A Room With a View Next Door: Passionist Identity in the Community
by Karen Spiegel Franklin
Karen Spiegel Franklin is Director of The Judaica Museum of The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale, NY. She also serves as the Home’s Archivist. A graduate of Wellesley College with a masters degree from the Department of Religion at Temple University, she recently served as Chairperson of the Council of American Jewish Museums. Mrs. Franlin currently serves on the board of the Archivists of Religious Institutions. She is the wife of Rabbi Stephen D. Franklin.
People come to learn about the history of the Passionist Congregation in diverse ways. The intellectual quest led me to the Passionists. In 1992 I was invited to the Fall meeting of the Archivists of Religious Institutions which took place at the Cardinal Spellman Retreat House, Riverdale, NY. I was intrigued because the retreat house is literally “next door” to The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale where I serve as Archivist and Director of The Judaica Museum. This was indeed my first contact with the Passionists. The meeting offered me the opportunity to enter into professional dialogue and learning with Passionists Rob Carbonneau and Morgan Hanlon.
Not only did I want to know more about the Passionists, I was asking a larger question: How is Passionist history explained to those who are unfamiliar with the story? Hopefully the following thoughts will stimulate greater understanding of the Passionist identity in the community.
Initially I realized that I had very little understanding of the Passionist Congregation—its function, its members and beliefs. In fact, graduate work and teaching a class in Religion in America at Temple University provided me only a limited knowledge of Catholic religious orders.
Desiring to know more I asked people in the Passionists’ backyard—the Bronx. I asked other Jewish friends, “What do you know about the Passionists?” They shared my ignorance. A professor from a Jewish seminary gave me little insight. He knew it was a Catholic order but could not elaborate. Finally, a “next-door” neighbor (on the other side) of Cardinal Spellman told me “they were wonderful neighbors, but I haven’t a clue about the nature of their work.”
Some months later, Rob Carbonneau called me. Writing a history of the Passionists in the Bronx, he wanted to know about the history of The Hebrew Home. I did not have all the answers to the questions he posed. I realized that I did not know some answers to my own history.
Because community relations is part of the historical narrative, Rob Carbonneau and I began to explore local history and ask how these neighboring institutions influenced each other and the community. A visit was made to the Bronx Archives at Lehman College. There was limited material there. We spoke with local Bronx historian Rev. William Tieck. These two sources taught us that there has been limited analysis of twentieth-century history. We learned that in 1923 the Passionists purchased the old Allien Estate in Riverdale; in 1951 The Hebrew Home, then located in Harlem, purchased the property of the Colored Orphan Asylum in Riverdale. How, we wondered, did these two religious institutions placed in the wealthy, suburban, and mostly Protestant area of Riverdale interact with each other and with the surrounding community? The written record provided little information. Still, the question of the historical importance of any institution to a community remains urgent. The Hebrew Home for the Aged at Riverdale attempts to integrate itself into a local community through community outreach services, public events, an advisory council and the Museum. The Passionists do serve the wider Catholic area. The question of how the Passionists are perceived by the local community, though, is not a moot one in light of a recent controversy concerning the perception of groups within the Riverdale community.
In his retirement speech, Dr. Matthew les Spetter, leader of the Riverdale Yonkers Society for Ethical Culture, spoke of his concern for Riverdale. “With the large influx of Orthodox Jews,” he said, “there is a great deal more separation than we had in the 1960s.” This simple statement, printed in the Riverdale Press, 2 June 1994, generated tremendous response from the community.
It is interesting to me that Orthodox Jews perceived as separate in the community are a cause for concern. I understand Dr. Spetter’s position. It specifically raises the question as to the dynamics of interfaith dialogue. Therefore, I take this opportunity to ask how my Passionist neighbors answer the question: Do the Passionists think that the community, especially the non-Catholic community and/or Catholic community, understands the history, mission and purpose of the Congregation? Could the same issue of separation within the larger community be directed towards the Passionists? Because interfaith dialogue is so important in contemporary society, historians will hold both our institutions accountable.
I, as a neighbor and outsider, conclude with a method of inquiry to assist Passionist institutions to answer the question of historical identity in the community. I believe that these questions can be asked by Passionist institutions anywhere. As a director of an ethnic museum, I have to ask how a museum portrays culture. The Passionist Congregation possesses a culture. If the Passionists were to present an exhibition highlighting their history, how would they do it?
What would be the highlights of Passionist history for an exhibit? Who are the most influential Passionists and why? What are the symbols of Passionist spirituality? How would the Passionists explain vowed religious life, the difference between priests and brothers, the various type of religious works, devotions and prayer, and their differences from other Catholic congregations? How have other Catholics viewed Passionist identity? What has been the relationship of the Passionist institutions to their respective local communities? On a more personal level, what has been the relationship between Passionists and Jews?
These questions are essential for true historical identity. I am well aware that I look at the Passionists from outside the tradition. If we are truly open we should not be afraid to ask each other questions. I am pleased to have this opportunity to reflect. Not only do I see Cardinal Spellman Retreat in Riverdale from my window every day, I also realize that diplomatic recognition between the Holy See and Israel impels all of us on the local level to seek new avenues of dialogue. History is a means to dialogue. I have been impressed by the Passionists. I and others seek a greater understanding. I hope this reflection can assist you in teaching your history to others.