Flaherty until 1959.  Kappler converted to the Catholic faith while imprisoned.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero%27s_journey
  2. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/monsignor-hugh-oflaherty-priest-converted-nazi-m.html
  3. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/monsignor-hugh-oflaherty-priest-converted-nazi-m.html
  4. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) is a novel set in France during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.  The title is the nom de guerre of its hero, a chivalrous Englishman who rescues aristocrats before they are sent to the guillotine. – https://www.gradesaver.com/the-scarlet-pimpernel/study-guide/summary
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “Hero:  Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty

  1. Gil Johnson

    Another great HERO article. Often, I never heard of these men (and women, of course). I saw the movie long ago and never put 2 and 2 together to connect the dots (mixing metaphors) to know that this story was about a real man, in a real war, in the past. Great comments. Thank you Gen. Satterfield.

  2. Dennis Mathes

    Many good comments today on a true hero. I personally never heard of Monsignor O. He obviously was well liked. And, yes he does fit the hero mold. How did Gen. Satterfield come about learning of the existence of Monsignor O?

    1. Jerome Smith

      For those who study leadership, this is a no brainer. Learning about leadership means knowing about heroes, the hero journey, the story of many ancient and modern day heroes as well. This idea goes back to the very beginning of mankind. It is a meta-story that keeps repeating itself over and over. Why? Because it works and works well for any community, state, or nation.

      1. Mr. T.J. Asper

        Good thought, Jerome. Thanks. I’m glad Gen. Satterfield got back to his hero series.

  3. Wendy Holmes

    What is a hero?
    A classical hero is considered to be a “warrior who lives and dies in the pursuit of honor” and asserts their greatness by “the brilliancy and efficiency with which they kill”.
    Modern heroes, like Monsignor O’Flaherty, add a new dimension to hero, one that acts selflessly in the face of great danger.

  4. Eric Coda

    Fortunately, there are many sources on Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty. They make for fascinating reading. He was more than portrayed in the movie. But O’Flaherty does fit the mold of “hero” to a tee. WW2 changed him and I think, from what I read, for the better.

  5. Max Foster

    Gen. Satterfield, you link to an older article you wrote on “what is a hero?” and it was great to set the stage for a long series of Heroes. This article, in particular, gave me some thoughts as well on what makes a hero. But to fully understand the social phenomenon, look to what many psychologists have written about heroes and their journey.

    1. JT Patterson

      This idea of a hero is, in part, a human experience that we must duplicate or at least compare ourselves to in order to become better. It is a difficult journey and often one we do not see in the making. It is common among great nations, less so in other places. But overall, we should encourage heroes – not hero worship – for their sacrifices.

  6. Tom Bushmaster

    Any time we get an opportunity to look inside the actions (and thinking, if possible) of a great person – a hero is even better – the better off we will be. What made this person a hero? What was he thinking and doing? What guided his actions? Was it his Roman Catholic faith or something else? These are questions we can ask ourselves and attempt to answer because they help us understand and emulate that man.

    1. Otto Z. Zuckermann

      I agree Tom and also reading autobiographies is another way. Some of them, like with ex Pres Obama are just garbage with him putting himself on a pedestal. You have to read between the lines to get an understanding. Others are more forthright. 😀

    2. Kenny Foster

      Yes, and those are the kind of questions we all should be asking regardless of our leadership position or even if we hold a leadership job.

      1. Yusaf from Texas

        Not to be outdone, but I wonder how a person like this, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty would hold up today in a PC, neo-Marxist mold that is demanded by the current Pope in Rome, Italy?

        1. Dead Pool Guy

          Interesting, I do think he would be kicked out of the higher levels of the Catholic church and thus not a Monsignor.

  7. Randy Goodman

    The only reason I had ever heard of him was because of the movie starring Gregory Peck. Good movie, if you ever get a chance to see it, do so. Well done. The location was shot in Rome and a lot of it in the Vatican itself.


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