Who Wrote “Veronica’s Veil”? The Lives of Bernardine Dusch, CP & Conrad Eiben, CP
by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
Knowledge and reverence of the past sustains the charism of a religious congregation. Twentieth century United States Passionists and Catholics in general have had a tendency, however, to identify with a charism that has given a high priority to a brick-and-mortar Catholicism.
What was once a new venture in 1852 to Pittsburgh, PA, had by 1906 become two Passionist Provinces. Membership in religious congregations increased. New monasteries were built. Inhabited by priests, brothers, and students they became esteemed symbols of life for a Congregation. Monastic architecture became fused with The Passionist Rule and horarium; in addition, by the 1920s novenas to St. Ann in Scranton and St. Gabriel at St. Michael’s, Union City, had combined to create a symbol of Paulacrucian faith. However, the monastery, the monks, and the novena are not the only symbols of twentieth century Passionist faith.
The Passion Play—“Veronica’s Veil”—became another avenue of Passionist faith and piety. Lent was not Lent without a trip to Union City, NJ, to see “Veronica’s Veil.” The diamond jubilee booklets of St. Joseph’s Parish (1887-1962) and “Veronica’s Veil” (1915-1989) have concentrated on the history of the play. They describe how, in West Hoboken, NJ, (after 1925 Union City) Father Bernardine Dusch, C.P., completed writing the Passion Play—“Veronica’s Veil”—in 1910; in June 1915 Father Conrad Eiben, C.P. produced the first performance at St. Joseph’s before 1,200 people. 1995 will mark the eightieth year that St. Joseph’s Parish has proclaimed the story of the Passion through “America’s Passion Play Veronica’s Veil.”
Buildings, monasteries, novenas, and plays are only symbols: Architecture of faith becomes an empty tomb without appreciation for the lives of faith. Who are the individuals that express the creative side of faith? What do we know about Passionists Bernardine Dusch and Conrad Eiben? Why are they important?
Bernardine Dusch: Born March 1, 1859, in Rochester, NY, and baptized Martin Dusch; he was educated at St. Mary’s School and St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester. For a short time he attended the Redemptorist College at Ilchester, MD. However, he left the Redemptorists, applied to the Passionists, and on December 22, 1878, he professed his Passionist vows at St. Michael’s Monastery in Pittsburgh. Illness and suffering, states his 1931 obituary, characterized his seminary years. Headaches were common. Medical specialists were consulted. Though he missed valuable class time, he was ordained on April 27, 1884, at St. Michael’s Monastery, West Hoboken, by Winand Michael Wigger, Bishop of Newark, NJ.
Bernardine served as assistant to Father Edward Tuohy, C.P., curate at St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish in Baltimore from 1885-1888. There, he aided the needs of many poor families by going “store to store in the city begging clothes and shoes.” At St. Michael’s Church in Pittsburgh from 1888-1891, Bernardine assisted Father Bernard Hohl, C.P., in forming parish societies to nurture the faith of the people.
Next Bernardine Dusch was assigned to Mexico from 1891-1894. This venture needs more study. Felix Ward, The Passionists (1923) briefly mentions the genesis of the mission in July 1866 (p. 172). Cassian Yuhaus, Compelled To Speak (1967) acknowledges the Mexico experience, but the decision to “remit this very important and engaging episode to a separate volume” (n.9 p. 198) has not developed. Neither do Fabiano Giorgini in The Congregation of the Passion of Jesus (A Brief History) (1988), (p. 191), nor Roger Mercurio, The Passionists (1992), (pp. 91-96), highlight the experience. Dusch’s 1931 obituary informs us that after a period of adjustment in Mexico, he “soon mastered Spanish” preaching on “Sundays and Fiestas.” While the country was “rich,” he began to evangelize the “poorly instructed Indians” on the haciendas providing “retreats for poor laborers.” Dusch settled “marriage cases,” and became a popular confessor; often he traveled to the Mexicans and Indians on horseback.
Apparently heart trouble forced him, at thirty-six, to return to the United States to preach parish missions—often in German; between 1894-1900 he resided in Passionist monasteries at St. Louis, Louisville, and St. Paul, KS. From 1901-1904 he was pastor of Immaculata Monastery Church in Cincinnati. In 1904 Dusch seemed a logical choice to be pastor when the Passionists assumed responsibility for the “difficult pastorate of St. Joseph’s West Hoboken.” His presence and leadership gave new life to this financially “bankrupt” and spiritual impoverished parish. In 1907 he left St. Joseph’s to become chaplain for the Passionist Nuns in Carrick, PA. Bernardine Dusch wrote the “Passion Play” during this period (1913 according to his biographical note). By 1920 “arthritis and an injured spine” forced him to live as a patient and chaplain at Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh, till his death in 1931. Interestingly in 1953, Father Dusch’s nephew, George F. Dietz, (152 E 42nd St. New York, NY) wrote that he was completing a biography of his uncle. If completed, no copy exists.
Conrad Eiben: Born May 4, 1880, in Metzenseifen, Hungary (present day Czechoslovakia), at six years old John Eiben emigrated with his parents to South Side, Pittsburgh, PA; he was educated at St. Michael’s School. At seventeen he entered the Passionist College at Dunkirk, NY; professed vows on September 20, 1898; he was ordained on June 30, 1906, at the Scranton Cathedral by Bishop Michael J. Hoban.
His 1954 obituary emphasizes pietistic virtues rather than parochial assignments and pastoral skills. Preached by former Provincial Benjamin Wirtz, C.P., it affirms the value of religious life, particularly priesthood. Though records conflict, it appears that from 1906-1911 Eiben was a curate at St. Michael’s, Pittsburgh. From 1911-1923 he was pastor at St. Joseph’s, West Hoboken, NJ. The April 13, 1954, Hudson Dispatch Personatorial proclaimed “Father Conrad Made West Hoboken Famous.” This “versatile priest,” announced the article, produced “Veronica’s Veil;” in addition he was an “artist,” was “active in civic affairs and served as trustee of the West Hoboken Library Board.” While he possessed humor, he was also “a serious thinker and had far-sighted vision” because of his work on “Veronica’s Veil.”
Transferred to Pittsburgh, he served from 1923-1934 as pastor of St. Michael’s. Between 1934-1942 he returned, once again as pastor, to St. Joseph’s, Union City. After, 1943-1947, he was vicar at St. Joseph’s Monastery in Baltimore. From 1947 till his death in 1954, he conducted parish missions as a member of the preaching band.
“Veronica’s Veil” is one of the symbols of faith for the Congregation. However, the lives of these men of faith have receded to the background. The life of Bernardine Dusch not only tells us about “Veronica’s Veil,” it leads us to Mexico and life before two United States provinces. Conrad Eiben, on the other hand, was committed to parish ministry.
Analysis of the biographical material made available to me from the Provincialate at South River, NJ, shows that how these men actually developed, wrote, and produced “Veronica’s Veil” was never researched or written down. Such a pattern of congregational anonymity has to be addressed for a congregation to move into the future. Recently, Holy Cross Province Provincial Michael Stengel, C.P., requested all members of the province to write an autobiographical history. This is a welcome step. All members of the Congregation should be encouraged to undertake such a project and send it to their provincial archives. An added dimension would be for various provinces in a region to enter into a joint video project to record a planned fifteen-minute video biography of each Passionist. This is where history, education, and graceful aging can come together.
Knowledge and reverence of the past sustains the charism of a religious congregation. The lives of Passionists must attain as much, if not more respect, than buildings. What do you want the Congregation to remember about you?