Father Columkille Regan, C.P.: 1960s Planning and Promotion at Cardinal Spellman Retreat, Riverdale, New York

Home / Father Columkille Regan, C.P.: 1960s Planning and Promotion at Cardinal Spellman Retreat, Riverdale, New York

Summarized by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Retreat house construction along the Hudson, 1965


What was it like to be the first retreat director of Cardinal Spellman Retreat House? As part of the 40th anniversary celebration, Father Columkille Regan, C.P. agreed to sit down with me on April 11, 2007, and answer this question. Friends of Riverdale will agree that his candid thoughts offer a behind the scenes look at events leading up to the opening of the retreat house in 1967. My summary is based on notes compiled from the taped interview.

Passionists who gathered at the July 1959 Provincial Chapter recommended that the time had come to build a new retreat house at Riverdale. However, delays left it up to the members of the July 1962 Provincial Chapter to implement a plan. All knew the plan would fail unless the New York Archdiocese reversed its long-standing policy not to permit the Passionists to build a retreat house. Success came on July 28, 1962, at a meeting between Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York and Passionist Fathers Owen Lynch and Fabian Flynn. Skillfully, Father Flynn broached the topic of a retreat house, building upon his connection with Catholic Relief Services which had led to a friendship with the Cardinal. He even suggested the Passionists would name the facility after the Cardinal. This strategy, Father Regan learned later, was how they “got the green light” to build.

It started with a phone call

In July 1963 Father Regan was teaching at the Passionist Monastery in West Springfield, Massachusetts when he got a phone call from Passionist Provincial Gerard Rooney. Rooney told the professor he was to be sent to Riverdale as the new retreat director. Father Regan was told to first spend a year at Jamaica, New York to gain understanding of the nuts and bolts of running a retreat movement. By December 1965 Father Regan was living at Blessed Strambi Retreat as retreat director of the yet unbuilt retreat house. His first challenge was to face Passionist Father Bonaventure Gonnella, who had been living there and raising money, and who was under the impression that he was to be the new retreat director. “It became a very embarrassing thing” when Father Regan assumed the reigns rather than Father Gonnella. Father Regan had to overcome many hurdles to succeed in planning and promotion.

Challenges faced in building Cardinal Spellman

I personally lived at Riverdale from 1992 to 1995. This started me thinking about the architecture, so I invited Father Regan to answer some long-standing questions about this Passionist spiritual oasis in the Bronx.

  • The retreat house is three floors. Is it true that the original plan was to build four floors?Father Regan says yes. A major reason there is no fourth floor is that the Passionists “did not have the money.” Related to this, for example, were unexpected building costs such as putting wash basins into each retreat house room. While the older retreat houses of the past did not have this feature, the old guard Passionist Planning Commission-retreat directors and advisers; and Fathers Cosmas Shaugnessy, Lucian Ducie, Felix Hackett, Bonaventure Gonnella and Owen Lynch-debated the necessity of this for the spiritual experience of a retreatant and eventually agreed to the idea.Realistically, a look back shows overall Passionist planning had reached a crisis in 1965. Father Regan suggests that Riverdale faced a financial dilemma, because it was the “last of many projects” that had come to life in the mid-1950s. The Passionists had expanded their overseas missions to Jamaica, West Indies, and the Philippines. Atlanta, Georgia was a designated mission for Black Catholics. Other domestic building programs included additions to the retreat houses in West Springfield, Massachusetts and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and new retreat houses in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Why doesn’t the chapel have a view of the Hudson River?Eager to answer this question, Father Regan first said that it was important to remember that the Riverdale architect was Franciscan Brother Cajetan Baumann, the first religious to ever be named to the American Institute of Architects. Father Regan had no problem with where the kitchen, dining room, and lounge were built. But the chapel was another story. “I could not believe that people sitting in the chapel could not look out on the Hudson River and the Palisades, which we know,” recalled Father Regan, “is never going to have any industrial or commercial construction. It was going to be pure nature. And I said to Cajetan, ‘why did you do that?’ And his answer-I remember it vividly-was, ‘Sacred space is enclosed space.'” According to Father Regan, the Archdiocese had a say as well. “That chapel, it was determined that it was not to be a separate building,” as was built by the Passionists at North Palm Beach, Florida. Rather, they said, “It must be inside the [retreat house] building because St. Margaret’s were scared stiff that they would cut into their flock.” Good relations between the Passionists and the Archdiocese remained a value.
  • Were there any other challenges during the building process?Father Regan thought there were several. One was the two pillars in the retreat house lobby: “I walked into that lobby when…the steel work was done and they began putting up the flooring. And I walked into the space that I recognized as the lobby, and I saw these two huge pillars right in the middle of the lobby. And I said to Cajetan, ‘That wasn’t a big span. Why have you got two pillars in the middle of the lobby? It is so small.’ He said, ‘we would have had the largest piece of steel supporting that area.’ I said, ‘why didn’t we?'” In the end, Father Regan recalls, Brother Baumann reasoned that, “it costs too much.”Father Regan remembers Baumann “did put a beam to support that arch that was bigger than any beam that’s on the George Washington Bridge.” Speaking about when it was erected into place, Father Regan said, “They had to bring in two derricks. One derrick couldn’t have supported it.” As a result, the steeple is an “extremely heavy construction.”Looking back, Father Regan says he “lost both fights” over the chapel and lobby because at that early stage he was more an observer than a participant as regards the actual building of Riverdale. First, as mentioned above, he was not on the Passionist building commission. Second, he believes Passionist leadership at the time thought he lacked required consultative experience, because he had “never run a retreat house.”
  • What do you remember most about starting retreat promotion?In the beginning, Father Regan knew only a couple of parishes would have the numbers to fill the entire retreat house. Personal promotion was key. He made at least five visits to every parish before he considered a “parish was in my back pocket. To the pastor, to a group, bring them here, form a leadership, and then have a day of recollection for that group. And then, after that, the leadership of the parish was in the hands of the parish men, so I seldom went back to it.” Whereas the Staten Island, New York Jesuit Manresa Retreat House relied upon developed associations with Catholic professionals such as doctors and lawyers, the Passionists recruited from parish organizations.Overall, parish relationships were “excellent.” Cardinal Spellman and especially Cardinal Terence Cook never tired of bringing people to visit Riverdale. Father Regan had about 90 of an expected 100 parishes under the retreat house umbrella when it opened in 1967. First year of operations lost $3,000, which “was nothing,” says Regan. Ministry on weekend retreats and weekday high school programs gave him one day off each week.
  • What was the average age of the retreatants in the late 1960s?”We never brought in the crowd in their 30s,” says Regan, adding that they were too busy. The youngest tended to be men in their 40s. In time, Father Regan came to the conclusion that “the promoter brings in people who are within five years of his age group, so the 50-year-old man is in contact with the 45 and 55.” So the hope was always to find at least one or two young promoters. Although promotion in newspapers, parish bulletins or even preaching in the pulpit was important, it was just as important for the men themselves to be in a “sociable situation” where there was the opportunity to make a personal retreat invitation via phone calls or socials. The speaker’s bureau emerged later as a way to inspire the men “to become leaders and promoters” to draw recruits for the next year.
  • What about the theology of retreats in the late 1960s?There was no team ministry. Passionist Father Cyril Schweinberg was the first retreat preacher, so Father Regan could concentrate on organization, promotion and administration. Interestingly, Father Regan says this was a time of “defensive theology” in that the Passionist retreat was defending implementation of the directives of the Second Vatican Council! For example, retreatants saw an instructional liturgy video on the history of changes in Mass. It illuminated many men who thought that “Jesus had never changed it.” Second, he remembers the words of Passionist Father Joe Leo Flynn, who founded the West Hartford, Connecticut retreat house: “New Yorkers are more conservative than they are in Hartford.” Consequently, there were a lot of “problems” that the Riverdale retreat movement had to contend with, in particular were the race relations as perceived by Italian retreatants from Yonkers as well as the result from Vatican II. Says Father Regan, “[There were] changes taking place. And we were probably in a defensive mode and giving a positive turn to what was happening.” In other words, Father Regan reminds us that the post-Vatican II period was a time when many people wanted change and many people did not want change. Being a time of many theological moods Cardinal Spellman Retreat offered a place of education and spiritual stability for people in the parishes.
  • Why did you leave the retreat house?Living in 2007 at the Passionist Residence where he had first lived in 1965 allowed Father Regan to answer the question in a reflective manner. Recalling how he was always excited and animated by those early years of administration, preaching, providing the sacraments, and pastoral ministry, he admits that “after seven years I had ground down.” Election to Passionist provincial leadership in 1971 made him “very happy” as he found he was “being eaten up” by the time demanded by the men and increasingly women at Cardinal Spellman Retreat. He and they had come to depend on each other. Father Regan knew a new moment was on the horizon for him and other Passionists. How were they to help Riverdale retreatants live their faith in “age of the laity” in the years ahead?

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