Passionist Student Life in the Forties

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by Columkille Regan, C. P.

In this article Columkille Regan describes his experiences as a Passionist student in the 1940s. It is part of an ongoing series about Passionist history which encourages individuals, Passionists and non-Passionists, to describe how the Congregation has influenced them in a personal way. We invite any of our readers to do the same.


Religious Life

Passionist student life in the forties was conditioned by the culture of Passionist religious and community in the first half of this century. Our home life was a highly structured monastic style of observance: choir, study, recreation, meals, exercise and rest.

Choir Observance

Chanting the full Office of the day from the Roman Breviary; communal mental prayer and celebration of the Eucharist was the daily rhythm that marked each day. This presence in the monastery choir accounted for approximately five and one half hours of our day. At 2:00 AM we rose for Matins and Lauds (one hour); 6:00 AM Prime and Tierce, mental prayer and Mass (two hours); 11:45 AM we gathered for Sext and None (fifteen minutes); 2:30 PM Vespers and public spiritual reading (one half hour); at 5:30 PM we gathered for mental prayer (one hour); finally at 7:30 PM the day concluded with Compline and Night Prayer (one half hour).

Liturgical Life

Our liturgical life was rich. We observed all the various feasts of the church with their varying degrees of solemnity. For example, first class feasts had the greatest solemnity which meant the Office was sung instead of chanted; oftentimes a first class feast meant that we had the day off from study and class and a festive meal. Second class feasts received less solemnity and meant only one half a day off from class and a festive meal. During the 1940s, we used the Promptuarium. It contained all the propers for the feast days; it had just been written by Fr. Christopher Berlo, C.P. Learning and singing of Gregorian Chant, polyphony, etc., was presumed to be the job or responsibility in each house.


This was another key aspect of this cloistered life. Speaking was never permitted in the refectory where the religious ate. Instead during most of the noon and evening meals, the Passionists listened to religious or pious readings. In the morning we stood in the “coffee room” eating bread and coffee. Three days a week we would abstain from meat. Once a week we would make public penance or “culpa”—this meant prostrating on the floor outside of the refectory to ask forgiveness. As another means of penance we would eat on the floor one day and observe days of total silence during the various Novenas. We would sleep in our religious habit on a straw mattress. There was no socializing or conversation permitted between students and professed Passionists or “seculars” except in the line of work. For example, sacristans could talk to altar boys, etc. There were no radio, no TV, no outside movies, few magazines and no newspapers. This insured that the “world” would be kept out!

Students and Choir Observance

In spite of the fact that St. Paul of the Cross did not want students to break their nights sleep and rise for Matins and Lauds, the General Chapter following the death of the founder reversed this situation. The only ones who were regularly dispensed were the teachers of the students! Our experience was, in view of this, ironic. Students not only had to get up for Matins; we, in fact, became the backbone of the Choir Observance. This anomaly was compounded during World War II when approximately seventy priests served in the Armed Forces as chaplains. Therefore, the number of priests at choir observance was usually limited to the superiors, a few older men, and those Director and Lectors priests dealing with students. However, the students were always there!

To insure that the Observance was maintained in all monasteries (there was no such thing as a House of Philosophy or a House of Theology), each monastery had one class of students stationed under its roof. Each year there was a big juggling act to decide whether or not the class would stay or go to another house; the move depended on the size of the class and the space available in that or another house.

Students: Handicrafts and Recreation

There was time for recreation after dinner and supper. Usually the students sat around a table at the recreation room or sometimes in a circle for “joyous” conversation and relaxation. Every Thursday there was a half day of recreation. Usually, a half day meant that we would leave the property and go for a walk which lasted for several hours. Sometimes we participated in sports events on the property. On Sunday about one quarter of the day was given over to recreation time.

During recreation period or on workdays, students cut hair, made sandals and leather belts. We made Passionist “Signs,” rosary beads, and birettas. The biretta was worn at dinner and supper and all formal liturgical activities. Passionist brothers ran the tailor shop so they made the religious habits and mantles.

Formation of Students

Maintaining a choir observance comparable to the Trappists, living in residences called “monasteries,” and reading required books like Christ, the Ideal of the Monk by Dom Marmion, it should be no surprise that we considered ourselves “a monastic community” at home! At regular intervals most Directors of Students gave conferences on religious and Passionist life and history. They also held private conferences with each student dealing with his life, health, well being, progress in studies, and daily life as a Passionist. Each student had a confessor for internal forum material. As the students moved from the philosophy program into the years of theology, the accent in formation gradually shifted from priesthood to pastoral practice. All of this occurred within the cloistered monastic regime. There was no “hands-on” pastoral practice, ministerial experience, or learning under supervision. Skills were achieved instantaneously with ordination!

Students and Housekeeping

Students were the meal servers and housekeepers of the monasteries. Each day fifteen minutes to one-half hour were set aside for “offices:” cleaning bathrooms, chapel, sacristy, library, recreation rooms, corridors, stairwells, etc. Most Saturday afternoons were set apart for a half day of work to wash, shine, wax, and clean the inside areas of the monastery or work outside on the lawn, shrubs, etc. If there was snow then we had to shovel it.

An interesting consequence of this mind-set “that students clean the house” is that generations of priests “graduated” from these chores never to raise a hand again to care for the house. In the sixties when a few monasteries were designated as student houses, lay people were hired to clean our houses! So much for monastic ora et labora!

Students’ Academic Program

Ratio Studiorum was the program of study followed by all Passionists throughout the world. After novitiate each student was expected to spend three years in philosophy then four years in theology. All our Directors and Lectors were Passionists. Usually each class of students residing in a separate monastery had its own Director of Students. When classes were doubled up (this happened frequently in Union City), one Director was appointed.

My class was professed August 15, 1942. First year philosophy (1942-43) was in Dunkirk, NY. John Mark Aleckna was Director and Lectors were Justin Mulcahy (Church History & Chant) and Alban Lynch (Philosophy). Second year philosophy (1943-44) was in Scranton, PA. Brian Burke was Director and Lectors were Ignatius Formica (Philosophy), Dunstan Stout (Church History) and Luke Missett (Speech); he would often spend two to three weeks throughout the year with each class. Third year philosophy (1944-45) remained in Scranton, PA. John Mark Aleckna was our Director again and our Lectors were Alan McSweeney (Philosophy) and John Stephen Gresser (Sociology—a unique course on the sociology and political theory of papal encyclicals). First year theology (1945-46) was in Jamaica, NY. Jerome Does was Director and Lectors were Theodore Foley (Theology) and Gerard Rooney (Scripture). Second year theology (1946-47) was also in Jamaica, NY. Our Director was Claude Ennis and Lectors were Ronald Murray (Theology), Victor Donovan (Scripture) and Paul Francis Nager (Canon Law). Third year theology (1947-48) was spent in Union City, NJ. Eugene Fitzpatrick and Jude Mead were Directors. Lectors were Roland Hoffman (Theology), Aidan Mahoney (Scripture) and Ralph Balzer and Nick Gill (Canon Law); Nick became our Lector after Ralph Balzer died suddenly at St. Mary’s Hospital in September 1947. From 1948-49 we spent fourth year theology at West Springfield. Jude Mead was our Director. Lectors were Richard Kugelman (Scripture) and Nick Gill (Canon Law and Theology). After our ordination on May 4, 1949, Maurice Kanzleiter taught Sacred Eloquence (1949-50) in West Springfield, and Martin Tooker was Director. However, Silvan Rouse and I never took this course in sermon preparation. Instead, we were sent directly to Rome, Italy, for studies.

The advantage of small classes and intimate associating with professors was obvious. Most of the teachers were quite good and had time for private consultation. Most professors knew their material and had a rudimentary library for their discipline. However, the monastic schedule always dictated the academic when there was a conflict.

The disadvantage was also obvious. It was not remedied until the sixties. “How could we have the choir observance if there were no students in our monasteries?” This argument persisted all of those prior years. Religious choir observance was the priority; academic demands were secondary. As a result there were poor libraries, no interchange or association between upper and lower classmen, no faculty meetings, etc.—all of which are taken for granted in any seminary academic program.

In Retrospect

Seminary life was not a time of questioning. We were absorbing a life-style and values, enduring at times the quirks and arbitrary nature of untrained Directors, while at the same time supporting each other in a lifestyle that we believed would change when we “graduated” and were ordained. Bit by bit we absorbed the values of prayer and study. We looked forward to the day when we too could be ministers of the Word of the Cross.

Only in the last couple of years of my student life did we wake up to what we were missing as a result of our unique system of geographic class separation. We finally began to see what was lost because we did not possess an academic atmosphere that was intellectually challenging or exciting. Instead we were sheltered, exposed to a restricted curriculum with no possibility of electives, personal investigation, or responsibility. The program, in my opinion, did not foster an atmosphere of intellectual growth unless one was selected to go on for graduate studies on the university level. Neither did it foster, what one author has called “the apostolic itch.” We had been trained to wait and be “missioned.” For many Passionists “Sunday work” was the extent of their apostolic activity. When I look around today I see many who are content to be “at home.” Because they are not self-starters, they do not take advantage of the diverse apostolic avenues open to them.

Looking back I must say that student life was a demanding and mostly happy time. It was, however, so simplistic. We were told “keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you,” “we aren ‘t intellectuals,” “reflect on the sacred vs secular.” The Passionist culture told us “students lead the contemplative life, priests lead the active life.” Priesthood became a privileged caste, missionaries were more important than parish or “de familia” priests. And all were more important than the lay brothers! No wonder the awareness that we were an apostolic community (with a great contemplative tradition indeed) and not a monastic community was such a bombshell and threat to so many.

In conclusion I thank God that today religious formation—at least on the books—is, in my opinion, far superior to what took place fifty years ago. It is holistic: spiritual, religious, academic, pastoral, physical and emotionally integrated. Now all we need is students!

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