Closing a Monastery—Remembering a History

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

My favorite view of the Passionist foundation in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is heading north on Rt. 91 just north of Springfield, before the Chicopee exit. In the fall, loss of green tree foliage has always allowed the red roof and monastic stone edifice to stand out as it overlooks the Connecticut River. Over time, Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery has become a sacred place for many people in the Springfield diocese. The decision to sell the property compels Passionists and all associated with the Passionists to do some reflection.

Realistically, most people react to a closing in a personal way. Our Mother of Sorrows has indeed influenced me. Initially, it helped me learn about the Passionist Congregation as I participated in youth programs in the mid 1960s before I went on to the Passionist residence program in 1969 at Worcester. Later, from 1982 1985, I experienced the changing tides of the retreat movement as I worked with adults and youth. This Passionist foundation has shaped my identity. I, like many other Passionists, are part of the history of this foundation.

The closing raises a larger issue. What has been the history of this Passionist institution? A December 1970 Summary Land Survey of the Province of Saint Paul of the Cross states the fourteen plus acres were purchased on December 26, 1922 for $27,000. Another document (which has a December 11, 1922 purchase before the December 26 date) notes the land was sold to the Passionists by Katherine Fleming. Between 1922 and 1971 there were a total of thirty-four land transactions involving the Monastery or Crossroads Radio and T.V. land sites.

By 1927 small retreat groups began coming to pray in the original solid stone wing of Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery. Earlier, in 1908, St. Paul of the Cross Province had been split along the Ohio River. In 1923 the major Passionist foundations were in West Hoboken, (Union City) NJ, Pittsburgh, Boston, Dunkirk, Holy Cross Prep in Dunkirk and Baltimore. During the 1920s Provincials Stanislaus Grennan (1923-1929) and Justin Carey (1929-1932) were leading the Passionists into new ministries. The Archconfraternity of the Passion was founded in the 1920s and the Passionist educational program became more institutional and professional. Missionaries were sent to China in 1921 and in 1922 they were sent to Germany. By the late 1920s the Passionists began the apostolate to the “Colored Missions” in North Carolina.

Some of our present day foundations were in their beginning stages. Shelter Island was a swamp. St. Patrick’s Monastery (present day rectory of Our Lady of Angels Parish) in Kingsbridge, Bronx, bought in 1920, was being sold because it was in too congested an area; and negotiations had commenced to purchase the Allien Estate on Palisade Avenue in Riverdale (the present day Riverdale Research Center) which was bought on September 24, 1924 for $235,500. Later, the April 1925 readers of The Sign, the Passionist periodical first published in 1921, were told that the Retreat House of the Immaculate Conception in Jamaica, NY, was accepting retreatants.

The Passionists hoped West Springfield would serve the emerging lay retreat movement. Joseph Chinnici, OFM, in Living Stones: The History and Structure of the Catholic Spiritual Life in the United States (Macmillan, 1989) portrays this movement as one of the major devotional thrusts of the twentieth century. Over the years, as the retreat movement grew and expanded so did the buildings. Maintenance costs and declining number of religious are two important reasons for closing the West Springfield Monastery. Another is the decline in the number of retreatants. The relationship of the above issues had a bearing on the closing of the retreat movement in Brighton, MA, Baltimore, MD, and North Palm Beach, FL.

Why has the number of retreatants declined? The answer is not simple. In part, the success of the retreat movement has been built on the premise that one goes on retreat for an entire weekend. However, Witold Rybczynski in Waiting for the Weekend (Penguin, 1991) explains that the weekend as we know it came of age at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. One can argue, therefore, that weekend retreats, which started with small numbers in the 1920s, was a creative response to the weekend experience. Both Passionists and retreatants found the retreat weekend to be a powerful experience. It is imperative that we Passionists make an effort to document this important spiritual movement in the United States Church. United States Catholic missionaries went on to develop this movement in other parts of the world.

Rybczynski argues that today, many more people work on the weekend than thirty years before. The meaning of leisure has changed. The time for leisure has changed and leisure for many people has become something they work to achieve. Today, leisure has less to do with spiritual things. In fact all human activity over the past century has undergone tremendous social and technological change. This has affected the church, devotional life, and the retreat movement specifically.

This information has to be taken into account when discussing the decline in the number of retreatants. Changing demographics and ethnic religious practice are not the only questions that must be asked to understand how the lay retreat apostolate will move into the future?

Does our history assist in the development of a creative response? A creative response to ministry has to take into account the nature of our charism as Passionists. The charism must be understood on three levels: the overall mission of the Congregation, how the ministry is understood as part of the Province, and the makeup and ability of the local community to respond to the respective situation. Understanding the past will lay a foundation for the understanding of the future.

It is important to keep in mind that the Prep Seminary at Dunkirk, NY, the Chapel Car in North Carolina, the Chinese Missions, and The Sign, or the chaplaincy at Snake Hill in New Jersey were creative ventures of their day. While accepted now as part of our history, in their era they were all considered risks. They were risks taken in response to the needs of their day. As a congregation what are the creative issues we face? How are we to minister to them?

The closing of the West Springfield monastery raises a larger issue: the importance of historical memory. How do we Passionists want to remember the contribution of the West Springfield foundation to the Catholic Church in Springfield and for that matter in the United States? It is very easy to immediately look to the retreat movement as the primary apostolate of Our Mother of Sorrows. However, one must remember West Springfield was the home of the novitiate. Many community members went out from the monastery to conduct parish missions or novenas. Still others served local parishes or the various religious communities in the area. In addition, West Springfield was the home of the Radio and T.V. apostolate begun by Fr. Fidelis Rice, C.P.

The history of West Springfield is more than just Passionist history. It is part of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Springfield. On the local level it is an important religious institution in the history of West Springfield. Because the Passionists have preached the Gospel in western Massachusetts, it is crucial that those who have preached it and have received it have a sense of this history.

In order to preserve an adequate history of the Passionist presence in West Springfield, I am asking any Passionist to share their memory of the foundation. In three to four pages I am inviting anyone to: 1) state the years they lived in the Monastery; 2) explain what life was like as a student or what type of apostolates you were involved in; 3) reflect on what this Monastery has meant to you as a Passionist religious; 4) state what contribution the foundation has made to the Catholic Church in the diocese or the nation.

Likewise if you know any other lay retreatant, benefactor, priest or religious that would like to share their thoughts, please contact them.

Send the reflections to me at the Passionist Spiritual Center, 5801 Palisade Ave., Riverdale, NY, 10471 by October 1, 1993. They will be compiled and distributed to members of the Province, the Passionist Historical Archives, the Archives of the Diocese of Springfield, and the West Springfield Historical Commission.

Historically, we Passionists have not done well closing foundations. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to learn from the apostolate and to give us and our supporters a foundation to move into the future. A humble reminder to all of us is that it is you that has preached the Gospel and made history. Honest historical reflection allows us to appreciate how life is sacred.

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