I’ve Never Heard of the Passionists: Questions In Uncovering The Passionist Past.

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by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Province Historian

No longer can we presume that we Passionists know our own story. A new generation of United States Passionists have become members without ever visiting Dunkirk, New York. The Kremlin (the endearing name given to the provincial wing of St. Michael’s Union City) or St. Gabriel’s Retreat House in Brighton, Massachusetts evoke no strong memories. To them 425 G Salisbury Street will mean nothing at all.

Passionist history in the United States has always maintained a proper respect for our founder St. Paul of the Cross. Compelled To Speak (Newman Press, 1967) by Cassian Yuhaus, C.P. provided a good basic foundation of our nineteenth century period. Together, recent work by Roger Mercurio, C.P. The Passionists (Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1992), Caspar Caulfield, C.P. Only A Beginning (Passionist Press, 1990) and my own “Life, Death and Memory: Three Passionists In Hunan, China and The Shaping of An American Mission Perspective in the 1920s.” (Georgetown, Ph.D., 1992) provide us an international, domestic and missionary perspective. Even with these works, and others, we find ourselves at a critical moment in Passionist history.

Quite possibly, the statement “I’ve Never Heard of the Passionists” can be made by Passionists and non-Passionists. As North American Passionists, we continue to preach the Gospel and minister. Yet we suffer from historical amnesia. We are at a point where we are in danger of losing our identity and memory as Passionists. We will not know our past members, foundations, or legacy.

Creation of a Passionist Historical Commission does not represent panic. Rather, it acknowledges that since 1852 our Congregation has shared in domestic and overseas ministries. It is because of our longevity in ministry that historians are going to ask how have we served the church of the nineteenth century? What impact has the Passionist retreat movement had in the United States? Over time, how have the Passionists preached the message of the passion?

We Passionists will have to answer the questions. To do so the Historical Commission has diverse responsibilities. In conjunction with the Passionist archives it has the task of gathering and preserving Passionist historical documentation from the nineteenth and twentieth century. While, it is unlikely that much new material from the nineteenth century will be uncovered, there is an absolute necessity to preserve our twentieth century story. Hopefully the Commission will assist in educating the province and the people directly influenced by Passionist ministries that this material is valuable. Historians presume the legal and institutional documentation. What they will be most interested are the lives of these men who called themselves Passionists. The task before us, then, is to preserve the documentation that can tell the story of our men and ministry. What is that kind of documentation and how do we want to preserve it?

The long range goal of the Historical Commission is education. To educate effectively we must know the sources we possess. How we want to use them? We need to know the valuable historical material in each respective foundation whether monastery, parish, retreat house, or individual apostolate. Once aware of this material we need to think of new ways of education about our identity. Many automatically think that this task means big money, however, if we know what we possess grants may be possible. If we know what we possess and have an idea of how we want to present it then perhaps a benefactor may fund us.

In part, I am arguing for a renewal of our identity. Renewing an identity is much different than recreating. Our legacy is rich, however we do not know it. In some respects we have gone through a de-nationalization. The Sign which gave us national exposure ceased publication in 1982. Crossroads radio ceased broadcasting in the 1980s. Televised liturgies continue to be picked up by cable. Compassion reaches a diversified audience. This is a solid theological thrust. Yet the historical underpinnings appear to be weak in our apostolates. They are weak because they are, I believe presumed. Lay directors know little history of their respective foundations. People employed by our institutions know little of our charism. Anniversary celebrations appear to be an opportunity for a liturgy, a dinner, an anniversary edition where advertisers give us new financial support. Comparatively little reflection has been given to the historical depth of our ministries. Many individuals, Passionists and non-Passionists, possess the memory. We must find a means to let them share and teach us and one another.

The Historical Commission has to preserve documentation in order to teach. When presented with the idea of an Historical Commission I was urged to pick a group of individuals who see the importance and value of the Passionist experience. Through discussion, suggestions, and creative planning we have the opportunity to re-educate our province. The statement “I’ve never heard of the Passionists” can not become familiar. My experience in the Congregation has taught me you are good thinkers, men of vision and individuals who in your own unique way love the history of the Passionists. Our charge as an Historical Commission is to make our history available to ourselves and others. Through common sense, preservation of historical documentation, teaching, delegation and with others, dissemination of historical material that can be used in a practical means for our members and laity, inter-province affiliation and publishing, I believe historical awareness will be part of the story. Historical amnesia will then cease.

Passionist Heritage Newsletter, Spring 1997 issue »

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