O Canada: The Passionists and Canada 1853-1971. From the First Invitation to the Establishment of the Vicariate.

Home / O Canada: The Passionists and Canada 1853-1971. From the First Invitation to the Establishment of the Vicariate.

Written by Father Ken West. Summarized by Father Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Sacred Heart Retreat
The first home of the Passionists in Canada

2003 marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the relationship between the Passionist Congregation and Canada. Father West’s 1983 unpublished manuscript serves as the basis for the following historical summary. Ordained a Passionist in 1974, he now is a priest in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. To celebrate the event Father West agreed to let me summarize the content of his one hundred and thirty-one page manuscript which for twenty years has sat on the shelf in the Passionist Historical Archives.

When I first read this history in the mid 1980s I was impressed by the rich sources. Rereading it now Father West, the Passionists, and Canadian Catholics should relish this history. It has stood the test of time. Using the manuscript outline structure utilized by Father West, I have taken the liberty to summarize and select various points which I believe may be of interest to the reader.

Historical research and writing is often a contest between the wealth of detail and the power of narrative. When Father West wrote this history Canadian Catholic historiography was finding its voice. Fortunately, this Passionist story can be set in the wider context by consulting Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1992) and Terence J. Fay, A History of Canadian Catholics: Gallicanism, Romanism, and Canadianism. (Montreal&Kingston, Canada: McGill-Queen University Press, 2002. In addition Professor Richard Lebrun, editor of the Canadian Catholic Historical Association journal Historical Studies would want all to know that even more information on Canadian Catholic history can be found by a visit to www.umanitoba.ca/colleges/st_pauls/ccha.

Throughout this summary I have kept the same topical headings used in Father West’s original manuscript. Space limitations make me unable to employ page references, Likewise I have refrained from using extended quotations.    -Editor

Part One. The Race for Canada 1853-1933

Initial Invitations, 1853-1908 marks the first phase.

The beginnings of the Passionists in Canada was an eighty year behind the scenes drama. Patience and the success and shortcomings of international planning are as important as the personalities. At the request of Bishop Michael O’Connor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Italian-based Passionists first arrived in his diocese on November 20, 1852. None of the three priests and one brother were proficient in English so they quickly set out to learn the language in order to begin a preaching apostolate. The next year, on May 27, 1853, Bishop Armand de Charbonnel of Toronto, Canada requested that a group of Passionists based in England come to minister in his diocese. The English Passionists, however, declined the invitation.

The first Passionist actually to come to Canada came to request money from Canadian Catholics. In the summer of 1858 Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal, Canada sponsored Brother Lawrence DiGiacomo of Pittsburgh during a six month trip which began in Toronto and ended in Quebec. $5,530.00 was collected. In effect, Canadian Catholics paid one-third of the price to build the first Passionist monastery in Pittsburgh!

In November 1863 Fathers Anthony Calandri and Albinus Magno preached the first Passionist parish mission at Maidstone Cross, Diocese of Sandwich (London). Twelve converts and the founding of a Temperance Society were the result. This led to twelve other parish missions over the next two years. Overall, 1865 till 1908 show that Passionists preached only a small number of parish missions in Canada. 1894-1908 was the high point when twenty-five were conducted.

An Interesting Story, 1908-1933 is the second phase.

It highlights the competitive sense of mission planning between, again, the Passionists in England and their counterparts in the eastern and western United States.

At the turn of the century the English Passionists had reversed their earlier position and began to show interest in a Canadian venture. Not helping their case was an 1892 assessment of United States Passionist General Consultor Thomas O’Connor that the English province was in organizational and spiritual malaise. Furthermore, the 1906 split of one United States province into two: east based in West Hoboken (later Union City), New Jersey and west Chicago, Illinois, led to the opinion that expansion to Canada was more their right than that of their English brethren.

As so often is the case, opinions proved stronger than action. Nothing came of a 1908 United States desire to investigate establishing a Canadian foundation. Later, a 1914 invitation by Archbishop of Toronto Neil McNeil was put on the back burner due to the election of a new eastern province provincial who had to deal with unexpected financial concerns: the collapse of the Passionist monastery in Scranton, Pennsylvania – it was built on a coal mine shaft; and a proposal to build a preparatory seminary on Shelter Island, New York.

In 1917 the English Passionists began to show interest in Canada once more. This led both United States provincials to participate in a letter writing campaign with Passionists in Rome to defend their perceived Canadian turf. In 1919 United States Passionists documented this claim but took no action until 1921 when Father Provincial Justin Carey of the eastern province made a more formal offer to Archbishop McNeil to establish a monastery so as to offer retreats to laity and clergy. However, there were disagreements over the location of the foundation. Discussions in 1923 and 1927 proved unsuccessful. 1928 saw the Passionists agree and later halt the establishment of a foundation at a Fort Erie site. In the 1930s negotiations commenced again. In the 1932 Provincial Chapter of the eastern province, Superior General Titus, who had just attended the western province chapter, urged a decision be made on Canada because the interest of the English province had still not diminished.

On January 11, 1933, in the heart of the Depression, the Passionists purchased a remote piece of land and a home owned by the Anglican Sisters of St. John the Divine on Bayview Avenue near the Don River in Toronto. The cost was $32,000. Eighty years after their first invitation, the Passionists had a foundation in Canada’s Sacred Heart Retreat.

Part Two. Sacred Heart Retreat 1933-1953

Father Augustine Cotter, C.P. 1933-1938

The forty-two year old Fitchburg, Massachusetts native, ordained eighteen years and with preaching experience in Canada, was assigned to be the first superior at Toronto with five other Passionists. Their beginnings were made easier due to the assistance of the Christian Brothers who provided them a car, local priest Father Pennylegion, and various communities of religious sisters, priests and laity. In the first seven months, Fathers Cotter and Hubert Young carried out most of the thirty-six preaching assignments. Given a Provincial subsidy of $5,300, within a short time they were holding their own financially.

At the same time, a sense of flux marked the Toronto foundation. Preaching assignments meant many men were out of the house. Furthermore the personnel continued to change. And most odd was the arrangement whereby most of the Passionists living there in 1935 spent a majority of their time preaching in the United States. Again, that year saw only Fathers Cotter and Young preach forty-five missions in Canada. 1937 proved to be the busiest year till after World War II. Four men did fifty-two assignments of which only sixteen were activities in Canada. And all of them were in six different cities in Ontario province.

Father Damian O’Rourke, C.P. 1938-1943

Fifty-nine year old Father O’Rourke, a seasoned priest of thirty-three years was assigned to head the foundation in 1938. As before, preaching remained split between Canada and the United States. In fact, all forty-nine assignments from 1941 to 1942 were solely in the United States. Lack of finances was another concern. Even stranger is the fact that twenty Passionists based in the United States preached in Canada and left their money in the Sacred Heart coffers. Even so, money remained a problem. In January 1940 the Passionists had only $28.60 in the bank. Canadian requests for preachers were down. Finally, in 1943 the mission closed because so many men were needed as World War II military chaplains. Laymen Frank McMillan took care of the residence till the Passionists were able to come back .

Father Felix Hackett 1946-1953

On September 2, 1946, forty-one year old Father Hackett, just back from his tour of duty as a military chaplain, unlocked the doors of Sacred Heart. He was a hard-worker and creative. For example, in 1949 he was featured as a weekly Sunday radio speaker on a Canadian Broadcast Corporation show. Until 1948, when the membership changed, he and four other Passionists did much ministry in Canada and the United States. During this period the Passionists refused a request to take responsibility for a parish and operate a monastery-retreat house.

The 1948 visitation report on Sacred Heart by the Passionist Superior General Father Albert Deane explains the above decision:

The place is fine – very fit for a Passionist Retreat –with sufficient property and solitude. The priests have plenty of missionary and retreat work and income is also satisfactory, rendering the foundation economically independent. I am happy to see that no supply work has been taken on, and express my earnest wish that no such work which is contrary to our Passionist spirit and constitutes the ruin of regular observance, be taken on. I recommend to the Religious the faithful observance of the minimum observance as prescribed by Father Provincial.

Yet, by 1951 Passionists were looking to move to a new site on nearby Sheppard Avenue in Toronto. By September 1953 this became the site of the new St. Gabriel’s community and parish ministry. Financial strain dictated letting go of Sacred Heart. On April 1, 1952 ground was broken for a new monastery and parish. Dedication and blessing took place June 7, 1953.

From 1933 until 1953, Sacred Heart was in essence, concluded Father West, not so much a Canadian enterprise as a solution to a problem. In gaining a foothold in Canada, the American Province foiled the English Passionists, insuring that the lucrative Canadian territory remained in American control.

Sacred Heart, he went on to conclude, never knew a canonical rector. Its men tended to work the northern United States as much as Canada, and until the close of Felix’s term there seemed to be no sense that this was a Canadian venture in operation. Indeed, as many missionaries from the States worked in Canada as did the men stationed here. Although it was self-sufficient every year of its operation, no financial base was laid for future Canadian expansion.

Part Three. St. Gabriel’s and Expansion 1953-1965

Father Connell McKeown, C.P. 1953-1959

Right from the start, St. Gabriel’s instituted the customary Passionist religious life. Among the features were establishment of the cloister, and silence at meals, and putting in place the full monastic observance which included getting out of bed for prayer at 2 AM.

St. Gabriel’s remained home to a preaching ministry. Directly impacting this were regular fall transfers. Normally, once they arrived they conducted retreats or novenas until Christmas. Junior missionaries – those who were newly ordained – began their efforts preaching novenas or days of recollection for high school students or Catholic Women League groups. They also had to contend with refresher courses or Junior clergy exams. During the McKeown years, eight senior missionaries participated in six hundred and thirty-five assignments. Notable was Passionist Father Donald Keenan who earned the name “Mr. Canada.”

It would be, however, wrong to conclude that this combination of young and veteran signaled a new preaching plan. More correctly, the presence of the junior clergy was to set up a school of learning and thereby keep the monastery tax exempt.

Gaining a foothold at the same time was St. Gabriel’s parish apostolate. By 1959 St. Gabriel’s parish numbered four hundred families.

Father Cuthbert McGreevy, C.P. 1959-1962

Father McGreevy was installed as rector on July 14, 1959. Toronto, in 1961, had eleven priests engaged in the preaching ministry. They completed three hundred and sixty assignments. Key to this success were the young student priests. At the same time Toronto was home to three religious brothers: Michael Stomber, Virgil Pasi, and Henry Kavanaugh.

Passionist Father Edward Hennessey was assigned as the new pastor in 1959. Fellow Passionist Father Gregory Paul was his assistant. In June 1960 he was replaced by twenty-nine year old St. John’s, New Brunswick native Passionist Father Paul Cusack. By 1962 the parish had grown to over seven hundred families and police were required for Sunday traffic control.

Father McGreevy maintained the traditional Passionist lifestyle, because so many Passionists believed the horarium would facilitate a sense of community and solitude in the monastery. In January 1961 the community members voted against sale of six acres of northern property for $130,000. Still the General Curia went ahead with sale. At the same time the Passionists joined other neighborhood groups to defeat the attempt to rezone the southern side of Sheppard for high rise apartments.

Father Boniface Buckley 1962-1965

During this era, nine Passionist missionaries, in addition to the rector and vicar, operated from Canada. At the same time, the one hundred and ninety-six assignments completed in this period was a decrease of almost one hundred and fifty from the previous administration.

Of course, the Toronto foundation had to face the new mood which resulted from the 1962-1965 Vatican Council. All indications are that optimism, growth, and a culture of planning began to take shape under Father Provincial Gerard Rooney of the eastern province. On September 24, 1963 six Passionists met to decide future options. Among the points in the Statement of Policy issued in October 1963 was the commitment that personnel in Canada should grow in spirit, prayer and education, local leadership, and financial stability. However, because no students lived at St. Gabriel’s, Rooney decided to install an automatic bell that would be rung to call the Passionists to their various prayer exercises. If four religious were present they were to chant the Office. If only three or two were available the Office would be recited. If one religious answered the bell he would still go to the chapel to say the appropriate prayers. Compounding this schedule more was how much parish priests were to participate in this prayer schedule.

1964 also saw the appointment of Passionist Fathers Justinian Manning and Campion Cavanaugh as Director and Assistant Director, respectively, for the Canadian Branch of the Passionist Mission Band as well as the ordination of the first Canadian Passionists, Fathers Maurice (Steve) Dunn and Bertrand McEachern on May 2, 1964 by Archbishop Philip Pocock.

The Sudbury Foundation 1963-1965

The Passionist experiment in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada began in 1963. Father Clem Adams of Sudbury met with Passionist Father Stephen Paul Kenny to discuss a possible Passionist presence The latter did not have a good first impression of Sudbury.

Still, talks continued. Key was the desire that the Passionists establish a Catholic Information Centre in Sudbury. Location there would be a stepping stone towards the creation of a separate Passionist province. Consensus was that two more sites, in addition to St. Gabriel’s were needed to give the plan a chance. In addition, there was some hope that the Passionists would develop a retreat house for sixty retreatants as well as a monastery where Canadian students would get bilingual French/English training. On October 31, 1964 Father Cusack left St. Gabriel’s, Toronto to set the project in motion.

Initial negotiations, however, did not go well. On March 4, 1965 property on Elm Street came under Passionist direction. That same month Father Cusack and Passionist Brother Stephen (Frank) Sutherland held an organizational meeting for about twenty-five retreat captains from Sudbury area. In May 1965 Passionist Father Isaias Powers arrived to minister there. June 28, 1965 was the first retreat.

Part Four. Towards Autonomy 1965-1968

First Canadian council: Fathers Steve Dunn (L),
Pierre Myrand, and Paul Cusack.

The Sudbury Foundation 1965-1968

The situation did not improve. Cusack wrote Provincial Rooney on July 27, 1965: There are only about two good months in the year, and the people want to spend them at the cottage or on the lakes. Another thing I have discovered, the retreat league here is only on paper. Furthermore, the local bishop wanted to consolidate the movement with the Jesuits.

Sudbury was a topic under scrutiny at an all important January 8, 1967 meeting called for Passionists stationed in Canada. In all, fourteen attended. On the one hand retreat collaboration was seen as favorable. On the other hand hope was that Sudbury would be home to experimental ministries. By May 1967 these ministries included work in the jail, television ministry, marriage and pre-marriage counseling, retreats and instruction courses, youth work and ministry at a psychiatric hospital. Later, Father Cavanaugh, while in the midst of discerning his own Passionist commitment as he worked there, went to the 1967 Passionist pre-Chapter and stated his opinion that Sudbury should close.

Father Kenny took a slightly different position. An experiment is not carried out to succeed but to discover. He saw Sudbury as a Spiritual Centre, “developing to the full a preaching apostolate…there is plenty of opportunity and need for preachers in the North.” On January 27, 1968 Father Kenny was named superior of the entire Canadian mission.

Holy Cross, Port Burwell 1965-1968

Port Burwell, on Lake Erie, in the Catholic diocese of London was the third Passionist foundation in the plan for a Canadian future. In January 1965 Bishop G. Emmett Carter had asked Passionists if they desired to open a foundation in the diocese. The 1965 Provincial Chapter agreed to establish a traditional Passionist retreat house and monastery. On July 16, Father Canisius Hazlett was appointed superior. Father Manning became the retreat director.

The first retreat, scheduled for March 1966, was a success due to many benefactors in the area. Even though the bishop cancelled their debt to the diocese on March 16, 1967, and a Holy Cross Auxiliary was formed, like Sudbury, Holy Cross was beset with organizational problems and the retreatants were not abundant.

St. Gabriel’s Under Father Stephen Paul Kenny 1965-1968

Beginning in 1964 a Canadian branch of the Passionist Mission Office was set up to coordinate preaching assignments. From 1965 to 1968 their records showed that there were at least five hundred and seventy assignment requests. Of these the St. Gabriel’s community took one hundred and nineteen. Part of the problem was that by November 1966 Fathers Kenny and Luigi Malorzo were the only two regular Passionist missionaries assigned there.

It was at this time that the St. Gabriel’s Festa, supported by the Italian community of Toronto, began and a Passionist extension of The Sign Magazine, a Passionist monthly published in the United States, was set up in Rexdale, Ontario, a Toronto suburb, in order to support overseas missions. No money went to Canada.

Arriving in 1961 Father Philip Bebie, a tireless promoter of religious vocations, also put the Passionists of St. Gabriel’s on the map. In 1964, about one-third, or forty-four Canadian students were at the United States Passionist priests seminary. Bebie believed personal contact to be more important than newspaper ads. He also said, “Only by presenting our uniqueness could we hope for the kind of vocations we needed.” He began a Vocation Mass at 9AM on Saturday in the parish. At a 1966 Vocation Day thirty religious orders participated. The theme was “Cooperation, not Competition.” In February 1967 he was the convener of National Association of Religious Vocation Directors (VINEA). So popular was the 1967 event that a Religious Vocations Commission, with Bebie as president, was begun in the Archdiocese. However, four months later he was transferred.

St. Gabriel’s parish and youth work helped promote the Passionist name as well. In January 1966 a newly constructed parish center was open. By October 1966 Passionist Father Edward Buchheit began pastoral programs which included Days of Recollection and Intercom: an “experience in Christian living, communication and liturgy for young men and women between nineteen and twenty-five years of age,” which was a first of its kind in the Archdiocese of Toronto. Parish activities expanded. The Holy Week liturgies of 1967 and 1968 offered experimental liturgical celebrations. The 1968 Ecumenical Concert on Palm Sunday evening was most innovative.

Advance Towards Autonomy 1965-1968

In 1967 Father Kenny requested, and was refused, permission to have the United States trained Canadian novices be professed in Canada. That same year (even though Sudbury was on thin ice), Father Edward Hennessey received a standing ovation at the Passionist Pre-Chapter when he addressed the membership to grant Canada autonomy. This led to a November 27, 1967 meeting of thirteen Passionists in Canada on the topic. In May 1968 the Passionist Chapter agreed to back the plan. On July 1, 1968 Passionists gathered at Port Burwell to start a three year experiment on Canadian autonomy.

Part Five. The Three Year Experiment 1968-1979

Setting the Stage: The General Meeting of July 1968

Discussions among the sixteen Passionists at the July 1968 General Meeting revolved around themes which respected the individual couched in an overall tone of frankness and openness. A second feature was a positive reaction to the smallness of the group. This in turn fostered the belief that flexibility and adaptability would emerge.

A decision was made for a three-man governing body along traditional lines: Father Cusack was elected Provincial and Fathers Dunn and Pierre Myrand were the two consultors. Father West wrote that it became apparent that the group wished for, “mature experimentation with a minimum of structures.” Essential for the development of a province was the idea of a team approach to ministry. One hard decision was to let the Sudbury experience come to an end. The average age of the eighteen men living in Canada was 39. The first profession of Passionists in Canada was held on August 15, 1968 for five members: two novices and three in final profession.

Consolidation: Sudbury and the Residence 1968-1971

By mid-July 1969 the Sudbury experiment was officially over. However, from September 1968 until 1971 the Passionists ran a residence program for college students who were contemplating a Passionist vocation. At first eight collegians lived at 95 St. Joseph Street, Toronto. Directors were Fathers Bert McEachern and Steve Dunn. The program was affiliated with Basilian College. In February 1969 the residence moved to 21 Southview. Father Dunn was replaced by Father Henry Simmons.

But the residence program quickly came to an end, because no new candidates joined the group. The Passionists of Canada could not invite new candidates until the vowed members had a sense of their own new identity. By June of 1971, only Greg Chisholm remained. An idea to keep the residence open as a lay residence so as to continue a college outreach apostolate was put aside as it was felt energy should be put elsewhere. In September 1970 Father Simmons began teaching full time at the Toronto School of Theology.

Experimentation: Holy Cross 1968-1971

Part of the Canadian plan was to make Port Burwell an experimental religious community whereby the members would elect their own superior, decide term of office, and regulate their own structure of life, apostolate and duties of religious through a group consensus process. This was different from the norm in that Passionist superiors of that period required a provincial appointment. They were not elected by the local community. Another innovation, was that the entire Port Burwell community joined together to determine the retreat schedule theme. While creative, this Port Burwell process also revealed how effective programming had to deal with power generated by each member of the religious community. Adding to the intensity of the experience was the community appointment of Passionist brothers Brian Forestall as superior and Raphael Turcotte as director of retreats. They were the first Passionist brothers to have executive positions in the Passionist retreat apostolate

Port Burwell held its First Marriage Encounter in June 1969. In August 1969 it was decided not to have a superior. Instead a collegial model was put in place. A devastating blow to the Port Burwell and entire Canadian venture was the sudden illness of Father Hennessey in October 1969. During the 1969-1970 season 1800 people came to Port Burwell. They were Catholic, non-Catholic, and secular groups.

Behind all the efforts to create a new Canadian province was a series of Province General Meetings. There were eight from September 1968 until May 1971. Each meeting brought a range of issues to the table. The first three were marked by a spirit of experimentation. At the third meeting of December 1968 frustrations were evident about retreat planning. Also overall province directions was becoming a concern in that it had an increased relationship to individual planning. News was also received that the Passionist Superior General had reversed his decision and refused to recognize Forestall as a superior. At the fourth meeting a canonical decision was made. Canada was not a province but in reality a vicariate according to Passionist legislation. Lack of feeling of apostolic unity was discussed at the fifth meeting. Members were leaving the Passionist congregation and priesthood. As time went on there were twenty men in nine different apostolates. Furthermore, the Brothers wanted a meeting to discuss their position in the venture. At the seventh meeting vocations were addressed even as the membership tried to determine its image in Canada.

Diversity: St. Gabriel’s Under Paul Cusack 1968-1971

By 1968 St. Gabriel’s had three Passionist apostolates: the parish, Intercom community building, and the Passionist Mission band or preaching apostolate. All knew that the parish was more popular than the monastery. For example, Father Buchheit’s Coffee House Centre had become a happening and by 1970 the Sunday noon Mass was being broadcast on Canadian television.

Still, financial solvency remained elusive. At the same time, a 1969 plan to have Italian Passionist Father Conrad Gasbarro work with Italians in Toronto collapsed when his own provincial assigned him to his home Italian province.

Community Report to the Chapter

In 1971 a sixteen page document was written for the Passionist Provincial Chapter. The report was the main topic of concern at the First Canadian Congress held June 28-29, 1971. It proved helpful for the future in that a decision was made to follow leadership as it had been developing a community sharing model rather than strong leadership. Father Cusack was chosen as the Regional Vicar and Fathers McEachern and John Lee were elected first and second consultor, respectively. Furthermore the Congress was to be held every three years.

Twenty men began the venture in 1968. While six had left the group, another four students had plans to come back. As a result the Canadian Vicariate was a total of eighteen men with another four men about ready to cross the border and come north as soon as they were given the necessary permission.

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