Historical Amnesia Part II: Passionist Life from the Roaring 20’s through WWII Chapter Decrees from 1926-1944

Home / Historical Amnesia Part II: Passionist Life from the Roaring 20’s through WWII Chapter Decrees from 1926-1944

by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

Provincial Chapters 1926-1944 indicate the Passionists becoming more organized, a continued interest in foreign missions and life-style that was highly structured. To summarize these issues, the material below is divided into three parts. Part One looks at the “Preliminary” comments which introduced the Chapters. These introductions, show a steady belief that Passionist religious life had consistent meaning as witness to Gospel life and an internal rather than public sense of Passionist existence. Part Two: The Issues provides a summary of some of the various issues discussed in this period. Part Three: The Decrees provides a summary of the legislative means in which the Passionists tried to reconcile daily life of prayer with zeal for the apostolate.

I. “Preliminary” Comments: defining the Passionist pulse

In 1926 Passionists praised the Eucharistic Congress held in Chicago. Love and devotion brought together Catholic lay pilgrims, priests, sisters and ecclesiastical authorities: bishops and cardinals. A high point was the visit of Passionist Superior General Leo Kierkels to the Congress and the hospitality of the Holy Cross Province Passionists in Chicago.

Shock and mourning was the mood among the Passionists who gathered for the June 1929 Chapter. While the economic problems of the 1929 Stock Market Crash were months away, these men were trying to balance the progress of seventy five years of Passionist presence in the United States with the tragic April murders in China of brother Passionists Walter Coveyou, Clement Seybold and Godfrey Holbein. Killed by bandits, “the news of the assassination,” it was stated, “startled the whole of the great Catholic body in the United States.” Interestingly, what bound the past successes and present calamity of the Passionist together was a sense of witness to the Gospel and the ideals of St. Paul of the Cross. Pride in their heroism based in faith was sobering in that it brought home the fact that Passionist life was a daily struggle albeit for the future good of the Congregation and the Church.

Preliminary reflections at the 1932 Chapter are more serious and less pious than previous years. Surprisingly, it is not the seriousness of a nation facing economic depression; rather it is the hopeful seriousness of a maturing Passionist presence whose apostolate “must continue: Our missionaries are successful; our houses are flourishing; vocations are numerous; the missions in China are prospering; the Sign Magazine is hailed as the best Catholic publication of its kind in the country.” This wide range Passionist “apostolic labor” however, had to “harmonize…with the spirit of solitude, penance and prayer.”

By 1935 the delegates were feeling the effects of “a world-wide depression, and with it, moral problems, which try men’s souls.” There was fear of possible war in Europe. Concern was voiced for the welfare of the Church in Mexico, Russia, and Germany. At home, all this was influencing the Passionists. “Growth and development” had been a key element of the past and remained a hope for the future. But this Chapter realized that success “lies to a great extent in the hands” of the elected leaders. The urgent tone was compounded by the reverential presence of Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara of Yuanling, China. In sum, a hopeful and prudent realism seemed to be the mood at the beginning of this Chapter.

While the 1938 Chapter simply desired prayers for its success, the 1941 Chapter was considered momentous because of future threats. They came from many sides. Prayers were needed for worthy religious “government and legislation” for the future. At the same time world chaos had raised its ugly head in the guise of two movements “threatening to undermine Christian civilization.” They were Totalitarianism: “an organized movement relentlessly opposed to every institution which stands in its path, and manifesting contemptuous and intolerant disregard of every opinion at variance with its own” and anti-Christian philosophy: “is unorganized and less obvious” through the “guise of learning, of scientific thought, [by which] it generates in the minds of youth suspicions, doubts and open rejection of Christian doctrines and the fundamental principles underlying Christian morality.” To combat this it was urged to follow the call of the Holy Father to bring God back into society. Also religious life has “a divine remedy” for the social crisis through obedience; the economic crisis by poverty; and the moral crisis by chastity.

Those gathering in Jamaica, New York for the 1944 Chapter were greeted by telegram from Titus, the Passionist Superior General. It was sent by way of the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, D.C. Because of World War II the mood was somber though it was noted that the Passionist Province had men whose gifts and talents proved exceptional for the time. These gifts would have to be exploited for the good of the Gospel and the Congregation.

II. The Issues: getting down to politics, voting and prayer at the Provincial Chapters

It was common to begin each chapter session with a short ritual of prayer prior to addressing the issues. Unlike the Provincial Chapters held after Vatican II (1962-1965) Chapter participants were limited: the representative from Rome, the Provincial, his Consultors (there were only two Consultors from 1926-1944) the Rectors of the respective monasteries (the 1944 Chapter had eight) and the Master of Novices. Several themes dominate Chapters between 1926-1944:

Elections: This was often done mid-way through the Chapter meeting. Most chapters lasted five or six days. Before elections voting members had time for prayer and took an oath “de secreto servando” which was done to insure an opportunity for honest discussion of candidates for leadership positions. Election of the Provincial was followed by election of Consultors, then Rectors. The election of Rectors proved to be most interesting because often times the delegates had to wait for telegrams to be sent and answered. Some Rectors were not all that eager to accept. For instance John Francis Vanston in 1926 “after some hesitation, …acquiesced in the will of the Chapter.”

Reports: Each Chapter had different concerns. Finances always merited attention. Seminary education was important. A proper balance between prayer life and class time of students was a frequent topic of discussion. For example professional training of Lectors, (professors) at the L’Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and at The Catholic University in Washington, D.C. was encouraged in 1926. Lectors were also praised in the 1941 Chapter. The manual work and prayer of the lay Brothers were always scrutinized. The apostolic work of priests devoted to parish work was praised and the Sign Magazine was evaluated in 1938 and again in1941. Growth continued even during the Depression in the United States. Delegates to the 1935 Chapter received reports on new foundations: Riverdale, NY; Washington, D.C.; Toronto, Canada. In 1938 the new Directorium of Missions received commendation.

The 1941 Chapter exhibited an appreciation of Passionist history when it suggested “that wherever feasible portraits of deceased members of distinction of this Province be displayed in a suitable place” in Passionist houses accompanied by short sketches of their lives.

Singular attention was given to the Missions for the Colored in North Carolina. The 1938 Chapter reported on how the efforts of the Passionists “are bringing forth abundant spiritual fruit, breaking down deep-rooted prejudice, and sowing the seeds of future flourishing Catholic Negro communities.” The 1941 Chapter also spoke of the mission: “Toiling under severe handicaps, due to poverty and prejudice, these Fathers, nevertheless, carry on their great work for the salvation of God’s lowliest children. Their work is appreciated all the more because these domestic mission fields are devoid of glamour and romance that might attach to distant mission fields.” The comments ended with the observation that efforts “are bearing fruit slowly, but fruit that is sound and lasting.” In the 1944 Chapter a letter to the Passionists from Bishop Eugene McGuiness, Bishop of Raleigh, North Carolina was entered in full into the minutes. Notable is the Bishop’s hope that a Passionist Monastery be established in his diocese.

Report of Roman Visitor: The Superior General made a brief and general report before and after elections in 1926. In 1932 the address of General Consultor Bonaventure Oberst was printed in full. While praising growth in the province he warned of possible abuse or laxity in observing the Rules and Customs of the Congregation. In 1938 the General gave a short, pious address to the delegates. In general, the minutes indicate Roman visitors did not exhibit their power during the deliberative process of discussion when the Chapter was in session. At the same time there is every indication that their presence was welcome by the Chapter Delegates.

Proposal: In retrospect one proposal captures attention. In 1926 it was suggested that St. Mary’s Retreat in Dunkirk, NY be given up in favor of a site nearer the city of Buffalo.

The China Missions: Every chapter discussed China. Representatives from the mission gave reports: Dominic Langenbacher (1926); Raphael Vance and Theophane Maguire (1929); William Westhoven (1932 and 1941); Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara (1935); Quentin Olwell (1938) and Raphael Vance (1944). The reports were printed in full in 1932-1941. This indicates the power of the China mission on Passionist life and psyche and shows that mission work had a direct relationship (perhaps sometimes overly so) with decision-making back in the United States. Such a relationship was necessary because of three concerns: more missionaries were needed for China, money was always desired, and prayerful support was crucial.

German Foundation: this effort was discussed in the 1926 Chapter where an appeal was made for “moral and material support.”

III. Chapter Decrees: Decisions Made by Delegates to Live out Passionist Life and Apostolic Activity.

Looking back one is struck by the detail of decrees passed between 1926-1944. Passionist life in the monastery and in the apostolate was governed by uniform rules and regulations. Prayer, study, recreation, dress, preaching, and social intercourse all receive attention. Throughout these years it is obvious that organization of financial holdings required more and more attention. For example, the 1926 Chapter decreed that local Passionist superiors should conform with State Corporation Laws. In 1932 it was decreed that houses look into the question of insurance and by 1935 professional help on this issue was deemed necessary. In 1944 a Benefactors Society, i.e. mass cards operations was initiated province wide and a yearly collection was to be taken up to support the Prep Seminary.

Other decrees included how Passionists working in parishes, presumably attached to the monasteries, were to balance work and prayer. Those priests conducting Parish Missions between 1926-1944 had little opportunity to be creative preachers. Parish missions followed prescribed rituals with Holy Hours. Also it was common for the Province to print Passionist prayer books for common prayer usage (1926). Retreats, recreation and academic study always demanded attention.

The 1929 Chapter supported efforts in China and gave special attention to the German foundation by making it a canonical retreat and paying a subsidy of $5,000 each year for six years. The 1932 Chapter desired to re-established a canonical community at St. Mary’s Monastery, Dunkirk, NY.

Some decrees show the struggle which Passionist life faced with modernity and changing technology. While it might be attractive to say that these regulations represented a harshness and penitential life, they also indicate a struggle to maintain a sense of solitude and prayer.

For example the 1926 chapter passed a decree that telephones “be listed under the name of the Monastery.” “Realizing the evils attendant upon a common smoking room, particularly the frequent breaking of silence and loss of valuable time,” the 1929 Chapter “prohibits a common smoking room.” But common permission was given to smoke in common recreation. Smoking outside this time and buying tobacco required permission of the local superior. The 1929 Chapter also decreed that use of butter be permitted for use in the morning and stated that ordination and souvenir cards had to be “furnished by the Rector” and “no banquets or receptions be held outside of the home of young priests.”

Rectors and Mission Superiors were reminded in 1935 “of the obligation resting on Junior Fathers at home or abroad, not to drink spirituous liquors.” At the same time none of the Brethren “can claim vacations” but “occasional periods of rest to those who, on account of their work, need such rest” be permitted. Whenever possible this was to be done in Passionist houses.

In 1938 decrees gave a great deal of attention to the importance of the Director of Passionist students: he was “not to be used as a secretary or general utility man by the Rector” and was rarely to go away “for the sake of the ministry or on business.” Students on the other hand were to “cultivate no contact with seculars.” So as to “prevent a spirit of worldliness” students were not allowed to have radios in common recreation and could only listen on special occasion. High school seminary students while at home on vacation were urged to be given “stringent rules, with sanctions, so as to safeguard” their vocation.

In 1941 it was decreed that a monk could own only one watch while “the wearing of gaudy or expensive watch-guards” was forbidden. Rules on personal income became more of a concern and Rectors were told “to stop the abuse in the borrowing of automobiles by our Religious.”

The 1944 Chapter indicates a retrenchment of spirit. Among the interesting decrees is a monthly day of recollection for all monks; celebration of the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving; priests who had not been ordained at least five years and Brothers professed for the same were prohibited from use of liquors at home or abroad. Publication royalties belonged to the Province. It was recommended that transfer of religious from one monastery to another be done smoothly. Also religious may not join Fraternal Organizations nor accept an office outside the Community without permission of the Provincial.

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