Passionist Seminarians in the Sixties: Radical or Status Quo? The Student Council of Holy Family Seminary West Hartford, CT

Home / Passionist Seminarians in the Sixties: Radical or Status Quo? The Student Council of Holy Family Seminary West Hartford, CT

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

Throughout the 20th century Passionist seminary life has changed dramatically. Semi-isolation of a pre-World War II culture gave way to a kind of post-Vatican II participatory experience by the late 1960s. Study of the minutes of The Student Council at Holy Family Monastery is a reminder to Passionists and the general public that each era of religious formation was unique and remains so even today. Greater scrutiny and understanding is necessary to ascertain how these various modes have influenced present day decision-making and religious values in the Passionist Congregation.

Morgan P. Hanlon, C.P., Editor

On February 17, 1967 Passionist Prep seminarian Richard McLaughlin called to order the first regular weekly meeting of the Student Council of Holy Family Seminary, West Hartford, CT. In operation till the Seminary closed in May, 1968, the Council was quasi-independent: only seminarians could attend. However, some Council actions needed permission of Fr. Austin McKenna, C.P., the Director of Students or, quite possibly, Fr. Gregory Flynn, C.P., Rector of Holy Family Monastery.

Having elected a president and representing a student body of no more than forty students, The Seminary Council combined the aggiornamento of the Second Vatican and the student movement of the 1960s. The Council represented a new dimension of religious education whereby freedom of expression and individual or group activity linked to create a seminary culture. On May 9, 1967 Jeffrey Burns was elected the second president. On November 28, 1967 Harry Bittner was elected the third, and on March 2, 1968 Thomas Stanton was elected the fourth president.

The Seminary:

Opened September 1963 for education of east coast Passionists, the Seminary Bulletin (1967-1968) stated the seminary moved to West Hartford because “the steady increase of vocations was proving too great for the facilities” of Holy Cross Seminary in Dunkirk, NY. To facilitate the move a new seminary building was constructed at Holy Family adding to the pre-existing monastery and retreat house complex. The new seminary building, advertised the Bulletin, had private rooms, “library with space for 25,000 volumes, classrooms, a well-equipped laboratory, three Mass chapels, offices, reception rooms, a large recreation room and other facilities. It provides a tranquil atmosphere for study and environment in which the student can develop spiritually and intellectually for his future role as a Passionist priest.” In addition, “association of the seminary with the monastery and retreat house also gives the students the opportunity to observe at close range the form of monastic life and active works of the priesthood for which they are preparing. Registration $15.00; Tuition (per year) $500.00; Laboratory fee $5.00; Athletic fee $5.00; Graduation fee $5.00.” Accredited as a junior college by the Commission for Higher Education of the State of Connecticut, Holy Family granted an Associate of Arts degree.

The Student Council:

The Student Council fostered committee and group work rather than individual action. Student proposals and activities revolved around several major issues to create the seminary culture.

For instance, prayer and liturgy changed from a proscribed seminary function to a student oriented creative experience by making a Liturgical Commission part of the original constitution. From February through May 1967 the Commission considered traditional issues such as meatless Lenten meals, 11 p.m. Saturday night curfew in order “to improve performance at Sunday morning Mass”, and silence at breakfast; none of which aroused much passion. Rather, liturgical experimentation was in vogue. Saturday Night Bible Vigils with student homilies were initiated as well as Sunday Folk Mass and plans for an outside Mass. Planned activities such as an Interfaith walk in Farmington, CT and ecumenical meeting with a Jewish young people’s group were proposed but failed to materialize in 1967. Such experimentation and independence, however, led to a revision of the Commission in May 1967.

During the 1967-68 academic year the Commission had limited success in stirring up interest for Wednesday night open meetings. Favoring liturgical reform, the Council voted down wearing surplices on Sunday morning, while, at the same time basic rubrics: use of hymnals and the `kiss of peace’ etc. remained a concern. Traditional Passionist cleric-brother tensions were reduced by appointing a Brother to the Commission, who proceeded to inform the Commission that “some of the brothers were not in favor of regular ‘Circumstances or guitar masses.'”

The Commission advocated some innovation: group meditation on Friday nights, Sunday Mass was changed to 11:15 A.M on visiting Sunday so parents could attend; there was interest in student homilies on Saturday night. In February, 1968 reading at evening meals was reinstated four nights a week but use of surplices was, again, voted down. Later, there was an attempt to reissue a liturgy newsletter and an announcement of Saturday discussion on Vatican II priesthood by Fr. Austin McKenna, C.P. As the academic year came to an end it was apparent that the Commission was less creative. In sum, while the Commission did express a desire to change, overall it was the experience of a representative process surrounding reform that was the primary contribution to the seminary culture.

Passionist seminary culture at Holy Family in the late 1960s was not radical nor protest oriented. Instead, programs were geared towards service and social outreach. Tutoring at St. Michael’s Church, Hartford, CT was initiated in February, 1967. Projects in February and March 1967 included tutoring at St. Michael’s Church in inner city Hartford CT. On April 26 the young people came to the seminary to attend an “open house.” On March 21, 1968 seminarians participated in an ecumenical day for Farmington teenagers. It was conducted in association with the Catholic and Congregational Churches of Farmington and Unionville. Later, in 1968, Hartford North End students were brought to the Springfield Zoo and on May 11 there was another picnic for St. Michael’s students at the monastery. Larger scale projects included a fast for hunger in India, a trip to an April 15 Peace March in New York City, and, plans to link up with a poor parish in Mexico with the aim of sending seminarians for the summer for “greater understanding of the missionary apostolate.”

Council minutes indicate however, that while projects were contemplated, it was often hard to follow through to successful completion. For example, plans for a spring 1967 Peace Vigil which needed permissions from the Director and Rector, were dropped in April because of “little time left for planning.” In 1968 an ecumenical day was also dropped.

Student Council minutes made mention of the Vietnam War when the staff of the student literary magazine, The Challenge, requested articles in March 1967. Other topics suggested for reflection were catechetics and Inner City projects. In April 1968 increased racial tensions in the United States prompted student interest to assist a NAACP project in Texas. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a Bible Service. In addition there was a student meeting to discuss the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders.

Passionist seminarians at Holy Family Monastery in West Hartford in the late 1960s did posses a culture of awareness and limited social action. They tried to achieve their ends by operating within their means. There is no indication in the Council minutes that seminary authorities found this culture disruptive.


There is a matter of fact tone to the Council minutes of 1967 to 1968. Seminary participation was always a concern. Overall minutes indicate there was an uneven response of the Student Council and seminarians to liturgical and social issues. It is hard to distinguish a liberal or conservative trend in student thinking.

Perhaps the lack of seminary excitement may be traced to rumors about closing the Holy Family Seminary. This was being discussed as early as May 1967 when one of the seminarians lamented “the lag of student spirit.” And, while Passionist leadership might have been wrestling with such a decision, in late November 1967 seminarians were finally promised ID cards. Student identity continues to be evident in their October proposal to elect two representatives “to collect the ideas of the Student Body and subsequently send them to the Provincial Chapter.” Later, in March 1968 the Council discussed cleric-brother tensions and a motion was passes stating that Brothers shouldn’t have to get up early and go to the bother of making a big breakfast for us on Sunday mornings. Bill Elliot, suggested the students make their own breakfast and a list be put up for volunteers to take care of this.

As early as January 5, 1968 it appears that the closing of the seminary is being considered when there is discussion of a “vague financial” situation. An official hearing was then held in which the changes in the seminary were discussed with the Director, Fr. Austin McKenna. On January 12, 1968 the Council heard that “it would be imprudent to write the Provincial and that it would be a waste of time to see the Ways and Means Committee concerning next year.” The first actual mention of Holy Family ceasing operation is March 8, 1968. The college did close in June 1968 and a college residence program was initiated in the fall of 1968 in Worcester, MA; Philadelphia, PA; and Toronto, Canada. Another signal was in March 1968 when the Student Council discussed the poor academic credentials of Holy Family. Needed lectures on sociology and economics were set for after Easter. By May 2, 1968 many projects were coming to a halt. Bill Elliot best summed up the mood; he “encouraged us to keep up the spirit til the end because the lectors don’t want this place to dwindle out of existence but to close at the end of the year.”

Bill Elliot, on May 12, 1968, at the final meeting of the Holy Family Student Council mentioned “he had heard from a reliable source that some of the professed were beginning to think that there was a lack of discipline in the Seminary since our Superiors were gone” to Provincial Chapter. Morale was low. At the same time, rare, “unofficial permission was granted to drink alcoholic beverages at a picnic.” A day to day existence seemed to predominate. Finally, at the final meeting it was proposed to take a school picture. “Then,” the final entry of the Student Council states, “someone asked if anyone had any new ideas to finish off the year with, [but] [n]one were offered right then.”


While a noble effort, the Student Council lacked a strong sense of direction. Its strength appears to be the experience itself. Overall, the minutes of the Student Council indicate that the Passionist seminary culture between 1967-1968 was trying to find a living relationship to an older Passionist identity and spirit while looking towards some future process of religious identity in a post-Vatican II American Catholic church. Neither radical nor status quo, the Student Council may best be described as an opportunity to test leadership skills on a limited and safe basis.

The minutes of the Student Council and the Holy Family Bulletin (1967) are located in the Passionist Historical Archives, Union City, NJ

Back to the Passionist Heritage Newsletter Archives »