The First Missionary Congress January 25 – February 6, 1894
by Roger Mercurio, C.P.
One hundred one years ago American Passionists held the first Missionary Congress. This Congress merits a few moments of our pondering as we celebrate this anniversary.
The Provincial Chapter of 1893 had recommended that a congress be held for the missionaries of the Province. Father John Baptist Baudinelli, the Provincial, asked Father Xavier Sutton to prepare for the Congress. Father Xavier took time off from his mission schedule to organize the program.
The following paragraph from the Acts of the Congress is relevant here:
The Rev. Mark Moeslein embodied the wishes of the assembled Fathers in requesting the Congress to tender a vote of recognition and thanks to the Rev. Xavier Sutton by whose endeavors the project of holding our First Missionary Congress was made to take definite form, and who by his perseverance has done so much to enable us to rejoice to-day that the expectation which we entertained has been realized. – Again the members arose, and proclaimed their sympathy with the motion offered, by hearty applause. – The Rev. Xavier Sutton thanked the Fathers for the honor conferred on him by the vote in which they had just now joined. He, however, begged leave to call attention to the fact that the credit of the convocation of this Congress, belongs more to the Fathers of our late Provincial Chapter, and to the earnest interest of the Very Rev. President, than to himself. He had simply suggested it; they by their sympathy, and hearty approval had made it a reality.” (pp112-113)
Father Xavier was on the organizational committee, and as such he was appointed as temporary secretary (p 8) and with Joseph Amrhein and Thomas O’Connor was a member of the committee on rules and order of business. This committee met prior to the Congress on January 22nd and adopted detailed resolutions on the structures of the Congress (pp 9-11) including 13 “rules of order.”
Father Mark Moeslein was elected secretary, Aloysius Blakely was assistant secretary. The committee on new business was composed of Joseph Amrhein, Charles Lang and Xavier Sutton. The committee on resolutions was composed of Robert McNamara, Thomas O’Connor and Alphonsus Rossiter. [Note that the secretary used the family name of all members of the Congress. Also the title “Rev.” and/or “Very Rev.” was constantly used throughout (p 12).]
The President’s Address which opened the Congress is truly worthy of reflection. First of all this address shows the deep interest in and concern for the Congress by the Provincial, Father John Baptist Baudinelli. He begins by speaking of the first missionaries of the Province, Father Anthony Calandri, Father Gaudentius Rossi and Father Albinus Magno, who went from the Pittsburgh Monastery. Then he gives thanks for the development of the Province and of its success in mission work.
There is a magnificent paragraph on the conditions of the times. He remarks:
Both Church and State are undergoing a great change. The Church is not what it was 30 or 40 years ago. He expresses the hope that we will fit ourselves to do the work of the ministry in an acceptable manner … in order to increase the efficacy of our Missions. (Cf. pp 7-8)
The Closing Address (pp 113-115), also by Father John Baptist Baudinelli, expressed his deep interest in the Congress. He was more than satisfied by the success of the Congress. It has surpassed all his expectations. His address is a beautiful song of thanks and a command to go forward!
Let this our Congress mark the opening of a new era in the history of our Congregation in the United States. Let it be a herald proclaiming our upward march to greater progress, and our onward tread to broader and grander fields of usefulness and conquest. (p 115)
A year later Father John Baptist received the first number of the Students Journal as published by the students at St. Michael’s Monastery in West Hoboken, NJ. Even while on visitation in Osage Mission, KS, he wrote to the editor of his “pleasure and satisfaction” in reading this publication. After words of praise, etc, he added this significant paragraph.
One feature of your Journal pleased me very much, and it was your animadversion, quotation and commendation on our late Mission Congress. As it is very desirable to keep alive and fresh in the minds of our Religious the experience, wisdom and practical detail that were set forth by that assembly, for the edification and instruction of our missionaries old and young, so I hope that this special department of the Journal will be retained and made prominent in all future issues. (Students Journal, July 1895, Vol 1, #2, Letters)
While a student in Chicago (1941-43), I found a copy of the Congress and was very much impressed. Father Charles Cassidy was a member of the Community, and I spoke to him about it. He had much to say about it for he was a novice in Pittsburgh during the Congress and was caught up in the enthusiasm of the meeting: the great missionaries, the retreat they shared in giving to the community, etc. He mentioned also the work the Congress caused him for he was in charge of the sacristy and each missionary, of course, celebrated Mass each morning, as did all priests at that time. He had to be sure the vestments, amices and purificators were prepared for each one each morning! He had a personal copy of the Congress which he kept faithfully all his life. Undoubtedly it had inspired him to become one of the great missionaries of our Province.
The following is the testimony from one who was professed a year before the 1894 Congress:
I can testify, too, to the impetus given that enthusiasm by the First Missionary Congress held in our Province sixty-two years ago. A copy of the printed Proceedings of that Congress was given to every student in the Province. At the time I was just a green sixteen-year-old fledging, a few months out of the novitiate. But I got my copy – I still have it. Many times in the intervening years I have read it and have never failed to gather inspiration from it. In later years, when I got into mission work myself, I could appreciate the tremendous influence that Congress had exerted in promoting the quality
of our mission work. (Proceedings of the Second Passionist Missionary Congress, p 26, quoting Father Linus Monahan.)
At the conclusion of the Second Congress of 1956, Father Linus once again spoke to the assembly:
I have been deeply moved by the proceedings of this Congress. I referred the other day in my paper to the tremendous influence of the First Missionary Congress, held sixty-two years ago, and what I said of that first Congress was the result of personal experience. I saw, with my own eyes, the powerful effect that First Missionary Congress had in following years – even many years later. Since then the proposal has come up several times to hold another Missionary Congress. I have been in Provincial Chapters where the proposal was made, and somehow or other obstacles were always in the way which prevented the holding of such a Congress. We, my dear good Fathers, are fortunate that we finally had a Provincial administration which was not daunted by obstacles and which made this Congress a reality. (ib 134)
It is quite interesting that Felix Ward does not even mention this Congress in his book, The Passionists! It was such an important event in the story of American Passionists, and yet Felix Ward omitted it completely! I wonder why? Perhaps because he was not present? (Such a thought is really not worthy of Father Felix.) Perhaps because its final resolutions seemed too dangerous? Perhaps even too Americanist or Modernist in 1923?
It is also interesting that the fond hopes that there would be further Congresses in the years ahead were not realized until near the middle of the 20th century! Again, was this due to fear of Modernism or a growing lack of interest in our missionary apostolate?