The American Vincentians. 02 – I. A survey of American Vincentian History: 1815-1987 (cont 1)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoHistory of the Congregation of the MissionLeave a Comment

Author: The Editorial Staff of the Vincentian Studies Institute · Year of first publication: 1988 · Source: "The American Vincentians: A Popular History of the Congregation of the Mission in the United States 1815-1987". Vincentian Studies Institute. New City Pressm Brooklyn, New York, 1988..
Estimated Reading Time:

The First Growth

In March 1819 Rosati wrote that Saint Mary’s Seminary had ten students. Not all of these were candidates for the Vincentian Community, but there were enough, coupled with continued rein­forcements from Europe, to cause a rapid initial expansion. The personnel of the American mission continued to be predominantly Italian, but there were increasing numbers of Flemings and French, together with a small number of American-born.

The demands for their service increased just as rapidly. The Vincentians pursued their traditional apostolate of parish missions though in a sporadic fashion and in a form somewhat different from that of Europe, as will be seen in chapter III. At a early date they were to be found in Lower Louisiana, serving at the cathedral in New Orleans and at Lafourche, Grand Coteau, Thibodaux, and Donaldsonville to the north. Within a very few years the Vincen­tians were active in various missions and parishes in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

In 1823 the Congregation received some of its most important recruits. John Mary Odin, a native of France, and John Timon, a native of Pennsylvania, both entered the Community and would eventually be numbered among its greatest men. A new band of Vincentians came from Rome, among whom was Brother Angelo Oliva, an experienced and skillful stonecutter. Rosati had already determined to build a magnificent church at the Barrens and he regarded Oliva as an angel sent from heaven. Brother Angelo super­vised and personally cut most of the stone for the seminary church, commonly known as the church of the Assumption. The church was begun in 1827, was completed enough that services could be held from 1830 on, and was consecrated on 29 October 1837. Unhappily Brother Oliva did not live to witness that event. He was also responsible for the stonework on the old church of Sainte Genevieve (since torn down) and the old cathedral in Saint Louis.

The American Vincentians: A Popular History of the Congregation

This expansion was not without cost. Father Ferrari died in New Orleans in 1822 during a yellow fever epidemic. Fathers Tichitoli and Dahmen had to be recalled from their stations because of ill-health and exhaustion. Another major loss, though in a different form, was that of Joseph Rosati himself.

In 1822 Rosati was shocked to learn that Ambrose Marechal, the archbishop of Baltimore, had persuaded Rome to appoint him as titular bishop of Tenagra and vicar-apostolic of Mississippi and Alabama. Dubourg and Rosati worked to fend off the appoint­ment, which both of them believed would have been fatal to the diocese of Louisiana. They had partial success. Rosati avoided going to Mississippi and Alabama, but he was made a bishop and became Dubourg’s vicar-general. He was also coadjutor with right of succession for three years, after which the diocese was to be divided, and Dubourg given the right to choose that part which he wished to govern. Rosati was consecrated at the church of the Ascension in Donaldsonville, Louisiana, on 25 March 1824. Dubourg was the consecrating bishop, assisted by two priests, one of whom was Pere Antoine. During the ceremony a collection was taken up for Saint Mary’s Seminary.

Rosati’s workload increased enormously. He continued to be the superior of Saint Mary’s and the American Vincentian mission. He traveled constantly on various kinds of visitations. At the request of the vicar-general of Puebla, Mexico, he ordained priests for various Mexican dioceses which were without bishops after inde­pendence was achieved in 1821. At one point he consecrated 300 gallons of holy oil for the churches of Mexico. In 1825 he success­fully forestalled a plan advanced by the impulsive Dubourg to move the entire Vincentian establishment from Missouri to Louisiana. Dubourg, however, had still another shock in store for his coad­jutor. In 1826, while in Europe for the ostensible purpose of recruiting more priests, Dubourg resigned his see. The Holy See accepted the resignation and divided the diocese in two, New Orleans and Saint Louis, with Rosati as apostolic administrator of both. Rome wanted to name him to New Orleans, but Rosati demurred and instead became the first bishop of Saint Louis.1

The diocese of New Orleans went to Father Leo De Neckere, who informed Rosati of the appointment in December 1829. Rosati consecrated him bishop of New Orleans on 24 June 1830 and thus found himself relieved of his responsibility for that diocese. De Neckere had been born in Belgium, 7 June 1799, and at the time of his consecration was only thirty years old, the youngest bishop in the history of the United States. He was a brilliant man who was especially gifted in languages. He was fluent in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, German, and Italian. According to Rosati, “he had learned English within only a few months and so well that he spoke and wrote it with purity and elegance and pronounced it as if it were his mother tongue.”2 He died at New Orleans on 5 September 1833, while ministering to victims of a yellow fever epidemic. His early death was a serious loss to the Congregation of the Mission and the American church.

Ever since his appointment as bishop, Rosati had insisted on the need for a superior for the American Vincentians. Father Francesco Antonio Baccari, who had succeeded Sicardi as Italian vicar-general in 1819, finally agreed. The priest selected was Father Angelo Boccardo, one of those whose names had been suggested by Rosati. In 1827 Boccardo reached New Orleans, bringing with him a package containing numerous letters and 2000 francs donated by the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in Lyons. While boarding the steamboat that would take him to Missouri, he acci­dentally dropped the package into the Mississippi River. Understan­dably distraught, he made immediate plans to return to Italy. Despite Rosati’s urgings, Boccardo refused to return to the United States. Later he had a change of heart and asked several times to be sent back to the American mission, but his superiors always refused.

Rosati’s second choice was Father John Baptist Tornatore (1783­-1864), whom he had known at Monte Citorio. Most of his priesthood had been spent teaching dogmatic theology, Bishop Francis Patrick Kenrick of Philadelphia having been one of his more famous students. At the time of his appointment he was teaching dogma at Monte Citorio and was an assistant to Father Baccari. He arrived at New Orleans in April 1830 and after remaining there for De Neckere’s consecration, went to the Barrens. On 6 January 1831 he was appointed superior of the American mission, with powers equivalent to those of a provincial, and also vicar-general of the diocese of Saint Louis.

In most ways the choice of Tornatore was a strange and unfor­tunate one. He was forty-six years old, beyond middle age by nine­teenth century standards. Though he wrote fluent French, he never mastered English and could scarcely speak the language. His opin­ions were so rigoristic as to border on the absurd. He strongly opposed the teaching of any worldly subjects at the college, inclu­ding music, art, dancing, and fencing. A notable alumnus of the college, Andrew Jackson Grayson, who was second only to John James Audubon in his depiction of North American birds, was forbidden to practice his art during his student days. Later in his life Tornatore denounced the laxity of a superior who permitted conversation at table on Christmas and Easter and wrote a long letter to prove that those who approved such innovations were guilty of mortal sin. When Bishop Kenrick sent him a copy of his Theologia Morals, Tornatore replied that he had never believed that a student of his could become such a laxist. He also tended to be a disruptive figure in the houses to which he was sent.

It was inevitable that his superiorship should be a turbulent one. On the positive side, he was responsible for completing the seminary church at the Barrens. The church was modeled on the church at Monte Citorio, but its height had been reduced somewhat. Tornatore sent Odin to Europe on a fund-raising tour. This provided the impetus for fmishing the church, which was consecrated by Bishop Rosati in a splendid ceremony in 1837.

The negative, unfortunately, outweighed the positive. One serious problem arose from the presence of the college boys at the seminary. The seminarians were used as teachers, and many Vincentians disapproved of the mingling of the two. Others felt that it was not a proper Vincentian apostolate, although the Community did operate such colleges in other parts of the world, including Italy. In 1835 the superior general and his council ordered the suppression of the college. The order was later stayed, but the issue was not entirely settled until the lay collegians were transferred to Saint Vincent’s College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1844.

Equally serious was the discontent that surfaced among the brothers at the seminary. Originally, most of these were Italian, but later other ethnic groups, such as Irish and Germans also joined them. Prior to the 1830s most of the brothers were stationed at the Barrens, where their work included tailoring, stonecutting, cooking, gardening, farming, and shoemaking. In the European concept of the Vincentian life, the brothers were the economic underpinning of each Community house. Rosati and De Andreis had constantly asked for more brothers, pleading that without them it was impos­sible to carry out the apostolate properly. The general attitude toward the brothers was highly paternalistic, and it was assumed that they were humble and submissive.

On the surface the complaints that the brothers began to voice in the 1830s centered around the harsh climate of Missouri, the poor quality of the land, the primitive living conditions, and the need to move the seminary to a better location in Louisiana. While these may have been issues, a deeper one appears to have been the seminary’s increasing use of slaves. It was universally true in the United States that free laborers and slaves could not work side by side or at the same tasks. The free workers, in particular, resented being lowered to the same level as slaves. The experience at the Barrens was similar. The brothers and slaves could not work together, and there was constant bickering between the two groups. The brothers had absorbed this American concept, as well as some others, and their resentment at being implicitly equated with the blacks was probably a major source of their discontent. To stop this, Tornatore had recourse to repressive measures, and within a few years some nine brothers and students had left the Community.

The American Mission, 1818-1835

In the years of its dependence on the Roman province, the Vincentian mission in the United States experienced a rapid growth in personnel though its apostolates remained somewhat restricted. The central house, Saint Mary’s of the Barrens, was the diocesan seminary for the Louisiana Territory, a Vincentian house of forma­tion, and a lay college. The Vincentians were also to be found in parishes up and down the Mississippi Valley and were giving sporadic missions in the same area.

A key concern was that of securing adequate financial support for the province. This came from a number of sources. In Europe the Roman province contributed men and money to the best of its ability. Father Sicardi was especially zealous in soliciting funds. Father Baccari, together with Father Bartolomeo Colucci of the Roman province, contributed not only money but books, vest­ments, and clothing. Bishop Dubourg, in his visits to Europe, carried on active fund raising campaigns. When LeoDe Neckere had to return to Belgium in 1826 for reasons of health, he spent a good part of his time soliciting books and vestments for the seminary and even succeeded in obtaining an organ for the seminary church. As has been mentioned, Odin went to Europe on a fund raising tour for the seminary church at the Barrens. A very important source of funds was the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, organized at Lyons, France, in 1822. Six years later the Leopoldine Society of Vienna was organized and also made contributions.

Some support came from the tuition and fees that were charged the lay students at the college at the Barrens. The administration at the college attempted to obtain money from the Missouri legisla­ture on the basis of being equal to the public schools of the state, but there is no record of any success. Money was also borrowed from individuals and banks, despite the fact that the European Vincentians had a strong disaste for any form of indebtedness.

In the United States the principal source of support came from the land and its cultivation. The original 640 acre grant at the Barrens was quickly augmented and although the land was considered to be of rather average quality, it was farmed assi­duously. The land, however, was in the name of Bishop Dubourg and his successors and this caused a multitude of complications.

The story of the various transfers of the land at the Barrens is one of byzantine complexity. The title was originally given to Dubourg, together with what appears to have been a $3000 bond of debt that guaranteed its use for religious purposes. Before his departure for Europe in 1826, Dubourg gave Rosati his power of attorney. At some time during that year the priests at the seminary pointed out to Rosati the precarious situation of the Congregation of the Mission in the United States, that is, it possessed no land whatever. On 12 December Rosati paid the parish trustees $900 for the original grant and on the following day sold this tract, together with the seminary mill and fifty additional acres, for $1.00 to Fathers Odin, Dahmen, and Joseph Paquin. Why he purchased land to which he had a clear title and which was supposedly donated is not immediately apparent. Equally puzzling is the fact that on 17 June 1833 he drew up a formal declaration in Latin that the land belonged wholly and entirely to the Priests of the Mission. Shortly thereafter, on 10 August, Odin, Dahmen, and Paquin sold the land to Tornatore for $4000. Less than six months later, on 23 January 1834, Tornatore sold the land to John Timon for the same amount of money. On 3 February 1837 Timon wrote to the superior general that after consultation with some lawyers, he had put most of the Community’s property in Tornatore’s name and the rest in the names of Dahmen, Odin, and John Boullier. He had also had these men make out wills, conveying their property titles to other Vincentians. All of these documents were registered before a judge and witnesses and then given to Timon. On 1 January 1843, Toma­tore signed a will which left the seminary lands to Fathers Dahmen, Blase Raho, Thomas Burke, and Peter Chandy. On 18 May 1848, Tomatore sold the lands for $10,000 to Fathers Thaddeus Amat, Thomas Burke, and James Rolando.

The most plausible explanation for these transactions can be found in article XIII, par. 5 of the Missouri constitution, “No reli­gious corporation can ever be established in this state.” In a literal interpretation this meant that no religious community could be incorporated and hence could not own land. Out of this grew the need also for the various Vincentians, who replaced the original lay trustees of the parish and seminary, to hold title to the Vincentians’ lands. This would also explain why the European Vincentians in positions of authority, such as Rosati, De Neckere, John Brands, and Tomatore, sought naturalization so quickly after their arrival in America.

Somewhat surprising to modem readers is the fact that the seminary and the Vincentians throughout Missouri and Louisiana supported themselves by means of slaves. From the day of his arrival in the United States, Felix De Andreis was determined that unlike the Sulpicians and the Jesuits, the Vincentians would never become slaveholders. In 1819, however, he was forced to accept the American reality when Dubourg sent some slave women to work in the kitchen at the seminary. When Baccari learned of this, he expressed serious reservations, not over the fact of slaveholding, but because women, of any state or color, were being admitted into the house. De Andreis replied with a long letter of explanation and gave what were to be the standard justifications for Vincentian slave-holding: the lack of brothers and the fact that “necessity knows no law.”3 The identification of the brothers’ work with that of slaves was repeated many times and undoubtedly helped to fuel the brothers’ discontent.

De Andreis would have liked to recruit free blacks and mulattoes as brothers but realized that such a move would have ended the Congregation of the Mission in the United States. “No white man will ever again be willing to join us because here there is such a deep-rooted prejudice that a white man is dishonored if he asso­ciates with such people.”4 He suggested establishing for America, and for America alone, a third class of Vincentians composed of such persons and distinct from priests and brothers. His imaginative proposal was never implemented.

The greatest increase in slaves at the Barrens took place while Rosati was superior. His fast known purchase was of an eight-year­old boy in 1821. By 1830 there were twenty-seven slaves at the seminary, of whom seven were probably rented from local people, though that was still the largest single concentration of slaves in the county. There was a high turnover in the slave population at the seminary. The seminary also bought and sold slaves to various priests, parishes, and religious institutions up and down the Mississippi valley.

Slaveholding presented numerous problems, though not about the morality of slavery itself. Priests found it difficult to discipline slaves. Slaves and brothers could not work together in peace. Fami­lies were sometimes separated by rentals and hirings. Worst of all was the scandal caused by the fact that the seminary slaves had less religious instruction than those of other Catholic masters in the vicinity. In 1836 John Timon, the provincial of the newly indepen­dent American province and a foe of slavery (he avoided the bish­opric of Bardstown because it was in a slave state), began a process of reuniting separated families and phasing out slaveholding. This was done not by manumission — for the status of the free black in Missouri was not considered an improvement — but by sale to local Catholic families. There were, however, still two slaves at Saint Mary’s Seminary in 1860.

Slaveholding was not the only area in which the first Vincentians adapted to the American reality. Almost from the first they used the English forms for their Christian names. Those in positions of responsibility became American citizens within a relatively short time after their arrival in this country. Most attempted to learn English and to use it, but the continued use of French in the area from Saint Louis to New Orleans made this difficult. Although Rosati apparently had a good command of English, he rarely used it in letters to his clergy and confreres. With the permission of the Italian vicar-general they adapted their dress to the forms used in the United States and altered their daily schedule to fit local condi­tions.

The acceptance of things American was not total. Many early Vincentians expressed their disapproval of whiskey and the Amer­ican passion for dancing. Their relations with non-Catholics, whom in the earliest days they invariably called “heretics,” varied. Public religious disputations were a fairly common feature of the times, and the Vincentians participated in them. Individual conversions were frequent, especially in the Barrens area. In general, the Euro­peans were surprised by the friendly and respectful attitude of Prot­estants toward priests. By the end of his life Rosati was using the expression “separated brethren.”

  1. Rosati’s reputation as an outstanding bishop has continued to grow since his death in 1843. One historian calls him “the most influential Italian-American of the Middle West and one of the greatest Italian immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century.” See William Barnaby, Faherty, S.J., “In the Footsteps of Bishop Joseph Rosati: a Review Essay,” Italian Americana 1, no. 2 (1975):281. In 1931, the small town of Knobview, Missouri, which was settled by Italian farmers, changed its name to Rosati It is now best known for the winery in the area.
  2. “Recollections,” Vincentian Heritage, IV (1983): 133.
  3. De Andreis to Baccari, 4 February 1820, copy in DRMA, De Andreis letterbook #2.
  4. De Andreis to Baccari, from Saint Louis, 23 September 1819, APF, Scritture riferite nei congressi: America Centrale, dal Canada all’ istmo di Panama, 1700-1883. With rare exceptions American born blacks did not begin entering the Vmcentian Community in the United States until the 1960s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.