When Women Preach The Passion of Jesus: Passionist Sisters in the United States, 1924 – 1994
by Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
In February of 1924 four Sisters of the Cross and Passion boarded the Cunard liner Berengaria at Southampton, England and embarked on a journey. These women, Mother Gonzaga McCunnin and Sisters Louis Myers, Pius Rudden and Dionysius Fitzpatrick, were each shaped and formed by their experiences of life so far, by their national origin, by their times. Mother Gonzaga, the Superior of the group, was born in Dublin in 1859. She had held the office of Provincial and was “an experienced ‘founder’ of new convents in the Old Country, and a woman of deep faith, joyous spirit and tremendous initiative.” Sister Louis was a pre-primary teacher who was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1860. Sister Pius, born in Laraha, County Cavan, Ireland in 1884, had been Vice-Mistress of Novices at the Motherhouse in Bolton, England and had nursed Rev. Mother Aloysius Stanley, a former Superior General, in her last illness. Sister Dionysius, the youngest of the four, was a cook. She was born in 1898 in Downpatrick, County Down, Ireland.
In the years that followed, other women, mostly from Ireland, followed the original four to the United States. Until the 1950s they established new foundations only in Rhode Island. Beginning in the 1930s they were joined by American women. The Americans, too, were products of their times and cultures. Together these women formed a community of Passionist Sisters in the United States. Over the years they created something new. They created a feminine, American expression of Passionist life.
Last year I was asked by Sister Eileen Fucito, my Provincial, to write a history of my North American Province of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, and so I, a woman who is also a product of her time and culture and life experience, have begun a journey of my own. I am a Passionist Sister and a member of our North American Province. I was born in Springfield, MA, in 1956 and grew up there and in Narragansett, RI. I was professed in 1979. I have an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s in religious studies. Since my profession I have ministered as a teacher and retreat director. This project is one of the most challenging I have ever taken on. Part of the challenge comes with the knowledge that in writing the chronicle of my community here in the United States, I am giving shape to a history that has shaped and formed me. I am part of the story that I write. The other part of the challenge is not purely personal. In order for the history of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in North America to be written, I need the assistance of the entire Passionist Congregation. I did not personally witness much of what I must write about, so I rely on the willingness of others to share their stories with me.
I have spent a good deal of time during the past year doing research. This has consisted of going through the house records of our earliest foundations in this country. St. Gabriel’s Hostel (1924) in Providence, RI, was our first American foundation. St. Gabriel’s was a residence for working girls. The Passionist Sisters operated several facilities of this type in England. William A. Hickey, Bishop of Providence, purchased the house and invited the Sisters to his diocese for the purpose of staffing it. The Assumption (1926), our second foundation, also in Providence, RI, was a parish school and convent. Mt. St. Joseph in Bristol, RI, (1932) was established as the American novitiate. My research has also included reading the surviving letters of Mother Gonzaga to her friend Rev. Mother Gerard Dunn, Superior General of the Congregation, at the Motherhouse in Bolton, England, from 1924-1926, about her experiences in this new country. I have also read what we possess of her correspondence with Father Stanislaus Grennan, Passionist Provincial, written during the same period, as well as with others. My research has led me to spend hours reading the files of our deceased Sisters coming to know something of who these “pioneers” were and where they came from. Finally, I have listened to stories, some while conducting “official” taped interviews, other times, informally, just sharing a cup of tea or something stronger and talking about old times.
All that I have learned during this past year has left me feeling very privileged and humbled as well. I find myself now at a crucial moment on my research journey. The story is beginning to take shape. I am beginning to recognize patterns. Some of these include:
- The well-established and institutionalized form of religious life that the “pioneers” experienced in the British Isles influenced the decisions they made here.
- The Irish culture of most of the Sisters “from the other side” influenced the development of the Province.
- Certain Passionist Priests had great influence.
- The Bishops of Providence had great influence.
- Education for the Sisters was very highly valued.
- Maintaining the same lifestyle as the Sisters in the British Isles was very important.
I have found that all these issues shaped my predecessors, shaped me, shaped the ministry of the Passionist Sisters, shaped the Priests and Brothers of St. Paul of the Cross Province, and shaped the Church. The real challenge, however, is to define and understand how all these events came together.
Another decision that needs to be made soon concerns the framework that this history will take. All history needs a framework. I can tell the story in a purely chronological way beginning with Bishop Hickey’s invitation to the Superior General to send Sisters to his diocese or choose a starting point other than 1924. Another option would be to use a thematic framework and break everything down into topics like schools, retreat houses, community life, etc. Whatever route I choose will be determined by the way that the patterns I have already observed take shape as I continue my research. I have concluded that this story will have a point of view by its very nature and so it is better if it has one that I have chosen consciously. The framework of this story, whether it is chronological or thematic, will need to serve the point.
There are a number of practical difficulties that I am meeting now as I research the early history of our Province. These problems are the result of the fact that the Sisters who lived during the first half of this century did not keep diaries or save very much in the way of correspondence or other documents. They did keep house records but their usefulness is limited. They offer a rather sanitized account of daily life. Nothing negative or unpleasant is ever included. A typical entry might consist of, “Father Stanislaus came to visit Mother and celebrated Holy Mass in our chapel.” The writer of the house records does not give the purpose of the visit because she did not know what it was. Typically, those who kept house records were not the people who really knew what was going on. Since so few other documents were saved, usually there is no other way of finding out why Father Stanislaus came to visit either.
My work, so far though, has been more about unearthing wonderful and poignant moments in our history than about difficulties. I have three favorite stories. The first is illustrative of the constant kindness and support given to our immigrant Sisters by our Passionist brothers. The records of St. Gabriel Hostel state that on November 23, 1924, Fathers Mark and Leo from Brighton visited and brought with them the makings for the Sisters first Thanksgiving dinner.
In the home provinces of the British Isles, the Sisters had the custom of calling to visit at other convents of the Congregation on Christmas Day. The loneliness and sense of isolation experienced by the American community is expressed in the house records when the Sisters wrote about the tiny group that gathered for Christmas dinner with no visitors. When I come across an entry like this, I feel humbled by the courage and the sacrifices of these women.
My final favorite story so far is the one told me by Sister Kathleen Mary Burke, C.P., about the day in 1950 that the Sisters received word that the Generalate had made them a Province and appointed Sister Pascal Grogan, C.P., the first Provincial. Apparently this was totally unexpected. Sister Kathleen described Sister Pascal standing to read the document to the Sisters and breaking down. Unable to continue she passed it to Sister Arcadius Hickey who also began to cry and had to pass it to someone else. It took three of them to complete the reading of the decree. By the time they finished everyone was crying. I often wonder what was going through their minds that day. I often think that the tears were the kind that you cry when you win a race that you were sure that you would lose.
I would invite others to share their stories of the Passionist Sisters in North America with me. Such sharing is crucial to the success of this project. My email address is:
So what is the point? In being given the opportunity to write this history I have been given a chance to affect the future. This history that I write will make a difference in the way that the Passionist community both here in North America and internationally understands and perceives itself. That will shape in a subtle way what we do next. Ultimately, all of this will make a difference to the Church. On a personal level this work is changing me and the way that I understand the forces the have shaped me as a female American Passionist. It is making a difference in my life and will shape my future.
1. Reynolds, C.P., Sister Anna Maria. Heralds of Hope, The Sisters of the Cross and Passion. France: Editions du Signe, 1989.