Continuing Education: A reflection on Father Roger Mercurio, C.P. and Holy Cross Province

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by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Spring break in Louisville, Kentucky 1974 opened my eyes. I realized there was more to United States Passionist history than reliving high school events at the Prep Seminary at Dunkirk, New York. I came to understand that all Passionists did not speak with a Boston accent or possess the bluntness of urban New Yorkers. At the same time, I began to have a wider context so as to appreciate Passionists who told of their ministry exploits which began and ended in Pennsylvania-South Side Pittsburgh or Scranton. Finally, my trip to Louisville made me wrestle with the longevity of the Passionist story in the United States. I began to think that St. Michael’s Monastery and Parish in Union City, New Jersey was a symbol of 19th century American Catholicism in much the same way that Holy Family Monastery in my home town of West Hartford, Connecticut represented all the concrete hopes of American Catholicism in the post-World War II era.

Louisville, Kentucky:

As I remember, the above insights were sparked by way of talks given by Father Roger Mercurio, C.P. and Father John Render, C.P. Mercurio spoke about the history of Holy Cross Province and Render gave a slide presentation on the meaning of the Cross in religious art. As I look back now, both men offered me, in the company of my fellow novices of the eastern and western province, a challenge to apply intellect and imagination in my life as vowed Passionist. This is not as academic as it might sound. What I mean is that both men had a genuine passion for their subject. Most important was the fact that their presentations went beyond story telling and piety. Each accentuated the value and care for historical documentation. Mercurio made continual references to the archives of Holy Cross Province, the local house chronicles, diaries and copies of sermons preached. I was stunned by Render’s respect for museums. Together, these two priests of the western province added new information to understand the already familiar story I was being given on Passionist history and spirituality offered by Passionists in the eastern province during my novice year, 1973-1974.

Concretely, my 1974 trip west to Louisville encouraged me to see that my undergraduate history degree at Assumption College, Worcester, Massachusetts might serve as the foundation to investigate Passionist archives then located in Union City, New Jersey. With the help of Father John Francis Poole, C.P. I began to see how the 20th century China mission story of the Passionists was an historical story shared by the provinces of St. Paul of the Cross and Holy Cross. In the spring of 1975 Father Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J., then at Fordham University, New York allowed me to write a basic research paper based on the Passionist China story. I spent the summer of 1975 on assignment in Jamaica, West Indies where I met Fathers Cormac Shanahan, C.P. and William Whelan, C.P. Both had worked in China. When I learned that the summer of 1976 required ministry training in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) I jumped at the chance to again head west.

Cincinnati, Ohio:

Holy Cross Monastery atop Mt. Adams, Cincinnati, Ohio was my home during the summer of 1976 while I did my CPE at Children’s Medical Center. Like the Passionist foundation in Louisville, Kentucky, the Cincinnati monastery and Holy Cross-Immaculata parish allowed me to feel the history of Holy Cross Province which had been brought to life two summers before by Father Roger Mercurio. Moreover, life on Mt. Adams and conversations with Father Germain Legere, C.P., Brother Carl Hund, C.P., Father Joe Van Leeuwen, C.P. and Father Conleth Overman, C.P. and assorted other western province Passionists whom I met provided me with a new insight. The full Passionist story had to be told. Furthermore, the best way to understand it was as a combined American 19th and 20th century story of two provinces. This realization about Passionist identity came to me gradually over that bicentennial summer. The more I typed (on a typewriter not a computer) verbatim histories about people I met at Children’s Hospital, the more I began to see that so many of the same principles of pastoral evaluation and action in a hospital were active every time I talked to a Passionist or lay person about the varieties of Passionist identity and history.

William Westhoven, C.P.:

I was so confident that the Passionist story had to be seen in the larger context of an American story that I decided to go to the Passionist foundation at Detroit, Michigan to conduct an audio tape interview with former China missionary Father William Westhoven, C.P. I made a phone call. I borrowed a Cincinnati monastery car and drove to Detroit. On July 23, 1976 I met Westhoven in one of the rooms on the first floor monastery corridor. He welcomed me with gruff excitement and a smile that made his eyeglasses speak. Immediately he lit a cigar and insisted that I sit down with him to watch Mark Fidrych pitch for the Detroit Tigers. Recent CPE experience taught me that any rapport with Westhoven was going to have to take place in between innings.

After several innings, I asked Westhoven why he continued to wear a heavy Passionist religious habit during such hot July weather? He proceeded to tell me how when the Communists had taken over Yuanling, Hunan, China in the early 1950s he was not allowed to wear his habit. Ever since then he had had a profound reverence for the Passionist religious habit. By the seventh inning stretch our conversation became more relaxed. I asked him if we might have our audio tape interview on the following day? Suddenly, I saw his eyes more clearly glared at me through the swirls of cigar smoke. He wanted to know what questions I would ask. I suggested that I show him ten questions after supper. He agreed. Fortunately, I had with me notes I had taken from the archives in Union City, New Jersey. I knew his desire for ten questions was very much a test. On the one hand, they had to prove I knew real historical details about the Passionist China missions: his 1924 departure ceremonies, the 1927 evacuation, and death of three missionaries in 1929 when Westhoven was the religious superior. On the other hand, the questions had to show I wanted Westhoven to teach me. What good was it for me to interview him if I did not want to learn. In the end the July 24, 1976 interview was a success. Two days later I was back at my CPE session to explain how an historian can benefit from CPE. Some of my peers thought all this was an attempt on my part to escape present realities. In good group dynamics fashion I held my ground and won the day.

Ironically, these trips to Louisville in 1974 and Cincinnati and Detroit in 1976 helped me see the historical importance of the archives and personalities of Holy Cross Province. Accumulated historical documentation from Holy Cross Province became part of an seminar paper I eventually wrote for Professor Joseph Fitzer of St. John’s University, New York. In July 1980 I was fortunate to have the paper published as an article on the Passionists in China in The Catholic Historical Review.


I have not wavered from my opinion that Passionist archives are important. In October of 2006 Passionists will meet at their General Chapter in Rome. International restructuring is high on the agenda. In this spirit it is time to recognize that there has to be a coordinated plan for preservation of province Passionist archives together with the Passionist General Archives in Rome. Passionist religious and lay archivists must meet on a regular basis with the aim of establishing a program of education to teach Passionists, friends of the Passionists, and the general public about the power of Passionist history. The intellectual rigor and excitement of Father Roger Mercurio, C.P. of Holy Cross Province may serve as an example.

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