Newsprint Gospel: The Passionists and the New York Times 1855-1886

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By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Fr. John Baptist Baudinelli, C.P.


Founded in 1851, the New York Times quickly covered New York City and international news. Having been fortunate to reside five different times in the greater New York metro area since 1973, I gained a discerning appreciation of the Times coverage of religion, especially the Catholic Church.

Building on this point, this introductory essay—with others to follow in time—examines New York Times (NYT) coverage of the Passionists. Based on a Proquest search of the word “Passionist,” the found articles make interesting reading. I encourage general readers—historians and archivists in particular—to mull over the story details. Foremost is the dominant presence of the Passionists in West Hoboken, New Jersey, known today as Union City. Living at St. Michael’s Monastery (since the 1860s, the public has used the term “the monastery” interchangeably so as to represent the same site yet distinct ministries of the Parish Church and the monastery), their rhythms of contemplative prayer, solitude, common religious life and ministry are covered in the NYT with respect and distant awe like that of an outsider. At the same time, news coverage of the West Hoboken monastery as a local devotional and Passionist preaching site throughout greater New York City reaffirms these representatives of Italian founder St. Paul of the Cross were participants in the vibrant and divergent pulse of late nineteenth century United States, especially in their efforts to then English, Italian and German speaking urban Catholic immigrants. Taken together, the facts show the slow and steady growth in the number of Passionist monasteries in the United States to seven from 1852 to 1886.

However, the following narrative invites questions for further study. How was the Passionist image in the NYT different from that of diocesan priests or, for that matter, other religious orders of men or women? What, also, does the news suggest about Passionist-lay relations in the later part of the nineteenth century? From another perspective, NYT articles show the international face of the Passionists. We find news of them in London, Rome, Paris, Mexico, and Argentina. Furthermore, it is clear that popular Passionist preachers, such as the Baudinelli brothers, made good press whenever they left the prayer and solitude of their monastery to preach a parish mission. In conclusion, Passionist coverage in the NYT is another way to create the historical narrative and serves as a reminder of power of the press and public relations to create a kind of newsprint Gospel.

Passionist Beginnings:

Three years after their 1852 establishment in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Passionist Father and present-day designated Servant of God Ignatius Spencer of England became the first mention of Passionists in the NYT on January 22, 1855. Spencer’s favorable point of view offered on the Vatican I dogma of the Immaculate Conception to Dr. John Cumming, a naysayer, was included in a republished letter by the latter to the NYT and serves as a reminder of Passionist participation in the then hot theological debates in Europe, especially in conjunction with the life of John Henry Newman in England. Recall Newman was welcomed into the Roman Catholic Church on October 9, 1845 in Littlemore, England by then Passionist priest and now Blessed Dominic Barberi.

From the 1860s through the 1880s, readers got news about the Passionists as they established themselves at St. Michael’s Monastery on the Palisades in then West Hoboken, New Jersey. The August 10, 1863 NYT carried the announcement: “Interesting Religious Ceremony – Laying of Corner-Stone – ‘the Order, its Character and Peculiarities.'” The ceremonial procession started from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in West Hoboken. A year after this cornerstone ceremony for St. Michael’s Monastery, the September 26, 1864 NYT carried news of the monastery dedication. By the early 1870s, pilgrims had made the Passionist monastery built by architect Patrick C. Keely into an important devotional site in New Jersey and just a ferry ride away from Manhattan.

People coming to the monastery symbolized Catholicism taking root. For instance, the January 12, 1871 NYT told of brass bands playing during the Feast of Corpus Christi Procession. Progress continued. The January 16, 1873 NYT stated: “New Church of the Passionist Fathers at West Hoboken” was completed “with the exception of the towers.” Building of the Church also helped the local economy. The edifice trimmings were made of “Newark brown stone.” At that time, two-thirds of the then total cost of $150,000 had been paid. Interior decorations to the monastery church included several paintings—one of the Twelve Apostles and another of the Four Evangelists were expected to cost more than $100,000. Devotional healing at the West Hoboken site must have been the talk of the town because a May 4, 1877 piece and a follow up article on May 12, 1877 told of the attention being paid to the holy relics of “Saint Benedict’s Bones.” The September 14, 1879 NYT announced “A Timely Miracle” and went on to describe how Louise Lateau was healed after being blessed by Passionist Father Victor Carunchio. The paper declared, “West Hoboken should become a shrine as famous as Lourdes itself.”

Sometimes, Passionists of the late nineteenth century faced interlopers who tried to exploit the brick and mortar era of Catholicism and raise money in their name. The April 30, 1880 NYT reported that John Sinnott and James McDermott had been charged with collecting money under false pretenses and representing the Passionists in West Hoboken. As a result, they were convicted in a Brooklyn, New York Court and sent to prison for three years and one year, respectively.

Passionists: Diverse Voices 1880-1884:

More and more Passionists were also making a name for themselves beyond New Jersey. A March 20, 1880 NYT story told of two Passionist Fathers from West Hoboken named James and John (their family names were not printed as was often a Passionist custom). They were present at the closing ceremony of their parish mission at St. Peter’s Church, Barclay Street, Manhattan when, at the same time, Cardinal John McCloskey of New York confirmed some of the 1,000 people.

International news was also of interest. The struggles of Passionists in anti-clerical France were in the NYT on September 28, 1880. The story told of the decision of Mr. Constans, French Minister of the Interior and Worship, to begin “breaking up orders, like the Passionist Fathers which are not recognized by the Vatican.”

Still, West Hoboken was the Passionist anchor. Passionists and Catholics no doubt rejoiced when they read the news in the December 22, 1880 NYT that Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan of Newark, New Jersey had ordained at St. Michael’s Passionist Monastery Matthais A. Brown, a native of Scotland and former Presbyterian, and Rev. Cyril Ross, who was formerly an Episcopalian minister in Philadelphia. About a month later, on January 21, 1882, was the notice that the next day was the start of a Passionist mission at the Church of St. Teresa at Henry and Rutgers Street, Manhattan. June 16, 1883 saw an invitation to NYT readers to attend the following summer day “sacred concert and organ recital” at 4 pm held by Mille. Rosa d’Erina at the Monastery Church of the Passionists in West Hoboken.

No doubt building on their success, details of West Hoboken Passionist preachers in New York City were found in the October 1, 1883 notification of them giving parish missions again at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Barclay Street and St. Teresa’s Church at Henry and Rutgers Street. The St. Peter’s mission was to last three weeks. “The first week will be devoted to married women, the second to the married men, and the third to the single man and the single woman.” On October 5, 1883 more news was offered on the St. Theresa’s mission: There were to be “seven [Passionist] Fathers, who will devote their attention during the present week to the women of the parish exclusively, and the next week the men will receive their ministrations. There will be seven masses celebrated each day of the mission, the first to begin at 5 o’clock in the morning, and the priests will be in the confessionals all day. Sermons by the Passionists will be preached at the masses at 5 and 8:30 o’clock, and also at the vespers, which will be held every evening at 7:30 o’clock.” Details surrounding the closing of the mission were published on October 19, 1883. At 3:30 pm that day, the women received a solemn papal benediction while the previous evening some 4,000 men who had received the sacraments knelt to gain the solemn blessing. Passionist Father Alexis on the 19th delivered a lecture there entitled “The Church and the American Republic.” December 17, 1883 cited a Passionist mission at St. Patrick’s Church, Mott Street on the previous day.

NYT readers on April 20, 1884 learned then Passionist Provincial Father Thomas Stefanini was on his way to participate at the Passionist General Chapter in Rome and that Bishop Winand M. Wigger of Newark was to be at St. Michael’s Monastery Church in West Hoboken for First Vespers of the feast of St. Paul of the Cross in conjunction with the delivery of the panegyric of the saint by Reverend James H. McGean, Rector of St. Peter’s Church, Barclay Street, New York.

The Passionist expansion to the Mississippi River was made known February 28, 1884 with news that West Hoboken based priests and brothers had purchased land on Lindell Ave in St. Louis, Missouri or the purpose of building a monastery. The article then told readers that the Passionist “rule is austere, and their public work consists in preaching and administering the sacrament.” Passionist growth was balanced with local care for the poor. A September 28, 1884 NYT piece promoted news that Mgr. Capel was to deliver lecture at 4 pm that day at St. Michael’s Passionist Monastery in West Hoboken with the proceeds to be distributed to the poor by way of the St. Michael’s Conference Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Also, the Feast of St. Michael on September 29, 1884 would have Mgr. Capel say solemn high mass and give sermon at 10:30 am with solemn vespers held on that same feast day at 4 pm Furthermore, it was learned that Provincial Stefanini was visiting Passionist houses in the western United States and hoped to return to West Hoboken in December.

A November 6, 1884 article on “Monastic Houses in England” included a reference to the Passionist’s London monastery. Attention shifted again to Baltimore on November 17, 1884 when a report was given on the previous afternoon’s laying of the new cornerstone of the St. Joseph’s Passionist Monastery in that city. Some 5,000 people attended. Redemptorist Bishop William Gross of Savannah, Georgia made an address in English while Benedictine Bishop Martin Marty of Sioux Falls, South Dakota made an address in German. The previous Passionist monastery had earlier been destroyed by fire and the rebuilding used that same stone. Archbishop Patrick John Ryan of Philadelphia actually laid the cornerstone in the presence of many religious dignitaries. Also, “a large amount of money was collected to aid in the completion of the building.”

Back in New York City, the December 7, 1884 NYT mentioned the following December 8, 1884 feast of the Immaculate Conception was to be the opening of “new church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” on E. 115th Street. The next Sunday was to have more celebrations when, in the evening, two Italian Passionist Fathers from West Hoboken opened missions for Italians.

Likewise, December 14, 1884 reported the beginning of a nine day Novena for Christmas festival at St. Michael’s Monastery, West Hoboken and more news was learned on the Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish mission. Preachers were to be Passionist Fathers John Phillip Baudinelli and his brother John Baptist Baudinelli who came from the Passionist Monastery, Dunkirk, New York. The previous Sunday, Very Rev. Benedict Murnane, a Passionist of West Hoboken, concluded “a very successful mission” at the Church of St. Rome of Lima, Parkville, Kings County and at St. Mark’s Chruch, Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Back in Baltimore, Father Alexis and priests of the Passionist community were giving a mission at St. Gregory’s Church parish. Passionist Father Stefanini was to return to West Hoboken that week. December 15, 1884 issued a follow up on the Our Lady of Mount Carmel mission: “the brothers Baudinelli commenced a two weeks’ mission in the church last night. The attendance was large, and the mission promises to be a great success.” More was included on December 22, 1884: “All the exercises are very largely attended, and numbers are receiving the sacraments. At the request of some of these poor people, the priests are giving all those who attend the mission a card stating that the bearer [giving the name] received the sacraments of the Catholic Church at such a time and place.”

Passionists: Diverse Voices 1885-1886:

April 27, 1885 published information that the recent mission given at St. Joseph, Rossville, Staten Island by Passionist Fathers was “a great success.” Still, the Passionists could bring the Gospel to high society as well as the immigrants. An October 2, 1885 NYT column alerted readers that on the previous day, famed American opera singer Emma Nevada married Dr. Raymond Palmer of Birmingham England at St. Joseph’s Passionist Church in Paris, France. Notables of the music world were present. Passionist Father Michael Watts-Russell of the Passionist community at Highgate, England “delivered an eloquent oration” with the wedding breakfast served to bridal party guests at the Hotel Athenee.

October 11, 1885 provided news on the Passionist Mission at Church of the Transfiguration on Mott St. in Lower Manhattan. The ceremonies for women were to close that day. Fathers Robert, Leo, John and Andrew were the preachers. The men’s mission there was to commence that evening.

Noted convert to Catholicism, Passionist Father Fidelis—the former Kent Stone—was cited on October 25, 1885 to be “a guest at St. Michael’s Monastery at West Hoboken. He has been to Rome on business with the General of the order, and is now on his way to his monastery at Rio de Janiero, South America.” On that same day was the news about the Baudinelli brothers at the Church of the Transfiguration Mott Street for the last week for Italian mission: “Their labors have been very successful.” October 29, 1885 told of the ordination of five priests at St. Michael’s, West Hoboken a day earlier. November 8, 1885 had news of a Passionist mission at St. Teresa’s Church, Rutgers Street, New York.

Social news was also of interest. February 21, 1886 published “The many friends in this city of the Rev. Edmund Hill, now associated with the Rev. Father Fidelis (Dr. Kent Stone) in the Passionist Monastery at Beunos Ayres, will be pleased to learn that his brother, Mr. Percival G. Hill, was lately received into the church in that city. Father Hill was formerly a member of the Paulist Community in this city. Recently, the Passionists opened their new monastery in Calle Carinod, Beunos Ayres. They have now in South America a retreat, as their monasteries are called, which will stand in comparison with the houses of their North American province, and is worthy to be numbered with those they possess in Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, England, and Ireland.”

An April 4, 1886 contribution to the NYT made known that Passionist Father Stefanini preached for Brother Facile of the Order of the Brotherhood of the Christian Schools. The same story went on to also state Passionist Father Robert and other priests from West Hoboken were preaching a mission at St. John the Evangelist, 55th St. and First Ave. “The exercises for women will be closed this afternoon, and in the evening the men’s mission will be begun with the usual ceremonies.”

As in years past, financial swindlers were made known to the public on April 19, 1886. The “public is cautioned against giving money to persons representing themselves as belonging to St. Michael’s Passionist Monastery, at West Hoboken, N.J. The fathers of the Monastery will be grateful to any one causing the arrest of these imposters.”

May 3, 1886 reminded the public of the Passionist love for liturgy and celebration when it was announced that First Vespers of the feast of St. Paul of the Cross was to be celebrated 3 pm May 2, 1886 at St. Michael’s Monastery, West Hoboken, N.J. Passionist Father Benedict Murnane officiated with 20 priests and seminarians assisting. After “Regina Cailli” was sung, the panegyric of St. Paul of the Cross was delivered by Rev. Dr. John Loughran of St. Stephen’s Church, New York. Passionist Provincial Father Thomas Stefanini was to celebrate Second Vespers May 3, 1886.

Readers on July 18, 1886 learned of the ten day retreat given at Manhattan College, Bronx, New York to 150 members of that order by Passionists from West Hoboken. Similarly, the closing of a fifteen day retreat for Brothers of Christian Schools St. Joseph’s Novitiate at Amawalk, Westchester, New York was given by Passionist John Philip Baudinelli. Fifty Junior Brothers were present there.

A week later, July 25, 1886 identified once again the increasing reach of the Passionists beyond the United States. It was reported that Passionist Provincial Thomas Stefanini was visiting members of the Passionist order in Tacubaya and Toluca, Mexico. Plans were for him to return home about August 15.

The Baudinellis continued to be popular. On August 1, 1886, the NYT told how Passionist John Baptiste Baudinelli, vice-rector of Dunkirk, New York was giving retreat to Brothers of Christian Schools at Manhattan College till August 9.

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