Reflections on West Springfield & My Life as a Passionist
With this contribution by Fr. Richard F. Leary, C.P., the Passionist Heritage Newsletter continues its feature of individual Passionists sharing their reflections on their life and ministry. We encourage Passionists throughout the world to write about their experience in the Congregation. Please send any contribution to the Historical Archives in Union City, NJ.
I regret that I can’t be present for the “ritual closing” of Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery. It’s like being unable to attend the funeral of a beloved friend.
Funerals are of great importance in rural Jamaican culture. A funeral is the social event of the week. Nearly everybody attends, and nobody leaves the burial place until the last shovelful of earth has been deposited. Hymns are being sung all during the burial, like “Shall We Gather By The River,” “No Grave Gonna Hold This Body Down, and “Precious Memories.”
Here are some of my precious memories of Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery. I first saw it in early July 1938 when I came there as a postulant. I was the first to arrive and was brought out to greet the novices. Several of my classmates entered the refectory halfway through supper and were embarrassed. Next morning Father Cassian Sullivan, the outgoing Master of Novices, assembled us after mass and said: “Now we go down for coffee and bread. But on Sunday we have coffee and cake.” How we lived for Sunday mornings!
The Provincial Chapter was in session there, so new superiors were elected. Father Berchmans Lanagan was the new Novice Master. I had met him when I was in high school, and he came to preach a mission at our Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Burlington, VT; assisting were Fathers Leonard Gownley and Herbert Young. Father John Joseph Endler, of St. Ann’s Novena Fame, was the outgoing Rector, and Father Adelbert Poletti succeeded him. They were completely different personalities. At Sunday Mass (“the fisherman’s Mass”) Father John Joseph Endler announced the change: “Father Adelbert Poletti is the new superior, and he will make himself known in due time.” Indeed, he did! Soon after the chapel was closed to the public on Sundays and Holy Days by order of Bishop O’Leary. This was a cruel blow to the people of the area. It appears the chapel was closed because of the complaints from local pastors that we were drawing their people away from their parishes.
We were vested with the Passionist habit on August 14, 1938, in the little public chapel. After the ceremony Father Henry Codyer, the Vice-Master, sent us out in the yard to walk around for two hours. Brother Joseph had fitted me with second-hand sandals which were too tight and caused blisters. That night we went to bed wearing our habit and heavy underwear in the sweltering humidity of West Springfield. At 1:50 AM we were rudely awakened by the Matins rattle. I was bathed in sweat and could hardly get the sandals on my swollen feet. I felt that this was no life for me, and I had better go home in the morning. Instead we had to get ready for the afternoon profession ceremony of the class ahead of us. We carried chairs from the fourth-floor attic to accommodate the visitors. It was cruel and unusual punishment as most of us were suffering from prickly heat rash. Soon after we packed our belongings and transferred the novitiate to its original location in Pittsburgh. Father Gordian Murphy accompanied us as we left West Springfield.
In August of 1943 our class returned to Our Mother of Sorrows for our second year of Theology. Father Ernest Welch was a manly, no-nonsense Rector. Father Albinus Lesch was a lovable, kind, simple priest who, as director, trusted his students. Father Ronald Murray was our Theology teacher; he taught in Latin and was very handsome, properly groomed, everything was in absolute order and tidy. Father Paul Francis Nager appeared to us an unworldly man and good Canon Law teacher. Father Victor Donovan was a dedicated Scripture teacher who was devoted, even then, to building bridges with our Jewish friends. It was a happy and uneventful year except for the death of the old patriarch, Father Norbert McCloskey and Brother Augustine Maxwell. We left that quiet solitude in August 1944 for the New York City area, and we were stationed in Union City, NJ, for our last two years of Theology.
My next stay in West Springfield was in 1952, which was supposed to be a “sabbatical year” from teaching, as there was no third year theology class that year. However, most of the ordination class of 1952 had suffered from an outbreak of hepatitis and had a few months of classes to make up. So I was pressed into service to teach theology and canon law. The rest of that year was spent in apostolic preaching work. Then I moved in August 1953 to my regular teaching assignment. My last stay in West Springfield was a brief one of six weeks in 1964, while awaiting return to Atlanta, GA, for a new parochial work.
I’ve always considered Mother of Sorrows to be my home monastery since it’s the nearest to my “old home” residence in Burlington, VT. Had I not gone to the West Indies, I expected to be buried there.
Usually when I came home for a vacation, I would stop there, where I spent so many happy and faithful days and for the first time lived the full Passionist home life. The closing of this beautiful place saddens me deeply.
Today the Jews celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement (September 25, 1993). Historically, it was a day of complete rest, fast and penance. In a solemn assembly at the Temple, sacrifices were offered in atonement for the sins of the priests and the people. This was the only day of the year that the high priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of the sacrifices upon the altar.
Jews today still stand at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and lament their sins and the evils that have destroyed their Temple, their land, and thousands of their youth. Perhaps we should mourn with them in a corporate act of contrition as we witness the closing of a beloved shrine and sacred sanctuary—Our Mother of Sorrows.
In today’s brief Gospel (Luke 9: 43-45) Jesus said to his disciples: “Pay close attention to what I tell you. The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of men. They failed, however, to understand the warning; its meaning was so concealed from them that they did not grasp it at all, and they were afraid to question him about the matter.
As we reflect upon these words, perhaps we can reproach ourselves for not paying close attention to Christ Crucified and for failing to grasp the lesson of the Cross and for refusing its challenge. Perhaps we are afraid to ask questions about our personal responsibility for dwindling vocations and closing of monasteries. Have we been faithful to the Gospel and to our Rule of Life? “This is the main thing people of today want from Religious, and it must be said that some people’s hostility may well be the unconscious complaint of one who has met a soul consecrated to God and could not see Christ in him, as he longed to do from the bottom of his heart.” (Pope Paul VI).
(Written September 28, 1993, Mandeville, Jamaica, West Indies)