Did You Read the Sign This Month? Thoughts on a Passionist Ministry

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

The Passionist Historical Archives, Compassion, and Passionist Missionaries are all located in the old Sign Building on Monastery Place in Union City, NJ. Sign was published by the Passionists from 1921-1982; Fr. Harold Purcell, C.P., was the first editor from 1921-1934. Leaving the magazine and the Passionists he went on to found the City of St. Jude in Montgomery, Alabama. Build Me A City: The Life of Reverend Harold Purcell, Founder of the City of St. Jude (Montgomery, Alabama: Pioneer Press, 1984) by Sister Mary Ruth Coffman, O.S.B., is a good biography of Father Purcell.

Historians have given limited historical reflection to the contribution of Sign to the American Catholic story. Frequently America, Commonweal or Catholic World have been the magazines used to gain the Catholic view in American society. While the latter were written for an intellectual audience, Sign tended to combine the intellectual and the literary. The market was always the Catholic family.

From 1921-1982 Sign had Passionist editors: Harold Purcell (1921-1934), Theophane Maguire (1934-1943), Ralph Gorman (1943-1966), Augustine Paul Hennessy (1967-1975), Arthur McNally (1976-1979), Patrick McDonough (1979-1982). Throughout the years at least seventy Passionist priests or brothers were assigned to work in the Sign offices or to be Sign preachers. Seeing your name on the weekend list to take a Sign call meant that you entered into a unique preaching culture which had its own protocol. In the Sign offices on Monastery Place the magazine was “put to bed” with valuable assistance from a production staff of laypeople such as Claire Foy.

Circulation figures prior to 1949 are incomplete. The first issue in 1921 was about 5,000 copies. By 1923 it was 25,000; by 1934 it had reached 50,000. In 1942 there were 120,000. By December 1964 Sign was reaching 320,485; it had become the fourth most popular Catholic magazine in the country behind Columbia (1,803,300), Catholic Digest (659,000), Extension (378,000). At the same time, 1964, Sign had a greater circulation than Harper’s or Atlantic Monthly.

In the 1960s print media gave way to electronic media. There is no doubt that Sign struggled to maintain readers. In December 1967 circulation was 244,654 and by June 1973 it fell to 127, 531. Throughout the late seventies the subscription rate remained around 130,000. By June 1981 it had dropped to 94,925. To appreciate the full scope of the Sign, historians will have to also take into account production costs, editorial content and leadership, promotion techniques, overall Catholic culture of the period, and the place of the magazine in relation to other Passionist apostolates.

On another level, the history of Sign, some sixty years, asks contemporary Passionists to see apostolates in an overall perspective of evangelization. Sign did contribute to American Catholic culture. Beginning in the 1920s “With the Passionists in China” has stood the test of time. Not only does it retain historical importance for Hunan province history; it represents a classic style of mission education prior to the Second Vatican Council of 1964.

At the same time Sign gave many Catholics an important literary forum. Sign was the first American Catholic magazine to have a woman’s column. Katherine Kurz Burton wrote “Woman to Woman” from 1933-1969. G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Enid Dinnis, Dorothy Day and Daniel Lord wrote articles for the magazine prior to World War II. In the 1950s John C. O’Brien was a contributing editor in Washington, Jerry Cotter was the drama critic, and Red Smith followed Don Dunphy as the sports editor. Writers such as Fulton J. Sheen, Jim Bishop, Andrew Greeley or Eileen Egan published some of their early work for the magazine. Overall, Sign subscribers did get a Catholic view. The Passionists must remember that this was an apostolate which will continue to be examined in the future.

Also, reflection on the Sign goes beyond that of St. Paul of the Cross Province. Sign was one of many Passionist magazines started in the early part of the twentieth century. Others were El Pasionario, Ecos de San Felicismo, La Voce di S. Pancrazio, La Stella del Mare, Il Crocifisso, L ‘Eco di Gabrielle, The Cross, Il Santuario di Laurigano, Golgatha, O Calvaro. Sometimes these magazines shared published material. Is there a unique literary style that is common to all these publications? More importantly historians, and Passionist historians specifically, have to continue to seek to understand diverse Passionist apostolates in an international context.

Sign is part of the history of St. Paul of the Cross Province. Appreciation of this apostolate is critical for ongoing dialogue with United States culture.

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