Five Seconds to Air: An Historical Essay on Passionist Electronic Media—Radio and Television
by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
In 2004 Father Michael Salvagna, C.P. asked me to investigate the history of the Passionist television ministry. Digging through seven aisles of accumulated Passionist documentation at the archives in Union City, New Jersey and having informal discussions with various people led me to conclude that the real story is about Passionist electronic media-the combined ministry of Passionist radio and television. The following essay, which is part of a larger historical inquiry, introduces three key individuals who have shaped Passionist electronic media.
Beyond the scope of my study was the history of Passionist print media as seen in The Sign Magazine published between 1921-1982; the 1956 Passionist vocation movie Modern Crusaders; and the wide range of Passionist-affiliated audio/visual material produced over the last decade.
To understand the history of Passionist electronic media in the wider context of Catholic religious broadcasting read Dale Francis, “The Press and Communications.” in The American Apostolate edited by Leo Richard Ward, C.S.C. (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 278-285; Robert W. McChesney, “Crusade Against Mammon: Father Harney, WLWL, and the Debate Over Radio in the 1930s.” Journalism History 14 (Winter 1987): 118-130; Tona J. Hanagen, Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion & Popular Culture in America (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
Father Fidelis Rice, C.P.
Passionist historical tradition correctly honors Father Fidelis Rice, C.P. as the founder of Passionist electronic media. In a 1974 audio interview Rice recalled that his understanding of media and ministry went back to 1939. Then, a student priest in Rome, the Berwick, Maine native-son born in 1908 and ordained as a Passionist in 1936, listened to Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Sertum Laetitae, which specifically praised the radio as a “marvelous invention and eloquent image of the Apostolic Faith that embraces all mankind.” Rice’s opportunity to apply modern technology for evangelization came to life at St. Ann’s Monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1941 Vice-Rector Father Alfred Weaver, C.P. thought it was a good idea to get the popular St. Ann’s Novena on radio. Because Father Benedict McNamara, C.P. was ill at the time, Weaver asked Rice to pursue the possibility of radio. Beginning in February 1942 WGBI radio agreed to broadcast the Monday novena services under the condition that the same priest, in this case Rice, do all nine services. In 1974 Rice recalled how the experience led him to think that there might be a possibility to develop a Passionist radio program for the congregation and its ministry to preach the passion and death of Jesus Christ.
1953 saw Rice assigned to Our Mother of Sorrows Retreat, West Springfield, Massachusetts where he used a tape recorder to teach Sacred Eloquence-preaching skills-to newly ordained Passionist priests. That same year, Rice gave a talk on WREB radio, Holyoke, Massachusetts to promote the New England Congress of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine under the auspices of the Springfield Diocese. Conversations between Father Rice and WREB Program Director John Vondell commenced which resulted in Father Rice working with the seminarians to produce and air a single Lenten show on Ash Wednesday, March 3, 1954 on WREB. Its success led to the regular production of radio program The Hour of the Crucified. Eventually, Rice purchased production equipment which allowed him to produce a show which aired on various radio stations nationwide. In time, a Weekly Bulletin was published which contained prayers, hymns by a guest choir, a radio editorial, and a talk by a special guest speaker which included many Passionist and lay speakers. In later years, the radio show changed its name to Crossroads, even as it maintained, in general, the same format. In the early 1970s between three hundred and three hundred and fifty tapes were being distributed for broadcast nationally and internationally. Even though the 1970s and 1980s continued to see the Passionists assign numerous personnel to the radio ministry, it was eventually decided to stop Crossroads in 1988.
The 1970s proved to be a time of experimentation as well. The Passionist-sponsored Stotts Report (1975) reveals that, for a short time, an effort was made to reach the increasing number of United States Spanish-speaking Catholics by developing Crossroads into a show of ten minute talks, music, readings and prayer known as Encrucijada. At one point tapes were sent to twenty-four stations in the United States, as well as in Central and South America. It is unknown as to whether archive copies of the show remain.
Father Fidelis Rice was fortunate enough to provide religious programing during the early years of United States television industry. In 1954 Mr. William Putnam, President and Owner of Television Station WWLP in Springfield asked Father Rice if he would preach the three hours Good Friday devotion at the station in the same manner that it was done in church. Eventually this developed into a weekly Sunday television Mass known as The Chalice of Salvation. More study is needed to understand the leadership shown by the various Passionists who were assigned to coordinate both the radio and television ministry which they often had to manage at the same time. Presently, Brother Terrence Scanlon, C.P. continues his ministry on the staff of The Chalice of Salvation even as the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts takes responsibility for the overall operations and ministry.
Father Mark Connolly
Present-day Passionist Communications operating out of Pelham, New York was initiated through the effort of Father Mark Connolly. Ordained as Father Colman Connolly, C.P. in 1957, he later chose to be called Father Mark-his baptismal name. Assigned first to St. Ann’s Monastery, Scranton, Father Connolly found quite satisfying the several opportunities he had to celebrate the live Sunday television Mass on WDAU Channel 22-a direct outgrowth of the highly successful television broadcasts of St. Ann’s Novena. Subsequently, Father Connolly was pleased by the success generated by a series of Novena talks given as part of The Catholic Hour, the radio broadcast from the Archdiocese of Boston.
Correctly, in 1968, Father Connolly came to the conclusion that the time had come to investigate developing a Passionist-sponsored television Mass in the Archdiocese of New York. In December 1970 the first half-hour Sunday television Mass was broadcast on WOR-TV, Channel 9 in New York City. Originally called Values for the 70s, it became more practical to call it The Sunday Mass. From 1970 to 1985, WOR-TV carried the program. In the early years the show was taped in advance at the Channel 9 studios in the heart of Times Square, New York. Since the 1970s, Passionists who have participated in the ministry have lived in Riverdale and later Pelham Manor, New York. Offices have been located at the Cardinal Spellman Retreat and The College of Mount St. Vincent in Riverdale, New York. Present offices are in Pelham, New York.
Interestingly, the Passionist venture faced early opposition from the Archdiocese of New York Liturgical Commission who feared that somehow a televised Mass would lead to a decrease in local Sunday parish collections. Fortunately, Father Connolly assured pastors this would not be the case. Furthermore, support for The Sunday Mass from Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York was invaluable. He saw the televised mass to be a source of spiritual nourishment and grace for the many Catholics with disabilities who might be unable to attend a Sunday liturgy. To assist these viewers, in December 1972 Father Connolly wisely started to publish the TV Prayer Guide. It continues as an invaluable means of outreach.
Clemons Productions was initiated by Father Connolly in order to create a video series called That’s the Spirit. In all one hundred and seven shows were produced between 1981 and 1987. Shows tended to be thematic and accentuated spiritual and social religious issues of the day. Whenever possible interviews were conducted with notable personalities such as Coretta Scott King, Governor of New York Mario Cuomo, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
While a complete history of New York-based Passionist television remains to be written—this includes debates among the Passionists themselves around the issues of finances and personnel—it is important to stress that there has been every effort to understand how this historic ministry begun by Father Connolly continues on today. Even St. Ann’s Media, a Passionist-sponsored ministry which began in Scranton in 1991 exists as part of the present day umbrella called Passionist Communications. For more information go to www.thesundaymass.org.
Christmas 1971 saw the beginning of Radio Station DXCP in General Santos City, Philippines under the auspices of Bishop Reginald Arliss, C.P. of the Diocese of Marbel. Father George Nolan was the director. Ordained in 1949, Father Nolan eventually was assigned to West Springfield where he was associated with Father Rice, C.P. during the beginnings of the Passionist radio and television apostolate. In 1958 Father Nolan was assigned to the Philippines.
Information obtained for the Stotts Report showed that DXCP was on the air from 5 A.M to 10 P.M. daily. To defray expenses commercial advertising was accepted. During the time of martial law in the Philippines the radio station had to walk a political tightrope. For a variety of reasons, it was commonplace at that time to tape radio shows rather than to air live broadcasts. Each day one could tune in to a variety of religious broadcasting which included Scripture spots every half-hour, religious music, Mass on the radio-this included a broadcast message-as well as dramatic presentations. It was not uncommon to hear shows on moral or social issues. Over the years shows have been broadcast in Tagalog, Cebuano, and English. Father Nolan died in 1985 in the Philippines.
When it began in 1971 a good many people in the Philippines did not have access to television so radio played an important role. Historians may be interested to see how, overtime, DXCP a radio station has emerged from its Passionist roots so as to broadcast today on 585 AM (5000 watts) from General Santos City.