Hispanic Ministry in Holy Cross Province

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Even before Holy Cross Province was formally established Passionists in the United States were engaged in Spanish-speaking ministry. This ministry began “below the border” in Mexico as early as 1865. Father Peter Magagnotto had brought a group of Italian religious to California. Their difficulties were so great that Father John Dominic Tarlattini was sent out to Virginia City to either salvage the mission or to close it. It was decided that the mission would be closed. The following March Father John Dominic accompanied Fathers Peter Magagnotto and Amadeo Garibaldi to Mexico. There on October 20, 1865 they took possession of the Church of St. Joseph in Tacubaya. The foundation at Tacubaya was considered part of the American Province of St. Paul of the Cross. It remained in St. Paul of the Cross Province until 1893 when it became part of the Spanish Province of the Sacred Heart. During that period missionaries went to Mexico directly from Italy or from the growing American Province. All became members of St. Paul of the Cross Province. The last Americans went in 1892.

American Passionists also took part in the foundation of the Argentine Province of the Immaculate Conception. The first Passionist in the Argentine were from the Province of St. Joseph. In 1880 the Rector of St. Michael’s Monastery at Union City, Father Timothy Pacetti and Father Clement Finnegan went to the Argentine. They were followed in 1881 by Father Nilus Mastrojanni and Father Fidelis Kent Stone and Brother Ubald. Many other Americans followed during the next several decades, including Father Stephen Kealey, Father Thomas O’Connor, Father Maurice Smith, Father Edmund Hill, Father John Joseph Hertenberger, Father Isidore Dwyer and Father Paul Joseph Nussbaum (later Bishop of Corpus Christi). From Argentina Father Fidelis Kent Stone and others founded houses in Chile.

Shortly after the foundation of Holy Cross Province one of the Spanish-speaking missionaries in Argentina was selected as the first Bishop of Corpus Christi. Since much of this part of the State of Texas had a large Spanish-speaking population, ministry to these people was of paramount importance for the new Bishop and the Passionist priests who served under him. Father Isidore Dwyer and Father Fidelis Kent Stone were among some of the Passionists in Corpus Christi who could minister to the Spanish-speaking. Bishop Nussbaum was also assisted by two priests from the Spanish Holy Family Province.

Holy Cross Province experienced close ties with Spanish-speaking peoples, not only through ministry in the Diocese of Corpus Christi, but also hosting exiles from Mexico. The story as told by Father Felix Ward in “The Passionist” is as follows. General Carranzza entered Toluca in August of 1914. The Army took possession of our monastery there and the religious were driven out. At that moment a class of Passionist students from Spain were assigned to the Toluca community. The Passionists were finally released, but expelled from the country. They found their way to Loredo where one of the Passionists there put them on a train for St. Paul, Kansas. On September 24 they arrived at the Passionist monastery in Kansas. There were four priests, eight students and two Brothers. Father Alfred Cagney, the Provincial, advised that they be brought to Norwood Park, Chicago. There they lived with the American students for three years and were eventually ordained in Chicago. Our religious who were students in Chicago at that time always spoke with high regard of their Spanish classmates. One later became a General Consultor. I believe that one or two others were killed by the Communists during the Spanish Civil War.

In the 1920s Bishop John J. Cantwell of Los Angeles-San Diego, in a letter dated January 19, 1923, invited the Passionists to his Diocese. In his letter the Bishop wrote: “One of the old missions, San Fernando, which at the present time is a splendid parish, can be vacated any time. As there are some Mexicans in the Congregation, it would be necessary that the priests in charge should be able to speak Spanish and be sympathetic with the poor. . . Would the Passionists think of a foundation in Los Angeles?” Father Eugene Creegan, Provincial at that time, hastened to Los Angeles and accepted the Bishop’s invitation. However, we did not take the parish at the San Fernando Mission with its Spanish ministry.

After the foundation was made and the monastery built at Sierra Madre, we read of a one-week mission at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Los Angeles, conducted by Father Casimir DiCristina and Father Isidore Dwyer. This was the second Mexican mission conducted by Father Casimir. From that time on Father Isidore and Father Casimir began conducting Spanish missions quite regularly in California. On October 17-22, 1932, Father Isidore conducted a retreat in Spanish for the Spanish-speaking clergy of the Los Angeles Diocese. Twenty-six priests attended. The retreat was given at the new retreat house in Sierra Madre. Year after year the Spanish-speaking priests in the Diocese would come to the retreat house for similar retreats. In 1939 Father Edward (Guido) Viti became a member of the Sierra Madre community and began conducting Spanish-speaking missions.

Spanish-speaking parishes were contacted for retreatants at the new retreat house. From the very beginning Mexican-American Catholics were invited to the retreat house and ministered to there. It is not clear whether retreats were given in Spanish also, or only in English.

In the 1950s Father Henry Vetter began his Spanish-speaking missions both in California and later in Baja California, Mexico. Out of this would come our care of several parishes in Tijuana, the establishment of an orphanage and the entire support program of ABC. Later in the 1970s the Corps of Passionist Volunteers annually served in Baja California for a two or three weeks program among the poor. The Corps of Passionist Volunteers was organized by Brother Kevin O’Malley. Among the religious who have served on the west coast in Spanish-speaking ministry and in Tijuana are the names of Father Isidore Dwyer, Father Casimir DiCristina, Father Edward Viti, Father Miles Bero, Father Warren Womack, Father Henry Vetter, Father Jerome Stowell, Father Joel Gromowski, Father Cyprian Towey, Father Arthur Carrillo, Father Clement Barron, Father Richard Padilla, and others.

Passionists from Holy Cross Province have had ties with Mexico over the years. I have mentioned the Spanish students who found refuge in Chicago. Later when there was possibility of our losing our properties, Father Jerome Reutermann went to Mexico as an American citizen to obtain possession of our Mexican properties and to hold it in the name of the Congregation. Father Bonaventure Oberst, as General Consultor, was concerned with the Passionists in Mexico. In 1941, Father Leo Scheibel was sent from Sierra Madre to Mexico to assist the Passionist pastor of our parish there for some time.

In 1946 Father Malcolm LaVelle, General Consultor, re-organized the Mexican foundations. As a result the General entrusted Mexico to the care of the Italian Immaculate Heart of Mary Province. Father Edward Guido was sent to Mexico in August of 1946 to act as temporary Superior in Tacubaya. Several years earlier Father Edward had been there as a missionary and his journal of those years has recently been retyped. Several religious have studied Spanish in Mexico, for example, Father Jerome Stowell in 1947, Father Joel Gromowski and Father Warren, among others. Father Warren taught at the Passionist seminary in Mexico City for several years. The English-speaking church of St. Patrick’s in Mexico City is conducted by the Eastern Province. Father Malcolm LaVelle served there for a year or so in the 1960s.

During the 1970s there has been a growing awareness of the importance of ministry by Passionists to the Spanish-speaking within the United States. The work of our men in Spanish-speaking missions on the west coast, the ministries in Tijuana, the annual CPV Program in Baja California, the location of the Catholic Theological Union in the inner-city of Chicago with its large Hispanic population, the fact that several of our religious come from Mexican-American families, – these and other factors have acquainted the Province with the need for ministry to Hispanics.

The Provincial Chapter of 1975 recognized what we had done in the past and the needs of the present in asking the Province to develop further Spanish-speaking ministries. As a result of this Chapter Decree the Provincial Council set-up an Hispanic community at San Antonio near the Mexican-American Cultural Center. This community with its very special style mission (called the San Antonio Alternative) has had a marked impact upon the Province. Part of the Comprehensive Plan of the Province is a concerted effort to interest young men of Hispanic background in our Passionist community life and ministry.

We have also attracted to our Province several religious from the Spanish-speaking Provinces of the Congregation. Argentine missionaries came several years to the west coast to preach Spanish-speaking missions there. Older and especially younger men also are showing a real interest in learning the language and understanding the culture.

Passionists of the 1980s as they seek to develop ministries adaptable to the Spanish-speaking within the United States are witnesses to a rich heritage of seventy-five years in Holy Cross Province and are preparing for a plentiful harvest in the decades ahead.

Very Rev. Roger Mercurio, C. P.
Provincial Superior
January 21, 1982

Please contact Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P. at [email protected] if you have any comments. Permission of Archives needed for publication.