Passionist Life in Holy Cross Province during the Depression Era
by Robert E. Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
In the process of gathering research on the life of Passionist scripture scholar Barnabas Ahern, C.P. I had the unique privilege of conducting a two day interview with Passionist Neil Parsons in Citrus Heights, California on May 14-15, 1997. I asked Fr. Neil, ordained in 1937, to reflect back and imagine that he was waiting to hear where his first assignment was to be. I asked him to give a thumbnail sketch, as he understood the pluses or minuses of each Passionist foundation in Holy Cross Province. I have also added some of my own reflections as it pertains to the role of the practice of rotating theology students which was a common practice in Holy Cross and St. Paul of the Cross Provinces.
In Louisville, St. Agnes Parish possessed a “vital spirit.” Led by pastor Aloysius Dowling for almost fifteen years, the Newburg Road area was no longer in the country and population had increased. There was a “wholesome and optimistic, hopeful view of the future” even in the Depression. There was “a healthy attitude” surrounding both Sacred Heart Monastery and St. Agnes which was the monastery parish. Louisville “would have been a desirable place to live and work” as a priest in the monastery or being sent out on parish missions. Louisville was the novitiate from 1906 to 1936. It served as the theologate from 1937 to 1965 and then as the college seminary from 1965 to 1971.
Immaculate Conception Monastery on Harlem Ave. in Norwood Park, Chicago, housed the provincial offices on the second floor. Provincial and council members lived in Chicago. Between 1906 and 1959 Holy Cross Province had only two consultors. In 1937 Immaculate Conception was “the center of the Province” decision-making. This very fact sometimes created tensions for some who lived there. Who really dictated the pulse of the monastic life and horarium of prayer? Was it the George Jungles the rector (1932-1935, 1935-1938) or Boniface Fielding (1935-1938, 1938-1941) the Provincial? Some, for that reason did not consider it a highly desirable place to reside, though Chicago-born Passionists were partial to living there. The chief means of financial support for the Passionist community came from income derived from those who preached parish missions. Others assisted in Sunday ministries for Mass throughout the city, gave Sisters’ retreats and preached for The Sign Magazine. Founded in the first decade of the century Immaculate Conception Parish was next to the monastery and Norwood Park was considered a “rather healthy—economically healthy area.” In 1937 it was ” a good and active parish.” Middle class, it grew more slowly than Sacred Heart in Louisville and did not attract as many vocations to the Passionists.
Holy Cross Monastery high atop Mt. Adams in Cincinnati was “a much-loved, old monastery.” Older Passionists liked it because many had grown up there. After the 1940’s the appeal of Holy Cross diminished as the older men died. Still, it was a beautiful location. Two Passionist parishes were within walking distance and battled for identity with one another. Immaculata was slowly losing its German-speaking parishioners while Irish Holy Cross was holding its own. Any Passionist assigned to parish work there had to face the tensions. Holy Cross had been the prep school until 1920. From 1920 to 1946 it served as a theology house. It was a retreat house from 1946 to 1978.
Normandy, Missouri, was home to Mother of Good Counsel. A standard monastery community building, it was home of the preparatory high school seminary; therefore many Passionists considered it an educational center. Residing at the monastery were two parish priests who served in nearby St. Ann’s Parish. Passionists educated in the prep seminary had a natural bond with the foundation. The monastery closed in 1956 and the Prep School moved to Warrenton, Missouri.
Land in Sierra Madre, in Pasadena, California had been bought in the early 1920’s by Passionist Provincial Eugene Creegan (1920-1923, 1923-1926, 1929-1932, 1932-1935) who loved the Los Angeles region. Provincial Jerome Reutermann (1908-1911, 1911-1914, 1926-1929) felt the opposite about the west coast. While a residence existed in Pasadena, building of the monastery did not occur until the 1930’s when the Detroit monastery was completed. Fr. Edmund Walsh, CP and Bill Shiltz, a layman contractor and architect, supervised the project which was built quite cheaply during the Depression. Every day men would line up “pleading for a day’s work.” Sierra Madre was on the “outskirts” of province life in 1937. Some, however, felt like “orphans ” and out of touch with the rest of the province. Others loved southern California for the weather and the distance from leadership. Three day travel time between the west coast and the Midwest did endear Passionists to the location. In the 1940’s the Passionist Sacred Eloquence program was located there. The Passionist presence at Citrus Heights outside of Sacramento did not begin until 1949.
St. Paul, Kansas in the midst of the Depression was a theology house for Passionists students. In 1937 St. Paul’s was “a rather impoverished place. It was not a bad place to live for students, especially, because there was always good food that was raised, and the farmers around were generous, so that as far as your living conditions go, it was a desirable enough place for most of our students.” While every student no doubt had his own opinion about St. Paul because of those conditions, it did offer the possibility of a favorable, stable life style. Students were there for a short time and then moved on to another house. Quality of student life there was dependent on the humanity or lack of humanity of the religious superior or director. Then again, to a large extent this was true in every Passionist community. On the other hand, St. Paul, Kansas was regarded by a good number of priests in Holy Cross Province as “a place of banishment—the Siberia of the Province.” The novitiate was located at St. Paul Kansas from 1936 to 1968.
The Passionists at St. Paul of the Cross in Detroit in 1937 were just beginning to recuperate from the Depression. Hitting the automotive industry so hard, it influenced the whole area. But in 1930 the monastery was not as financially secure as it became by 1937. Passionists assigned there were quite active in local work, especially in terms of missions and retreats. As new participants in the Detroit Catholic culture they were well-received. In 1937 it was a thriving monastic community. The presence of the student body contributed largely to the healthy climate of the community.
Des Moines, Iowa had an active Passionist community where students took a year of theology. In fact, it appears that the Passionist system of education, with theology students residing each year in a different monastery, was uniquely Passionist. Other congregations did not have this policy. Why did the Passionists not have a central house for the study of theology? The primary reason for the rotation of students was to maintain the full monastic observance. Simply put, a student community insured the monastic observance. Yet a closer inspection would probably indicate that there were numerous exemptions from the observance for those preachers on the road who returned for “mission rest.” Having separate theology houses also meant separate theology faculties and libraries. In some cases the illness of one professor or the transfer of a professor meant relocating. For example, Neil Parsons went to Kansas in September 1935. Due to illness of Fr. Bede Murphy, the Scripture teacher in Des Moines, the St. Paul class and teacher was moved to Des Moines in January 1936 at mid-year so as to cover the curriculum sufficiently. “We were that hard up for teachers,” said Fr. Neil. His third year of theology was half in Kansas and half in Des Moines. Overall Des Moines was a healthy and content community in 1937, again, because of the student body and the quality of the men living there.
Still, another aspect of the constant change of residence which might be unique to the Passionists is that all the theology students lived in a house that was connected to a vibrant apostolate. Theology training was not separate from life. Even though the Passionist Rule of Life had many strictures which prevented contact and socialization between students and those in vows, the theology students ate with the professed or vowed members, participated in liturgical services at the local parish on feast days and just heard stories about ministry in general. Thus, the system of Passionist training—moving from monastery to monastery—had its own built in pastoral training awareness system. There was little doubt that the shock of being assigned to a monastery in the province, after final vows or ordination was lessened because in many cases they had resided there as students or at least had heard others speak about the good or bad of the monastery. During the depression years, students were not sent to Sierra Madre in Pasadena or Birmingham, Alabama which was just established in 1937. Houston and Citrus Heights began in the 1940’s.
The parish in the Ensley section of Birmingham was “an impoverished area.” The purpose of the Passionists initially going down there was to begin the work among the “Colored” or African Americans. Rian Clancy, C.P. has provided a colloquial yet important study of the genesis of this apostolate in his Tuxedo Junction To Christ (Holy Cross Province, 1994); the larger perspective on the roots of African-American Catholicism can be read in Cyprian Davis, The History of Black Catholics in the United States (Crossroad, 1990). Living conditions were difficult in Alabama. The area was still anti-Catholic. It was also a new ministry—to African Americans—in which the Passionists of Holy Cross Province had little experience. Other Passionists had worked with Blacks in Corpus Christi, Texas with Passionist Bishop Paul Nussbaum in the early part of the twentieth century and St. Paul of the Cross Province had been working in North Carolina since the late 1920’s. All this led Neil Parsons to conclude that when one looked around at all the possible assignments in the Province, Birmingham seemed to be similar to the orphan status of Sierra Madre, California and St. Paul, Kansas. “It was a pretty miserable place to be in and to live.” But over time the ministry in Alabama would grow.
In sum, Holy Cross Province in the 1930’s was like much of the Congregation throughout the world in that the regular observance of prayer was the backbone of Passionist community living—the Divine Office from Matins through Compline and throughout the day was still maintained principally because of the presence of a class of students and brothers. Dispensations for parish men, lectors or preachers, meant that they did not participate as frequently as one might expect in the structured prayer life.
Looking back, Neil Parsons was of the opinion that the image of Passionists in the United States in the middle of the Depression was that of “a mission-minded and operative institution, but we were strongly monastic and that was evidenced in the very fact that the monasteries were still highly cloistered. Women did not go beyond the front parlor actually. There was really a sense of cloister there quite strongly and that was a material factor that supported that concept of a closed monastic unit.”
Yet there was also some sense of openness in the Province. Holy Cross Province had been sending missionaries to China since 1924. They were helping to publicize The Sign magazine which had been published by the eastern province of the United States since 1921. Religious life was rigid; it was not open. Vatican II was several decades into the future. But in some cases some members of the Province were looking out the window and asking questions about how the Passionists should respond. Neil Parsons is of the opinion that this era—1937 to the first years of World War II in the 1940s—had “its repercussions, but even before, there were stirrings and awareness of the need to review and revalue much of our past thinking and way of actually living—not to compromise, but to literally renew the roots of life within us.”