The 1941 Inspiration of Passionist Father Alfred Cagney to First Promote the Newman Beatification

Home / Publications / Passionist Heritage Newsletter Articles / The 1941 Inspiration of Passionist Father Alfred Cagney to First Promote the Newman Beatification

By Fr. Rob Carbonneau, C.P.

Fr. Alfred Cagney, C.P.


Increased attention is being given to the September 2010 beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The official papal visit website ( reports that Pope Benedict XVI will visit England where he will lead a prayer vigil and beatify Cardinal Newman. For decades Passionists have proudly celebrated the fact their own Blessed Dominic Barberi (1792-1849) received John Newman into the Catholic Church in Littlemore, England on October 9, 1845. This essay, researched and written by the staff of the Passionist Historical Archives, employs documents found within the PHA’s collections. It jumps ahead almost 100 years to 1941 to show that, in fact, another Passionist, Father Alfred Cagney (1872-1941), played an essential part of the Newman canonization story. Most importantly, it adds depth and needed historical accuracy to a statement on the papal visit website that it was, “an American Dominican, Fr Charles Callan, who brought the question of Newman’s sanctity out into the open in an article in America magazine in 1941.” In fact, Father Cagney proved to be an inspirational figure in the cause to canonize Cardinal Newman.

Father Cagney’s inspiration about John Cardinal Newman

During his early years in the Passionist seminary and later as a Passionist priest, Father Alfred Cagney read, studied and appreciated the writings of John Cardinal Newman (1801-1890). Cagney, over the years, became attracted to Newman’s interior spirit and image of sanctity.

In August of 1941, Father Cagney had read in the Jesuit magazine America about Jesuit Father Daniel M. O’Connell’s own interest in the life of Cardinal Newman. After discovering this, Cagney had what he would later call, “an inspiration.” It was simple plan, and Cagney wrote O’Connell on August 26 with the suggestion that the Jesuit should, “start a church wide drive of prayer for the Cardinal Newman canonization.” This was because O’Connell was so familiar with the life and works of Newman as evidenced in the aforementioned magazine.

On August 28, Cagney received a reply in which O’Connell declined his suggestion. In fact, O’Connell had previously rejected fellow Jesuit James J. Daly’s attempt to recruit him for the same task. O’Connell respectfully made clear to Cagney his reason not to be the Newman promoter. Then, O’Connell issued a challenge to Cagney:

While I thank you for suggesting that I should be the Promotor of his cause, I fear that it would not get very far. I have always been on the side of ‘lost causes’… What would you think of writing an open letter to America on the general subject?

O’Connell, with his knowledge and interest in Newman’s importance, was directly suggesting to Father Cagney that since it was he who made the suggestion that Newman be canonized, then it should be he who should write an open a letter to America magazine and set a plan in action. How would Cagney respond?

Father Cagney takes concrete action on his inspiration about John Cardinal Newman

Then residing at St. Gabriel’s Monastery, Brighton, Massachusetts, Cagney made a strategic and very important decision. On October 7, 1941 he took the initiative to write Dominican Father Charles J. Callan (1877-1962), editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. In the letter, the Passionist offered details about his exchange of letters with Daniel O’Connell, acknowledging that both men were in agreement as to the importance of the Newman cause. He even cited O’Connell’s response as, “the quintessence of sweetness.”

Moreover, O’Connell acknowledged how happy he had been to receive Cagney’s letter, emphasizing his point, “especially as [regards] the prayer that Card. Newman might be raised to the altar [of sanctity].”

Cagney further explained to Callan that, “For years I have been praying in my daily Mass for the canonization of Cardinal Newman and Mother Seton.” He was persuasive, humble, complimentary and even challenging in order to get Callan behind the Newman cause:

Now, dear Fr. Callan, I have not yet answered Fr. O’Connell but I mean to tell him that I am a nobody and would not know how to write such a letter whereas the man who starts this movement, with hope of arresting attention should be of weighty name known nationally or better internationally. Then came my second thought (which according to a proverb is often wiser) that the man who writes the review of Dr. O’Brien’s book [editor’s note: Callan had reviewed Cardinal Newman, Scholar of Oxford in Homiletic and Pastoral Review Vol. 39: 50] is the providential man and the review itself, sounding as it does like a legitimate anticipation of the Church’s judgment, printed in millions of leaflets, would be a most powerful slogan in promoting the holy cause.

Born in Ireland, Cagney then played his nationalistic Irish card, saying, “Another thought came to me and it is that poor England as she expiates her national crimes today needs her great Son, John Henry Newman on her altars… Please don’t let me down but (using your own words) do this great service to the Church and to the world.”

On October 10, 1941, Cagney indeed sent his response to O’Connell, “Your suggestion that I write a letter to America at first tickled my vanity but when I was forced to reflect that I am a nobody and would not know how to write such a letter, whereas the man who starts a movement for the canonization of Cardinal Newman should have such weight to his name as will arrest universal attention.”

However, this was no cop-out. In that same October 10 letter, Cagney made a specific suggestion to O’Connell that Dominican Father Callan was, in fact, the better person to compose the letter. Cagney strengthened his case by reporting to O’Connell that he had actually proposed the idea to Callan. And if America agreed, then the Dominican, “would be willing to write this letter.”

Father Cagney and Callan cooperate to promote the Newman cause in America magazine

Events continued to keep pace. Earlier, on October 8, Callan had given a positive response to Cagney’s proposal, “I should be happy to do anything I could towards having Cardinal Newman raised to the altar and declared a Doctor of the Church.” Callan then asked Cagney to let O’Connell know that the Dominican was willing and just wanted the official permission. On October 20, Cagney received news that O’Connell agreed that Callan should write an, “open letter to America urging the canonization of our beloved Card. Newman.” While O’Connell stated that the Jesuit editor of America, Father Francis X. Talbot, was waiting to receive the letter from Callan, whom he trusted to complete the assignment, Cagney was charged with the important task of issuing the formal invitation on behalf of America.

Cagney agreed, and on October 22 wrote to Callan, “I ask you to inaugurate this holy movement which I am sure will have God’s blessing upon it and besides will bring a blessing on your Reverence.” Cagney also included the specific suggestion that Callan, “embody [in the letter] as much of your ‘review’ as possible.”

On November 10 Cagney received a copy of Callan’s letter to America. By November 11 Cagney wrote Callan:

[My] hat went into the air for joy that I was the possessor of a ‘pearl of great price.’ Believe me, Father, you have fired a shot that would be heard around the world and a better shot nobody could have fired. As soon as we get the leaflets I will let you have a big bunch of them.

On November 20 Callan shared his joy with Cagney that Father Talbot at America requested that Callan rework his “Open Letter” on Newman into a “feature article” one page in length, “so as to attract attention more easily,” for interest in Newman. It was published the week of November 20, 1941.

The main work was now finished. The promotion for the canonization of Cardinal Newman and the addition that he be declared a Doctor of the Church was in print. On November 28 Callan acknowledged Cagney’s contribution:

I am very grateful for your good letter of November 25 and especially for the sketch of yourself which you included. Indeed that is not going into my waste basket, but into my scrap-book. You yourself must be a saint to have written that you are a nobody and of no account after such a distinguished career as you have had. You are really the prime mover in this whole business. My book review of Cardinal Newman would have gone undiscovered except for you. Let us pray that something worthwhile be done.

In a postscript Callan added that he was, “receiving many wonderful letters from all over the country.”

Passionist Father Alfred Cagney was more than a “nobody”

Born John Cagney on June 24, 1872 in Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland, Father Cagney migrated to the United States at 15 and within a few weeks entered the Passionist Preparatory Seminary at St. Mary Monastery in Dunkirk, New York. He professed his vows in 1890 and was then known by Alfred, his Passionist name. The joy of his 1895 ordination, when he was almost 23, at St. Paul, Kansas, was saddened by the news that his mother had died of sickness in New York City after arriving from Ireland for the ceremony.

Contemporaries recall Cagney had a strong knowledge of American thinker Orestes Brownson and the theological writings of John Cardinal Newman. After ordination Father Cagney served as a Passionist seminary professor in Humanities (1896 – 1897), then Philosophy (1897 – 1902). In 1902 he became the first provincial secretary of St. Paul of the Cross Province. He was appointed Vicar (assistant leader) of the Holy Cross Retreat, Cincinnati, Ohio. When the provinces divided in 1906, Father Cagney was Rector (local leader) of Normandy, Missouri. In 1908 he was elected first Consultor to the provincial of Holy Cross Province for six years. He was then elected provincial of Holy Cross Province for two terms. From 1920 to 1925, Cagney was then General Consultor in Rome. He handled Passionist matters in England and Ireland, and as well as efforts in Passionist missions in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. He was a key person who worked behind the scenes to get the Passionists to enter China. Domestically, Cagney was instrumental in founding the Passionist monastery in Des Moines, Iowa. From 1926 to 1928, he was professor of Moral Theology. From 1930 to 1931, he was Procurator of the Chinese Missions at Hankou, China, then he had to return because of failed health. At home he was appointed Chaplain at St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland from 1933 to 1936. He served on the National Committee of the Revision of the Catechism. He had been in failing health for several years in Brighton, Massachusetts before his death on December 17, 1941.

In sum, Cagney was an excellent retreat preacher. Clergy, Religious and Laity all benefited not only from his wisdom and excellent delivery, but from the tall, stately figure with the kindly face, sparkling Irish-blue eyes and Celtic wit. His obituary writer tells us that he had an engaging and magnetic personality. Although perfectly at ease in the company of eminent Cardinals and Bishops, his kindness, tact and graciousness won the love, confidence and friendship of those in humbler stations of life. No one would objectively agree with Cagney’s own self description and appraisement that “I am a nobody.”

Conclusion: Cagney has “begun a battle for the Lord”

On November 30, O’Connell wrote Cagney saying he was sad to get his note that he was in the hospital. As an interesting aside, O’Connell stated that prominent Catholic Masie Ward (Sheed) wrote that “…she could have had no hope for the cause [of Newman’s canonization].” O’Connell thought otherwise, “I think you have begun a battle for the Lord that will end in the eventual victory.”

Learning of Cagney’s death on December17, 1941, on December 21 Callan wrote Passionist Father Bertrand Weaver:

[Cagney] was a grand man. From my little correspondence with him I can see that he was a saint himself. He is surely well off now. Perhaps he will do more now for the Cardinal Newman cause than if he had stayed with us.

Correctly, in an essay entitled “A Footnote to the Newman Movement” published in America on February 21, 1942, Father Weaver recounted Cagney’s inspiration to get Callan to first promote the Newman Movement.

Back to the Passionist Heritage Newsletter Archives »