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Decorated WWII veteran and oldest priest in Allentown diocese, dies at 96

By DANIEL PATRICK SHEEHAN | The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) | Published: October 24, 2018

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The Rev. Edward McElduff, a decorated World War II veteran of the U.S. Navy who took part in the D-Day invasion, died Sunday at 96.

McElduff, who was the oldest priest in the Allentown Catholic diocese, retired in 2001. For 20 years before that, he was pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Walnutport.

Pamela Gerlog, McElduff’s caretaker for the past 17 years, said he had been in hospice care with cancer and heart failure and died at his home in Bethlehem.

Gerlog said McElduff had an extraordinary life and ministry.

“He was a priest for 65 years,” she said. “He always helped his people. He never cared about himself. People came first for him. People loved him.”

In a statement, Bishop Alfred Schlert, who will preside at McElduff’s funeral on Monday, said the priest served his country honorably and “exemplified the ideals of the ‘Greatest Generation.’”

“The diocese is profoundly grateful for his ministry which continued long after he retired as a pastor,” Schlert said. “The diocese offers prayers for the repose of the soul of this faithful servant.”

On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — McElduff was piloting a landing craft carrying British engineers to the Normandy coast. The LST, or “landing ship tank,” hit an underwater mine.

McElduff was blown from the chart house to the deck below, where his back and neck smashed into a rack of rifles and submachine guns.

Spinal injuries sent him to a hospital in England. He was injured again later by a bomb that detonated alongside his craft. But through an oversight amid the chaos of the largest invasion in history, McElduff didn’t get a Purple Heart — the decoration awarded to those killed or wounded in action — until 2002.

A fellow D-Day veteran, the late George J. Wilson of Bethlehem, learned that the military had shortchanged his friend. A veterans advocate and attorney-in-fact with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans, he sought the Purple Heart for "Father Ed."

The Navy approved Wilson's request and sent McElduff a letter saying he was entitled to the medal. Wilson hoped to get it for him as a gift, but problems followed.

Though the government mailed a Purple Heart to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 13 in Allentown, to Wilson's attention, he didn't receive it. Another medal, sent to U.S. Rep. Pat Toomey's office in Allentown, never arrived. On top of that, the Navy didn't have Purple Heart certificates in stock.

Wilson, who served with the 1st Infantry Division and was wounded on D-Day and two other occasions, had his own Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, plus a few other Purple Hearts he had acquired for his children. He had one of them engraved “Ensign Edward W. McElduff, USN” and presented the improvised medal to his friend.

McElduff later received the official certificate confirming the honor.

In a 2003 interview with The Morning Call, McElduff said he was restless after the war and began reflecting on the fact that he survived while so many others didn’t.

“The Lord had saved me for something. He saved me, and he took care of me in so many other ways. So I decided, I'm going to give the Lord a try.”

He entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. On May 30, 1953, he was ordained at the Cathedral of Ss. Peter & Paul in Philadelphia.

Before St. Nicholas, he served about a half-dozen other parishes, including 15 years at St. Richards in Barnesville, Schuylkill County.

Diane Skripek, a former diocese employee who retired to Florida, said McElduff was a “bleeding heart” who carried out missions to poor countries and engaged with marginalized communities.

“He would get a call from someone saying ‘I’m gay and my lover’s in the hospital,’ and he would be right there,” she said. “He was all about the spirit of the law. And he loved to shake people up.”

Skripek attended McElduff’s charismatic Masses at St. Nicholas — services that borrow heavily from Protestant traditions of engagement with the Holy Spirit.

“I wish I could do him justice,” she said. “He was an absolute servant.”

Gerlog said a viewing will be held from 6-8 p.m. Sunday at St. Nicholas and from 10-11 a.m. Monday, followed by the funeral Mass. The church is at 1152 Oak Rd, Walnutport.

daniel.sheehan@mcall.com

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