Lay Retreats: The Image Of A New Passionist & National Apostolate In The Sign During The 1920s

Home / Lay Retreats: The Image Of A New Passionist & National Apostolate In The Sign During The 1920s

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

During its first decade (1921-1930), The Sign magazine actively promoted the Passionist and national retreat movement.

Passionist retreats were conducted for men. A retreat master, not a retreat team gave the program. Retreatants appear to have come from professional interest groups not parish based groups. As the apostolate grew, national organization of laymen from various Passionist retreats appeared to be a greater priority than it was organizing Passionists who preached to the retreatants. Emphasis was on spiritual rather than educational development.

Retreats and the Lay Apostolate, by Edward W. Joyce (September 1921) presented the retreat movement as a sacred oasis in the desert of modern culture which was overcome by war and modern science. “A retreat,” wrote Joyce, “begins the social regeneration…by purifying the soul and properly directing the will of man, the social unit.” During the three day “cloistered quiet of the monastery” the article described how Passionist monasteries at St. Gabriel’s, Brighton, MA; Chicago, IL; Holy Cross Prep at Dunkirk, NY; and St. Paul’s Monastery, Pittsburgh, PA; gave men “time for reflection upon the true value of life.” Time at the foot of the Cross, holy Mass, and Papal Blessing at the end of the experience emphasized that a personal relationship with God was paramount in order to combat “revolution,” “divorces,” and “the diminution in the birth-rate.” Retreatants, according to Joyce, were the “Knights of Faith,” the “lay apostles” resembling Spartans at Thermopylae defending the faith of America, the world, and the Church in the 1920s. Joyce certainly gave the impression that the retreats conducted by the Passionists were providing spiritual stability in an unstable world.

The following month George Philson continued the theme in his article “The Lay-Retreat Movement Necessary in America.” Once again modern industrial society was the villain leading Catholics to “indifference in matters of belief, a tolerance of false ideals of family life, loose morals, vile, and anti-Christian literature, false standards of honesty in business, a defiance of authority—Socialism and a host of other errors.” Retreats, so important for the clergy and religious and promoted by Pope Pius X in 1904, were the means to revitalize the spirit. Philson then when on to point out that members of the Catholic hierarchy saw the Passionist efforts in Brighton, MA, and Pittsburgh, PA, as signs of new hope. Two of the three groups of Boston retreatants pictured in the article appeared to be professionals; employees of Boston City Hall and a businessmen’s retreat.

Passionist editor of The Sign, Fr. Harold Purcell, believed that the magazine should be a means to promote Catholic principles and educate the public on new Catholic ventures. John J. Sullivan’s “The Laymen’s Week-end Retreat League of Philadelphia” (June 1922) described the genesis of the Malvern, PA, retreat movement. It was an outgrowth of retreats for laymen conducted at St. Charles Borremeo Seminary and the desire of a Catholic layman, John J. Ferreck, “to establish a permanent home for retreatants in the beautiful suburbs of that city.” Privacy and solitude were essential for the fifty-five acre site and turn-of-the century mansion. Approved by Cardinal Dougherty, Malvern was unique in that it was incorporated by laymen, not the diocese. The retreat was dedicated on May 21, 1922, and the first retreat master was St. Charles Seminary professor, Rev. Joseph M. Corrigan, D.D. Sullivan went on to point out that the retreat provided a comfortable place to “see things in proper perspective” and return “with a desire to do something for the Church.” To ensure “privacy and detachment” Malvern did not plan to go beyond fifty men, and the retreat season appeared to have a winter break from mid-November to April. A Malvern retreat weekend in 1922 cost $10.

Women were key participants in the national retreat movement. In the August 1922 issue a noted Catholic evangelist, Martha Moore Avery, wrote an article on “Womens Retreats in the United States.” Stressing the retreat tradition in Holy Mother Church, the article mentioned how promotion for women’s retreats, The Cenacle movement, was conducted through the Catholic press and through “placards in a conspicuous place in vestibules or entrances” of Churches. While open to all the article announced “special retreats are for particular classes, such as married women, single women, professional women, school teachers, nurses, business women, etc.” Over a three year period four thousand women had made a retreat at The Cenacle in New York; one thousand at Newport, RI; in 1921 “one thousand one hundred and sixty-seven” came to The Cenacle in Brighton, MA; and since 1911 one hundred and fifty retreats brought in over four thousand women to the Passionist Nuns at Carrick, PA. The building of new retreat centers for women, as well as summer retreats at Catholic academies, showed the movement was prospering. Normally, women’s retreats were conducted by priests who encouraged the women to go “to her home, a better mother, a better daughter, or better wife there diffusing the sweet perfume of a spotless life.”

“The Laymen’s Retreat Movement in Scranton” was advertised in the October 1922 issue. The article underscored how the first floor of St. Ann’s Passionist Monastery was being converted for the new retreatant movement in the belief that “the Monastic environment would be helpful to the retreatants.” Even a “prolonged coal strike [which] had paralyzed nearly every activity in Scranton” could not dampen the enthusiasm of the first group who were visited by Bishop Michael J. Hoban. The June 1923 issue concentrated on St. Paul’s Monastery, Pittsburgh, and the retreatants from the Knights of Columbus who decided to promote a weekend for members of the Pittsburgh Public Safety Department. Fr. Stanislaus Grennan, C.P., was the retreat preacher.

The Sign feature “Current Fact and Comment” remarked on both the Passionist retreat movement and national trends. The February 1922 issue told how there was an emerging interest in retreats for “young men and boys;” and in June 1922 the emergence of retreat leagues in the mid-west was described. The October 1922 issue noted how retreatants from Buffalo and Jamestown, NY; Erie, PA; and Toronto and Hamilton, Canada; traveled to Holy Cross College at Dunkirk, NY, for a retreat. Success at Dunkirk, Pittsburgh and Boston meant the Passionists were planning to build newer facilities. At the same time the national retreat movement mourned the death of Jesuit retreat promoter, Terence J. Shealy, in the above-mentioned article and in the October 1923 issue. In May 1924, the focus was on the building of the new Passionist monastery and weekend retreat center at Jamaica, NY. The retreat experience, stated the November 1925 issue, was also advocated by the 69th General Convention of the Catholic Verein of America. A November 1927 column announced that delegates “financiers, lawyers, physicians, social workers, college men and laborers” from five Passionist retreat centers gathered in Brighton, MA, to organize the St. Paul’s United Retreat League Convention. By February 1930, The Sign was able to report that retreats were being advocated by the Pope to combat “modern evils” of the world.

C. P. Williams’ “Week-End Retreats for Laymen” in The Sign (April 1925) informed readers that the Passionist retreat programs in Brighton, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Dunkirk and Jamaica, NY, were participating in a new national apostolate. The article told how spiritual exercises combated the “era of materialism and rationalism.” Completing a retreat, the individual “leaves the monastery and returns to the world a far different man.” In the June 1927 article, “‘I Am For It’: What an Intrigued Soul Personally Discovered” by Edmund B. Maloney, readers were informed about his retreat experience at St. Ann’s Monastery, Scranton, with twenty-four participants: former WWI soldiers, “builders, merchants, and nondescript business men.” Maloney described the intimacy of the chapel, the preaching method of the Retreat Master, and the presence of “[f]orty young students preparing for Holy Orders” who set the tone for the retreat devotions. A monastic schedule was the model. Several months later the feminine retreat experience at the Passionist Nuns outside Scranton was described by Julia O’Flann in “The Woman’s Side of It: As Discovered in Greenridge, Pa.” (December 1927). Greenridge was a converted mansion and among the nineteen female retreatants were school teachers, the wife of a leading merchant, a private secretary to a bank president, a young dentist, and two telephone operators. The retreat master was a Passionist preacher who spoke of the “womanly qualities of Jesus Christ” and the duties of the modern Catholic woman “in the home or in the business world; her place in the scheme of society and the mind of the Church.” The hospitality of the Passionist Nuns provided sharp contrast to those who might be partial to “the foolish feministic fads which seem to have such a fascination for so many of her sex.”

After almost a ten year hiatus, Edward Warren Joyce wrote “Retreats and the Lay-Apostolate: A Layman Writes for Laymen” (April 1930) linking the personal retreat experience with the national lay-apostolate movement. Joyce perceived the relationship would lead to a Twentieth Century Renaissance that would revitalize evil and atheistic America. The retreat movement would also encourage lay street preaching parallel to the English Catholic Evidence Guild, such activity could help remedy “the shortage of priests” in the United States. Joyce believed the retreat movement would also increase converts to Catholicism and remove anti-Catholic bias.

The Sign articles show that the Passionist retreat houses were not offering isolated spiritual experiences. Instead, in their concern for returning their retreatants back to their parishes as committed, devout Catholics ready and willing to work for Church and Gospel, they should be seen as part of the mainstream of a larger national Catholic movement—the lay apostolate.

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