Historical Amnesia Part III: The American Catholic Interlude

Home / Historical Amnesia Part III: The American Catholic Interlude

1947-1959–Post World War II to the Pre-Vatican II Era

by Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.

American public culture and world awareness is more evident in the Passionists Chapter of St. Paul of the Cross Province (1947-1959) than in any time during the twentieth century. Qualities of religious leadership, expansion of new monasteries and ministries in the eastern province, and a kind of respectful, but definite anti-modern battle are among the themes that come across in the era under study. In part the growth is pronounced quite clearly through the use of statistics in 1953 and 1959. Hope is obvious in the explosion of Passionist ministries.


domestic missionaries, retreat masters and retreat directors average over 1400 missions, retreats and novenas a year. 46,733 laymen made week-end retreats; over 4,000 priests made their annual retreats from 1951 to July 1953. The Sign circulation increased from 210, 000 in 1951 to over 283,000 in June 1953. The three Passionist Colored Missions in North Carolina received over 82,000 dollars.


Professed religious numbered 537 religious: 416 priests, 80 students, and 41 brothers. It is of interest to note that brothers are listed numerically after students for it shows the ongoing struggle for the place of lay brothers within Passionist religious and clerical culture. The Sign had given “great financial assistance for the Province and our missions…. [and] in spite of many obstacles” continued its growth. Circulation went from 283,000 to 375,000 receiving mention before the preaching apostolate of 1,323 missions; 2,021 retreats, 750 week-end retreats in Passionist retreat houses; 639 novenas; and 332 tridua. Laymen and priests making retreats in Passionist houses numbered 65,187 and 3,762 priests, respectively. One wonders how the increasing ministry with Catholic women in the retreat ministries was being understood and interpreted at this time.

The Hour of the Crucified Radio Show also made the statistical list. Begun on Ash Wednesday, 1954 in Holyoke, MA the audience had become international being broadcast on 122 commercial stations in the U.S. as well as by outlets in Canada, Panama, Australia and the Philippines. Armed Forces Radio enabled the program to reach 72 independent stations. The Passionist Vocational Film, Modern Crusaders, was praised for its over 220 showings which reached over 19,000 people. Shown to prospective candidates of religious life as well as parents and teachers, a TV print film had reached a possible audience of 5,000,000.


The new mission in Jamaica, West Indies possessed statistical merit. 10 of 88 priests there were Passionists. Mission territory was over 818 square miles with 3,000 Catholics out of a population of 200,000. Since the Passionists’ arrival in 1955, 559 adults had been received into the faith; Sunday Mass and school attendance had doubled and a building program was underway despite “the spirit amongst the people as a whole is deeply Protestant, coupled with superstition among the ignorant.” The Philippines mission was served by 15 priests and 1 brother. The task at hand was “preserving the faith more than spreading the faith.” Of 275,000 Filipinos on Southern Cotabato approximately 90% were Catholic.

On the domestic front between 1956 and 1959 1,265 missions, 2,276 retreats, 537 novenas, 313 tridua were preached. 75,669 laymen and 3,661 priests made retreats in Passionist houses.

Passionist Daily Life:

How did Passionists spend their day? The Chapter of 1947 decree set forth a horarium that existed until the changes that took place in the 1960s as a result of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). Afternoon and evenings were:

2:15 PM Vespers and Spiritual Reading
2:45 PM Prayer
3:45 PM Study
6:00 PM Solitary Walk
6:30 PM Supper
7:00 PM Recreation
8:00 PM Compline and Night Prayer
8:35 PM Study
9:00 PM Retire

2:15 PM Vespers and Spiritual Reading
2:45 PM Study
5:00 PM Solitary Walk
5:30 PM Prayer
6:30 PM Supper
7:00 PM Recreation
7:45 PM Compline and Night Prayer
8:20 PM Study
9:00 PM Retire


Great attention is paid to the role of the religious superior. Election of the various monasteries occupied a crucial segment of time whenever Provincial representatives met in Chapter. Given the regimen observed in the above life, the Religious Superior of a monastery could make life easy or difficult. In 1947 some of the virtues sought among superiors to be elected were humility, prayerfulness, prudence and a love for the Rules and Regulations of the Congregation. In 1950 voting members were reminded that a superior had authority that was God-given. “Monasticism,” voters were reminded, “is a society within the Church” and must be led by some special leaders. Therefore, The Church “does not want subjects to fall under the oppression of dictatorship or autocratic arbitration.” Discretion was necessary to lead. A wise administrator was desirous as was “promoting and preserving a religious spirit in others.” To achieve these ends 1950 capitulars were told to look for men with “the positive quality of firmness” which was not “hard or tyrannical, emanating from a crude, proud, authoritative character, but rather a firmness clothed in gentleness” and with charity. The 1953 Chapter President reminded capitulars that “Superiors, as such, are not a ‘privileged class’ in the sense that this term is applied to persons holding high rank in social or military life.” Service for God and the religious was to be the goal. Self-interest was to give way to the common good. The 1956 Chapter sought men “endowed with the degree of patience and charity” and those “capable of administering the spiritual and temporal goods” and possessing “natural prudence elevated by their spiritual outlook.” The Chapter then went on to elaborate four “Qualifications of A Good Passionist Superior” which included love for the Congregation, an example to others, vigilance, and one who has experience and is able to “take it.” In the 1959 Chapter members were asked to reflect on the life of newly elected Pope John XXIII. Discretion was essential, compassion for others, possess “courage to correct delinquencies which imperil our way of life…without crushing the delinquents.” Ability to deal with spiritual and material matters in the face of secularism remained an essential vision. Ever present in all these exhortations through the years was the ever dynamic symbol of the Passionist founder—St. Paul of the Cross.

Missions – China.

The pre-Vatican II Chapters bring to conclusion the dominating presence of the Passionist mission to China. Every Provincial Chapter dealt with China from the 1920s through the 1950s. Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara became synonymous with China. One wonders about the balance of this reverence for the China experience. The Provincial Chapters had an obligation to gain information and vote while caught in a kind of larger than life scenario. In 1947 Raphael Vance addressed the Chapter reminding the members that it was the Silver Jubilee of the Chinese Mission. The Sign was thanked; the idea of a Passionist religious house in China was raised; possible representation of Chinese Missionaries as a kind of Vice-Province was put forth. The Chapter urged a canonical visitation of the China missions and concluded with a summary of how the mission had endured the conditions inherent in the Chinese environment and in Communism. The Very Reverend Carrol Ring, Provincial, thanked Fr. Raphael Vance, the veteran missionary and told him of the respect of the Chapter members for the mission. The succeeding Provincial, Gabriel Gorman, echoed the sentiments.

In the 1950 Chapter Bishop Cuthbert O’Gara was in the midst of fighting off a more direct Communist presence in Yuanling, China. Almost a year before being arrested O’Gara was able to get his thoughts on the China mission published as part of the Chapter proceedings. Speaking of political and social tensions, O’Gara affirmed the spiritual and temporal outreach of the mission. Morale of priests and sisters was high. Since its beginning, the mission, he went on to remind the Capitulars, “has passed through one crisis after another—the present one being undoubtedly the most serious.” But O’Gara was confident of success with the help of God even though the depreciation of the U.S. dollar put financial survival in a fragile state. The Capitulars expressed support for the mission.

Bishop O’Gara was able to present the full force of the China mission in 1953. Written a short time after his release from Communist prison, O’Gara’s June letter from his Hong Kong hospital bed thanked God and his Passionist brethren. But it was the June letter of Linus Lombard, still under house arrest in Yuanling, that set the tone. He told of limitations and restrictions for evangelization and Church structures being used by the government for their own purposes—except for the Church and Rectory at Yuanling and Chihkiang—though even they had a “reform society that has been appointed by the government to `arrange church matters and business.’ ” Lombard reported how provisions were being made for the Chinese to take over many of the pastoral duties and echoed O’Gara’s report that the government was exerting more control.

In 1956 Bishop O’Gara, based upon “an arrangement previously agreed upon,” spoke to the membership. He was now the living martyr who had survived the Communist persecution. After thanking the Chapter for the continued support of the mission he told the delegates that he and those expelled from China were “missionaries in exile.” Hope now rested on the native priests and sisters. He was still “their Bishop. If and when there comes a break in the Bamboo Curtain, we will return.” O’Gara saw prayer to be crucial and deemed it an essential part of his miraculous release from prison. He and all the returned missionaries were thankful. Interestingly, he even commented on his wondering about how he would adapt to Passionist community life after such a long absence. He praised his Passionist training, the Maryknoll Fathers and Passionist Anthony Maloney as well as Jesuits from Calcutta. O’Gara then gave a signal of how he would spend the years until his death in 1968. “whenever the opportunity has presented itself I have talked about the danger of Communism. It is,” he continued, “so important that America be warned of this danger, to arm against it while yet there is time.”

Missions – Austria and Germany:

In post-World War II America the Passionist presence in a reconstructed Europe obtained attention at the Chapters. In 1947 Victor Koch spoke of the two monasteries in Germany and one in Austria. Damages had been repaired but Koch implored that the Province send more Passionists. “We have reached a crisis.” There were only nine priests to staff a Prep Seminary, Novitiate and House of Professed Students. He then went on to explain how the Nazis had forced all American Passionists, except for himself, to return to the U.S. The Prep was forced to close; four Passionist theological students were killed in the war; two Passionist priests were still imprisoned in Russia; and postulants were studying in public universities. Two professed were at the Jesuit Institute. The Chapter discussed the situation. Koch said he desired ten more Passionists and thought that “the more liberal policy” of the U.S. government towards Germany would allow for their early departure. Koch also told how Germany and Austria faced a shortage of food fats. In the end the Province did send several new members.Missions – To “Colored” in the Southern U.S.:

The 1947 Chapter praised “the self-sacrificing devotion” of Passionists in the Southern Mission. In 1950, the China and southern mission fields were spoken of in the same breath, as had been done in the late 1920s in The Sign fundraising. Later on, the Chapter membership went on to praise this effort. As mentioned previously, the 1953 Chapter sent $82,000 over a three-year period to North Carolina and #6 Chapter Decree encouraged that “The Provincial Curia investigate the advisability of accepting a new foreign mission field and of extending our work among the Colored in the South.” Decree #11 accentuated this, stating that “Any qualified applicant, regardless of race or color, may be admitted to the Congregation.”

This interest in the Colored, Black Catholics or Southern missions surfaced again in 1956. That is when St. Paul of the Cross Province established new missions in Atlanta and Jamaica, West Indies. There was an update on progress in New Bern and Greenville, North Carolina. Reports were also made on the Passionist presence in Mexico City. In the midst of the civil rights movement in the South and the interest in post-World War II missionary activity all these efforts were expressed in Chapter affirmations “d” on the West Indies, “e” on the Colored and “f” on Mexico.

Assorted Issues:

To a great extent, interpreting Chapter Decrees is left up to the interest of the reader. I will conclude this historical essay with some comments on other issues discussed in Chapters 1947-1959. Issues of Canon Law always occupied some time. Of ongoing concern were finances and relationship between superiors and those members in respective monasteries. Regulation of prayer life received attention as well. Notable in 1950 was the decision to allow students to seek degrees through affiliation with neighboring universities. The Retreat Movement had finally come into its own yet there was a desire to keep the Retreat Director under the Direction of the Local Religious Superior. Promoting the Confraternity of the Passion proved to be a priority and appreciation of the support given the Passionists by Archbishop Cushing was expressed. Even the removal of fire hazards in the respective monasteries obtained attention in 1950. With TV ever more accessible the 1950 Chapter “forbids the keeping of television sets in our Monasteries.”

Among varied issues in 1953 was greater Provincial Organization to promote missions and retreats and establishment of a Refresher Course for the Province. Recommendations of the 1956 Chapter included an annual retreat; development of a Passiology course after ordination; continued affiliation with other academic institutions and establishing a Director of Clerical and Lay Brother Vocations. A pension plan for employees was also recommended as was health insurance for the Passionists. Decrees were made regarding prayer life, encouragement of high school retreats, organization of the retreat movement, jubilee celebrations. Missions and the TV apostolate were praised as was the effectiveness of our Military Chaplains. 1959 saw the Passionist presence continue to grow. The Chapter recommended establishing a retreat house in Riverdale, New York and a new foundation in Canada. Prayer was open to greater experimentation. Decrees included the idea that preaching at funerals of religious be discontinued. Six year terms of office in apostolates were envisioned and there was a ruling that the “Local Superior deny to all priests ordained after 1953 and all Brothers professed after the same year daily use of spirituous liquors.” News and financial appeals were directed to go through the Provincial and a full-time Vocation Director was to be appointed for each monastery.


The period under study shows that there was much ferment among the Passionists in the 1950s. It was subtle but real. Over time the Passionists were letting go of a traditionally strict style of spirituality and organization. A national and international presence was being debated and affirmed. While the future looked open, in retrospect this was not a revolutionary openness. Rather it appears to be an openness to controlled change that would be expressed with great vigor in the Conciliar and post-Conciliar years. The 1959 Chapter brought closure upon Passionist Chapter culture that would never be the same. The Aggiornamento of Vatican II would change the Passionists, the Church and society for ever.

Back to the Passionist Heritage Newsletter Archives »