The Front Door and Parlor Apostolate of Passionist Fathers Frederick Corcoran, Michael Anthony Campbell, and Anthony Neary
by Rob Carbonneau, C.P.
Traditionally, healing and reconciliation have been proclaimed essential features of the Passionist charism. People have been able to come to our monasteries, parishes, and residences, knock on the front door and find a priest, brother, or in some cases layperson, willing to bring them to the monastery parlor and listen to their plight. Historically, this ministry has not received great attention. Still, many people have found consolation through this apostolate. Passionists assigned to cover the door, answer phones, hear confessions, or write out requests for mass cards may find the ministry routine. Yet, there are Passionists who have been able to take such a routine ministry and allow the grace of God’s presence to shine forth. The life and experience of the three Passionists below are a powerful reminder of the integrity of this apostolate. The name of Father Frederick Corcoran became synonymous with Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery, West Springfield, Massachusetts. Father Michael Anthony Campbell brought the intimacy of God’s love to the cavernous St. Michael’s Monastery Church in Union City, New Jersey. Today Father Anthony Neary follows in this apostolic tradition. He graciously reflects on this ministry in his own words. Passionists and all associated in Passionist ministries can draw strength of heart from the legacy of the front door monastery apostolate. -Editor
Father Frederick Corcoran, C.P. ,West Springfield, Massachusetts
On Tuesday evening, April 23, 1957 the people of Springfield, Massachusetts opened their evening paper to read the top banner headline: “Father Frederick of Monastery is Dead.” The center front page column, which went on to page four read: “Fr. Frederick of Monastery Dead Following a Stroke; Receptionist for 30 Years.”
Born Thomas Corcoran on September 18, 1890 in West Springfield, Massachusetts, he was the son of Michael Corcoran and Mary McLauglin. He attended public elementary and senior high schools in West Springfield; St Vincent Preparatory College, Germantown, Pennsylvania and the Passionist Preparatory Seminary at St. Mary’s, Dunkirk, New York. He professed his Passionist vows on November 12, 1911 and was ordained a priest on May 30, 1917.
On Easter Sunday morning 1957 Father Frederick Corcoran was found lying on the basement corridor floor of the West Springfield monastery. He regained consciousness, but all knew he had suffered a heart attack. Waiting for a doctor, he was given a pillow to rest his head and a cup of coffee. He wanted to go to his room but was convinced to remain still. He dozed off for several minutes. It was at that point that he heard the echo of the monastery call bell throughout the hallway to which he quickly awoke and remarked “That’s for Father” so and so. A short time later he was sent to Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts. Emergency brain surgery was performed to relieve blood clots. After two days he died. The last words at hearing the monastery call bell symbolized his care and attention to thirty years of faithful service as front door porter at Our Mother of Sorrows Monastery. When he died his body was brought to the St. Joseph’s retreat house chapel at the monastery where thousands came to pay their respects. He was buried from Immaculate Conception Church, West Springfield because the monastery could not hold the number of people. It was the church in which he was baptized. Father Leonard Gownley was the preacher. Father Corcoran’s obituary states that his continual presence was like a candle burning. He was able to console struggling married couples, the sick who needed consolation or a blessing, priests or sisters who needed the sacrament of reconciliation or a place to talk. He was understanding. Men, women and children felt at ease to come to the front door of the monastery.
So loved was Father Corcoran, that on April 24, 1957, the day after his death, the Springfield Daily News offered a lead editorial entitled “Friend and Counselor.” It began by recalling the fact that this native son of West Springfield worked at Our Mother of Sorrows for thirty years and was the brother of Dr. George B. Corcoran, a prominent area physician and surgeon. “Although benignly humble and retiring by nature,” the editorial identified Corcoran as “one of the best known and most beloved” Passionists at the West Springfield monastery. He had worked as full time front door receptionist until 1955 when health forced him to cut back his hours. “His pleasant, friendly salutation, his warm, infectious smile, and his saintly bearing were distinguishing characteristics which immediately won him the confidence of all with whom he had contact, including strangers, who unhesitatingly poured out their woes to him seeking counsel and comfort.” He was especially graced, continued the editorial, with an ability to make children feel at ease. Many youngsters who came to the monastery door left with a holy picture, a printed prayer, some cookies, a piece of candy or some other memento. Neighborhood youngsters were daily visitors to Father Corcoran. “They felt free to discuss,” noted the editorial, “their personal problems and ambitions with him…. They listened intently as he told them stories, some serious, others humorous, some true, others the figment of his fertile imagination, all of which were designed to make them better children and solid citizens of tomorrow.” This sense of peace was only magnified by a keen sense of humor. Father Corcoran himself had “snow-white hair, acquired in early manhood, and his radiant child-like face belied his age.” Rarely did he leave the monastery, except to visit family or attend the funeral of a close friend. One of the most telling honors of his apostolate is the following paragraph: “Whenever the monastery doorbell rang, at any hour of the day or night, Fr. Frederick could be depended upon to answer it. It was here at the front door that people of all classes, races, and color came to know and love this quiet, gentle, dedicated priest of God.” The editorial went on to mention that Father Corcoran was a “poet, author and playwright. He wrote several children’s books and pamphlets, and his poems, ‘A Girl’s Prayer’ and ‘A Boy’s Prayer’ illustrated with a painting of a child kneeling in prayer adorn the walls of thousands of children’s bedrooms.” In addition, he was negotiating the contract for another children’s book and had been researching the life of St. Maria Goretti. The final paragraph of the April 24, 1957 editorial states: “Little did this lovable priest realize during his lifetime that his passing would create such a void in the community. Neither did he realize that he would be the first remains to be interred in the burial plot on the monastery grounds, where his countless friends can visit his grave to pay tribute to his memory and offer a silent prayer for the repose of his soul.” The full text of Father Corcoran’s funeral homily by Father Leonard Gownley, C.P. of St. Ann’s Monastery, Scranton, Pennsylvania was printed in the Springfield Daily News April 25, 1957 along with photos of the funeral at Immaculate Conception Church, West Springfield.
Father Michael Anthony Campbell, C.P., Union City, New Jersey
Born Paul Gibbons Campbell in Dorchester, Massachusetts on January 26, 1900, he was the son of John Campbell and Mary Gibbons. He attended St. Peter’s Elementary School in Dorchester, Boston Latin, Boston English and was at Boston College when he decided to join the Passionists. He was professed on September 9, 1923 and ordained on May 25, 1929. Assigned to Hunan, China in 1929 he served there until 1949. Upon return to the United States he was in the parish in New Bern, North Carolina until 1953. He contracted Parkinson’s Disease and was transferred to St. Michael’s Union City as the “Church Duty Priest” and remained there until 1966. He then lived in the Passionist communities at Brighton and Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He died in 1980.
Loretta Lynch, long time staff member of the Passionist Pastoral Center, South River, New Jersey agreed to write this first hand experience of Father Michael Anthony Campbell in Union City:
“Almost 50 years ago, when I was a high school senior at Holy Rosary Academy in Union City, I had a great blessing in my life that it is my privilege to share with you. Sister Regina, a Pallottine Sister who was my home room teacher, decided that all the senior members of the sodality should have a personal confessor, and not leaving the matter in our hands, she informed us that we were to go to St. Michael’s Monastery right after school on Wednesdays and a priest would be available in the confessional. (This could only have happened in the 50s!) My blessing was that this priest was Father Michael Anthony Campbell, C.P. Even though I had been in the monastery church many times before and since, it was never quite like those Wednesday afternoons. The massive church was quiet and dark, and perhaps because it was so in contrast to the busy, noisy building I had just left, I felt overwhelmed by the feeling of being in another world – timeless and sacred. The confessional itself was very dark, so dark that even kneeling down was an act of faith. I remember thinking that the darkness was beautiful and peaceful.
“On most days Father Michael was already in the confessional when I arrived, but one day when I did finally see him, I was surprised to find a stooped, elderly figure dressed in the Passionist habit and cape; surprised, because his appearance belied his youthful voice and ever-present sense of humor. I later found out that at the time I knew him he was a man in his late fifties and his appearance was due to illness rather than to advanced age. Though many years have passed, I remember especially what a calm, encouraging presence he was in my life during those critical months. I was never afraid or hesitant to speak to him about anything, because I was always assured of his patience and kindness. I knew I always had his full attention, that he was there in that dark, sacred space at that moment just for me. Above all, I valued his tremendous sense of humor, never hilarious but always quietly intelligent. I remember telling him once that the reason for my almost daily arguments with my sister was that I had a habit of borrowing her clothes and jewelry without asking her. Expecting some kind of reprimand or sage advice, he answered: ‘Well, you won’t have to work at that too hard; it will take care of itself once you enter the convent!’
“My brief contact with Father Michael Anthony lasted only a matter of months, but I will never forget him – not just for what he said or the value of the advice he gave me – but because, even then, as one theologically untrained, I recognized that I was in the presence of a holy man.”
Father Anthony Neary, C.P., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Father Anthony Neary, C.P. was born Robert Neary in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He professed his Passionist vows on August 15, 1948. He was ordained a priest on April 28, 1954. From 1963 until 1979 he was in West Hartford, Connecticut; from 1979 to 2001 in Pittsburgh with a short interval from 1983 until 1985 in Germany. Among Passionists and many people where he has ministered he has been known for his pastoral generosity and ability to listen. Those who have lived with Father Anthony Neary could tell endless stories about his call-bell or phone ringing. There is no doubt as to his unfailing energy and uncanny ability to take quick naps in order to catch up on sleep if he had had a long night counseling someone or visiting a hospital.
Father Anthony’s ministry continues in the historical legacy of Father Frederick Corcoran and Father Michael Anthony Campbell. On September 16, 2001 I conducted a sit down interview with Anthony Neary regarding his understanding of the parlor or front door apostolate. He expressed his views with a sense of humility. His answers to my questions were usually short and to the point. He was not a story teller. Still, he stressed several points.
First, he believes that the front door apostolate in which he has been involved was made up of people, especially in Pittsburgh, that were an overflow from the Monday novena and the Sunday mass. Quickly, he pointed to the fact that after Vatican II (1962 until 1965) there was an increase of people who came to him for the expressed purpose of trying to understand changes in the church. For example, these Catholics had to deal with new terms such as the sacrament of reconciliation. No longer was the term confession to be used. This made people anxious. What was the process of telling sins, receiving absolution, and doing their penance? Such situations led to increased inquiry from the people who came to the monastery. Of course, some of the standard questions remained such as the tension between parents and children. Later on in our discussion he said that he found that there has been a great deal of consternation among people as to why the Catholic Mass had to change from Latin to English and why there was communion in the hand. It was quite interesting to hear him say in some ways this has been more of a crisis than alcoholism. Part of this may be the fact that a good many of the people he has seen were Eastern European Polish, and Czechs. This was part of a basic cultural and social heritage that was in transition and the loss of these devotional rituals touched their hearts.
A second point was the people’s understanding of devotions. When he first was meeting people at the front door in West Hartford or Pittsburgh the poor people or “the little people” as he called them, knew that they could find a place of solace at the monastery. In time, a more educated clientele emerged and he saw divorce and infidelity to be a source of tension.
When asked how people came to the monastery in the first place, Father Anthony believes that in general people showed up because they were told by some one at work or by a neighbor. One of the strengths of the front door parlor apostolate was the fact that the people could just walk up and find someone to listen. They found this to be for the most part much easier and less intimidating than getting an appointment with a specific priest for a specific purpose. In more recent years there has been a tendency to see that making an appointment is most helpful is one wants to see a specific priest.
It was at this point in the interview discussion that Father Anthony spoke about the fact that many of the people to whom he has ministered represent the poor of Yahweh. While it is true that one may have the tendency to lose patience with a person who may be scrupulous, this image of the poor of Yahweh is an ever present reminder of the living gospel. In some cases this is caring for the elementary needs of people and such basic life questions as a person feeling guilty because their adult child does not go to church, or the fact that they have gone through two or three marriages. This leads to an impression that their life is unstable. They blame themselves. Their guilt is real. These, Father Anthony remembers are the poor of Yahweh.
When asked about the financial stability of the front door apostolate, Father Anthony said that a good many of the people he has seen are too poor to give donations. Sometimes others give spontaneously. Father Anthony also says that one of the most real and genuine challenges in the front door apostolate at the monastery is to not make people dependent upon you. You have to know when to say no and be able to discern when it is correct to give someone more time. This takes a great deal of personal self-discipline.
At the same time, he is surprised to see that people who appear to be continually in need can also be compassionate and understanding of him. During 2000, when it was known that he was sick he noticed that the number of phone calls to him decreased. Once he was better the number increased. Sometimes when gasoline prices increase people call on the phone. Expenses play a real part in the way and means that people seek consolation.
Father Anthony was well-aware of the reputation of his predecessor Father Frederick Corcoran whom he remembered possessed a tender oversensitive nature that flowed as gift from God. At the same time, he recalled how Father Michael Anthony Campbell could be found anytime in St. Michael’s Monastery Church, Union City. Even with the Parkinson’s Disease he would without fail bless the person with a relic. One could see, commented Father Anthony that Father Michael was a holy person.
Father Anthony says that what renews his faith is the constant reminder that we all are members of the suffering body of Christ. This sustains the people who have come to him as well as ourselves. Today the person of Our Lord lives in the hearts and minds of those we meet. He also says that there has to be a place where people can be received to gain a sense of gospel peace. Often times he says an opening prayer when he meets a person. Not all encounters are sacramental in nature. Moreover, Father Anthony has increasingly become aware of the concreteness and closeness of the Passion of Jesus in the daily life, grief and pain of people. For his part he tries to make the person aware that to suffer in the passion is not just tough, but it is in our personal sufferings that we can also find a source of healing which can lead one to progress in a better personal life and life of prayer. He believes that the front door monastery apostolate has been an important Passionist ministry.