New Year’s Day, 1900/1901

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by Roger Mercurio, C.P.

This material was gathered in 1988 as part of the research for the internal history of Holy Cross Province. Fr. Roger Mercurio examined chronicles available to him from Passionist foundations in existence in 1899. Given the interest in the upcoming millennium celebration, the material below shows that like today, the church was attempting to interpret the meaning of the twentieth century. Notice the citation sources in Rome, Passionist foundations and contemporary journals of the day.

On November 10, 1994 Pope John Paul II wrote a long apostolic letter entitled Tertio Millennio Adveniente. In this letter he gives a theological understanding of the jubilee, the preparations which have been made during this century and especially since the Vatican Council. Then he outlines specific plans for the final years leading up to the jubilee year itself, the year 2000 AD. The English translation can be found in Osservatore Romano weekly English edition, November 16, 1994 (special insert) and also in Origins, #24 (November 20, 1994) pp. 401-416. Reading this letter of Pope John Paul II we might wonder how Pope Leo XIII had prepared for the great jubilee year of 1900 during the final decade of the 1890s.

Background Notes

Pope Leo XIII announced a Holy Year, which would begin at first vespers on Christmas 1899 and close at first Vespers for Christmas 1900. Text is dated May 1899. The American Ecclesiastical Review [AER] vol. 21 (July 1899) pp. 62-73 published the text in both Latin and English. Leo XIII closed the 1800s by dedicating the entire world to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Again AER, vol. 21 (July 1899) pp. 73-79, published the text in Latin. One can also read it in The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII NY,1905, pp. 454-461.

Earlier Leo XIII had written an encyclical on July 16, 1892 on the fourth centennial of Columbus’s arrival in the new world of the Americas. In Chicago the Columbian Exposition was held in 1893. Several American bishops attended the congress on religions. January 6, 1895 Leo XIII wrote an exuberant letter on Catholicity in the United States, Longinqua Oceani (Great Encyclical Letters, pp. 264-270 & 320 335). This was a period of “good feeling” for Americans, Catholics and Passionists!

To a great extent Passionists were caught up in this enthusiasm. The first great Missionary Congress was held in Pittsburgh in 1894. The resolutions passed at this congress acclaim Passionist solidarity with the Pope’s and the American bishops’ efforts to meet the challenges of the era.

Two years later, August 22-27, 1896, American Passionists held the twelfth provincial chapter at St. Paul’s Monastery, Pittsburgh. The opening paragraphs of the Acts of the 1896 chapter glow with feelings of good will:

“It may be said that never before has the Chapter been assembled under better auspices, and amidst more sanguine expectations than in the present instance. The past three years have been remarkable for the peace of the Communities; the prosperity of the different Retreats; the number and extent of our ministerial labors; the acquisition of many and promising subjects, and the addition of a new Retreat, in which the observance has been kept up for nearly two years…”

From Our Chronicles

How did American Passionists observe the beginning of the twentieth century? We must turn to the chronicles in our archives. The chronicler of the Passionist community in St. Paul, Kansas, described the day as follows:

“The last year of the century or the Holy Year was ushered in with solemn midnight Mass and sermon, according to the wishes of the Supreme Pontiff, Leo XIII. The services were concluded with a solemn Te Deum in thanksgiving for God’s mercies and blessings during the year. Every available space was occupied in the church, some of those present having come as far as ten miles in spite of the inconvenience of the hour and the piercing cold which prevailed. The darkness and stillness of the night, relieved only by the lights at the altar and the chant of the choir, contributed in no small measure to the impressiveness of the services.” (Kansas Platea, I, p.19).

The Baltimore chronicler wrote:

“AD 1900 Jan 1, Monday. Leo XIII grants to the world the privilege of a Midnight Mass. Accordingly at 12:01 we had a Solemn High Mass by the Rector Joseph, C.P. Our church was crowded. Many received Holy Communion at this Mass. This will be repeated Jan 1st 1901 on the beginning of the 20th century.” (signed H.K.B [Hugh Barr] vol. iv St. Joseph’s Baltimore, p. 233).

The Louisville Chronicles informs us that there was a midnight Mass on January 1, 1901 – by a privilege granted by Pope Leo XIII – and Fr. Felix Ward “preached the first sermon of the new century” (from a Letter of Fr. Emil Womack, June 17, 1994).

The Cincinnati chronicles do not contain anything on the new year of 1900. The community was dispersed while the monastery was being built. The cornerstone of the new monastery was blessed on June 17, 1900 and the new building was blessed and opened on June 9, 1901. The chronicler does not mention the turn of the century!

Nor is there a reference to the new year or century in the Normandy chronicles! We do have the following from the diary of Alphonsus Kruip then a student at Normandy. He mentioned the silver jubilee celebration of the rector, Fr. Robert McNamara (on Sunday, December 29, 1899). Then he added:

“We had a midnight Mass here, Dec 31/Jan 1, 1900. I enjoyed it – it was a spiritual joy – a Solemn High Mass. Rector Robert celebrant. Chapel crowded – cold severe.”

Note that Alphonsus Kruip does not refer to the new century.

A Flaw in the Celebration?

There was one flaw in the celebration of 1900. In the final year of the 1890s on January 22, 1899 Pope Leo XIII shook the American church by the encyclical Testem Benevolentiae on “Americanism” (the text of Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical on Americanism is found in AER vol. 20, (April, 1899) p. 399-409 in Latin and in The Great Encyclical Letters pp. 441-453). While the pope did not condemn individual bishops or theologians he did reject certain teachings which some were describing as “Americanism.” Too late and after the jubilee he issued on April 15, 1902, another letter to the American bishops congratulating them on their loyalty to the Holy See (Ib. pp. 513-516).

There is no doubt that “Americanism” left a shadow on American Catholics. Passionists experienced this confusion with many other Catholics. When the thirteenth provincial chapter (August 21-27, 1899) was held there was a different mood in the province. The Acts of the chapter begin with these somber words:

“Whilst our age is confessedly an age of wonderful material progress, and an ever increasing intellectual development, it is an age in which we can hardly fail to recognize and to deplore a gradual moral and religious retrogression. …In politics, in science, in literature, these seem to breathe an atheistic spirit…” Where is the enthusiasm of the chapter of 1896!

New Year – New Century: January 1, 1900 – 1901?

Someone might add that there was another flaw! Not everyone was certain that the new century began on January 1, 1900. Recently I have seen this question being asked about the year 2000!

In The Good Years: From 1900 to the First World War by Walter Lord, NY 1960, we can relive how people reacted a century ago to this question:

“Actually the new century would not begin until 1901. As the newspapers patiently explained, the first century obviously ended with the year 100, so the nineteenth had to end with the year 1900….(p.1) Yet the idea would not die that there was something special about moving into 1900….(p.2).”

The New York Tribune sensed it too: “No new century began yesterday. Avoid all delusions on that head,” intoned the editor, “but those who had to date anything found that there was a queer sensation in writing ‘1900,’ and they felt that something momentous had happened to the calendar” (Ib. p.8).

Most likely our Passionist brethren a century ago felt that same way. One should note that three chronicles infer that January 1, 1900 was not the beginning of the new century but the beginning of “the last year of the century.” “Jan 1st, 1901 or the beginning of the 20th century” and January 1, 1901 Fr. Felix “preached the first sermon in the new century.”

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