The American Vincentians. 02 – I. A survey of American Vincentian History: 1815-1987 (cont 3)

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 Division of the Province

As early as 1844 there had been recommendations that the size of the United States demanded that there be more than one Vincen­tian province. In 1870 Hayden and his council sent a formal request to Paris for a division. On 17 May 1870 Etienne and the general council approved the proposal in principle but decided to delay a fmal decision until the next general assembly. Shortly thereafter some American confreres who had traveled to Paris for the celebra­tion of Etienne’s fiftieth anniversary as a Vincentian renewed the request. On 4 August 1870 the general council reaffirmed both the decision to divide and the decision to delay. Etienne wrote to Hayden to ask him to put a stop to all discussion of the question in the province. “It is fitting to leave the examination of all ques­tions of this nature to those who have received from heaven the governance of the Community. They alone have the light and grace to decide them.”1

Smith renewed the request in 1885, and Antoine Fiat, the superior general at that time, took action. Smith asked for and received James Macoill as his assistant provincial and began prepa­rations for the coming separation. These included the reopening of the apostolic school (minor seminary for Vincentian candidates), novitiate, and scholasticate at Saint Mary’s Seminary in Perryville, Missouri. On 4 September 1888 Fiat wrote to the Vincentians of the United States that because “the number of houses in your province has grown and because the very considerable distances that separate them make it difficult for the visitor [provincial] to discharge the duties of his office,” the province was being divided. The boun­daries would follow “an imaginary vertical line extending from the west border of the state of Indiana in the north to the state of Alambama [sic] in the south.” The Eastern Province, with MacGill as provincial, would include the houses in Germantown, Niagara, Brooklyn, Baltimore, Emmitsburg, and Bordentown (New Jersey).2 The Western Province, under Smith, had the houses at the Barrens, Chicago, La Salle, Saint Louis, Cape Girardeau, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Jefferson City, also called Bouligny, a suburb of New Orleans.3

James MacGill, the first provincial of the Eastern Province, was sixty-one years old when he received the position. He had been born at Serably, County Cavan, Ireland, (the same county as Smith in the West) on 20 May 1827. After some preliminary studies at the Irish college in Paris, he entered the Community at the motherhouse in Paris in 1850. He came to the United States in the following year and was ordained to the priesthood at Saint Louis, in 1853. His earliest years of ministry were spent in education (he was one of the founders of Saint Vincent’s College in Los Angeles) and in parish missions and parishes. In 1874 he was one of the nominees for coadjutor bishop of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, but the appointment went to another. During the twenty-one years that he was at the head of the province, only one new house was founded, the mission house at Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1909 he resigned because of age and ill health and died two years later, 18 May 1911, at Germantown, at the age of eighty-four.

He was succeeded by Patrick McHale, a person of great experience in Vincentian governance. His early priestly career had been spent mostly in teaching, both in colleges and seminaries and he had also been a pastor. At the request of the superior general he had gone as commissary (special visitor) to the provinces of Cuba and the Philippines. He had also been sent twice as special visitor of the Western Province, first in 1909 and again in 1918. The latter visitation aroused a good deal of antagonism against him because of his efforts to secure the removal of Thomas Finney as provincial of the West.

Under McHale the Eastern Province expanded. A mission house was opened in Opelika, Alabama, a church and school for blacks in Philadelphia, a mission house at Bangor, Pennsylvania, and the first Vincentians were sent to Panama. In 1919 he was elected assis­tant superior general, the first American to hold that position, and he retained it until his resignation in 1932. He died at Germantown, 12 March 1937.

In the West Smith became the first provincial of the Western Province. In 1898 William Barnwell wrote of Smith that he was “of a choleric temperament, is reserved, and does not speak of the affairs of the province, except to a few . . . . On the first impulse he resents opposition, but afterwards he subdues nature, and often adopts the opinion contrary to his own, and respects the man who gave it.”4 Barnwell also pointed out that Smith was highly regarded among the bishops of the United States and had been nominated bishop of Brownsville, Texas, but had returned the bulls. As Smith grew older, he became more reclusive and rarely left the seminary at the Barrens. In part this was because of illness— he suffered from a disfiguring cancer of the nose. More and more the administration of the province fell to Barnwell and after 1902 Smith was in virtual retirement.

During his term the province undertook the direction of Kenrick Seminary in Saint Louis (1893) and opened Saint Vincent’s College, now DePaul University, in Chicago (1897). Parishes were accepted in Kansas City, Missouri, Whittier, California, Long Beach, Mississippi, and New Orleans, Louisiana, the latter being Saint Katherine’s parish for blacks. In 1900 the diocesan seminary for New Orleans was reopened at Saint Stephen’s parish. Shortly before his death on 23 September 1905, Smith agreed to accept the respon­sibility for a college and parish in Dallas, Texas.

Barnwell succeeded Smith. The new provincial was a native of Baltimore, where he had been born in 1862. Ordained in 1885, he had spent his entire priestly life at the Barrens where he served as novice director, student director, and superior at Saint Mary’s Seminary, Perryville. His four months as provincial, however, were too brief for him to accomplish much. He died of a stroke in Saint Louis on 25 January 1906, at the age of forty-four.

His successor was Thomas O’Neil Finney, one of four brothers who were priests in the Western Province. A native of New Orleans, where he was born in 1872, he had briefly attended Niagara Univer­sity and then entered the Community in 1892. After his ordination in 1898, he went to Rome where he received his doctorates in theology and philosophy in 1901. At the time of his appointment as provincial he was director of novices at the Barrens, where one of his younger brothers, Joseph, was a novice under him. He had been ordained a little over seven years.

Finney remained in office for twenty years, and in general it was a trying period for the Western Province. He was a reticent person who tended to give superiors a free hand. As a result DePaul University went heavily in debt. In Los Angeles the financial maneuvers of Joseph Glass not only created a large debt but ulti­mately led to the closing of Saint Vincent’s College. The province’s worst entanglement was with the University of Dallas, where Finney’s brother, Patrick, was both president and superior. In 1917 it was discovered that Dallas had a debt of over $700,000, and within a short time the province was on the verge of bankruptcy. Though this was avoided, the province lurched from one fmancial crisis to another until Finney went out of office in 1926. After that he became rector of the Saint Louis Preparatory Seminary and later provincial treasurer.

The personnel in the two new provinces for the most part remained where it was at the time of division. In practice that meant that the Eastern Province had forty priests and twelve brothers in five houses, the average age of the priests being 43.6. The Western Province had forty-seven priests and nineteen brothers in nine houses, with the average age of the priests at 46.9. The eastern houses were clustered in the middle states area of the eastern seaboard, whereas those of the west were more widely scattered. The apostolates of the two provinces were more or less the same: seminaries, missions, parishes, and colleges.

Financial Problems

The move toward division had met with opposition. The argu­ments most frequently raised against it were the familiar ones of money and manpower. It was claimed that the American province was not fmancially viable enough to be separated into two parts and that the proposed provinces had insufficient personnel, both in numbers and in quality, to stand alone.

The first argument, that of finances, had some validity. In the 1880s, the American province was not financially strong and, in fact, had numerous debts. Though there are insufficient data for definitive conclusions, it appears that the fmancial situation of both provinces was better in the aftermath of division. By 1893 the Eastern Province was free of debts. The Western Province felt financially strong enough to incur the expenses connected with the opening of Kenrick Seminary in Saint Louis and Saint Vincent’s College in Chicago. By 1905 about half the houses of the Western Province were self-supporting, and the province had a cash surplus of $20,000.

This happy situation changed drastically in the first decades of this century. By 1909 the Eastern Province had a debt of $400,000, an enormous sum in those days. How or why this happened is not clear. The Western Province was brought to the edge of fmancial disaster by its three lay colleges: Saint Vincent’s College in Los Angeles, DePaul University in Chicago, and the University of Dallas In Los Angeles, Joseph Glass speculated in land, made no distinction between personal and house money, and ran up large debts. In Chicago, Peter Vincent Byrne ran up heavy indebtedness (over half a million dollars by 1909) through construction of new buildings. In Dallas, where Patrick Finney was accountable to no one, the debt of $700,000 was incurred without the knowledge of the provincial or his council.

In 1909 Thomas Finney borrowed some $97,000 from the superior general. It did not resolve the situation. By early 1918 the province was on the brink of bankruptcy. Finney appealed to the superior general for a loan of two million francs ($350,877) and his intercession to get a loan from the Spanish province. The general refused, but the province was given a reprieve in the form of a $200,000 loan from the western province of the Daughters of Charity.

Both provinces had to sell land to pay their debts, but the situa­tion was worse in the West. Valuable properties in Cape Girardeau, La Salle, Dallas, and Los Angeles were sold, but not enough was realized to erase the debt. By the mid nineteen-thirties and early forties the situation eased in both provinces. Needed income came from organizations such as the Miraculous Medal Associations, the Vincentian Press, the Vincentian Foreign Mission Society, and The Vincentian magazine. Additional help came from benefactors, such as Mrs. Maria Kulage of Saint Louis, whose largesse paid for the scholasticate building at the Barrens. The contributions of the Edward L. Doheny family of Los Angeles to the fmancial rescue of the Western Province, though important, have probably been exaggerated. There were no comparable benefactors in the Eastern Province. In both provinces improved financial practices and increased professionalism in accounting and investing helped to stabilize the situation.


The problem of manpower was more pressing in the West than in the East. The latter, with its more concentrated houses and more gradual expansion, was able to retain large numbers in fewer houses and thus avoid overextension. The West had a large upsurge in vocations during the first decade of the twentieth century, and the average age of the personnel was quite young (38.3 years in 1904). In 1910, of the 110 priests in the province, only thirty-seven had been ordained more than fifteen years. Ostensibly a happy situa­tion, this actually produced severe strains. There was no pool of experienced men from which to draw leaders. Individuals such as Patrick Finney, Michael Ryan, William Musson, and Joseph Glass became superiors within four or five years after ordination. These men stayed in power for years and were responsible for serious errors of judgment, especially in finances.

The financial crises and other problems adversely affected morale in both provinces. The result was a flood of complaints to the superior general and the recurring call for extraordinary visita­tions. In fact, such visitations were surprisingly frequent between 1890 and 1926, especially in the West.

Moving Forward

Generally, between 1930 and 1945, both provinces made slow but steady progress. Financial pressures eased somewhat after the years of the Depression. In the East McHale had been succeeded by Frederick Maune, who was provincial from 1919 until 1932. He had been born at Brooklyn, New York in 1871 and had entered the Vincentian Community at Saint Vincent’s Seminary in German­town on 25 August 1888, just nine days before the division of the provinces. He died at Springfield, Massachusetts, on 3 December 1935.

During his term as provincial the Eastern Province entered the foreign mission field a second time, in the province of Kiangsi in China. He established a parish and mission house in Jackson, Michigan, and during his term the province also accepted parishes in Baltimore, Germantown, and Groveport, Ohio.

In 1932 Maune resigned and Slattery succeeded him. William Slattery was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on 7 May 1895. He entered the Community in 1913 and was ordained to the priesthood on 8 June 1919. After graduate studies in Rome, he was assigned to Saint Vincent’s Seminary in Germantown, where he remained for twenty-five years, serving as director of novices, superior, and finally as provincial. Slattery’s term as provincial was marked by the continuation and expansion of the work of parish missions and parishes that served as mission centers. A mission house was estab­lished in Toronto, Canada, in 1933, to which a parish was later attached. A parish was also accepted in Niagara. The new Mary Immaculate Seminary, the scholasticate for the Eastern Province, was begun in 1936 and completed in 1939.

The outbreak of World War II created new problems. During the German occupation of France (1940-1944) all communication with Paris was cut off. Charles Souvay, superior general since 1934 and the first American citizen to hold that position, died on 19 December 1939, shortly after the war began and the Community was governed by a vicar-general, Edouard Robert (1939-1947). Slat­tery, like most other provincials, was compelled to act on his own. In 1946 he went to Paris to be assistant to the vicar-general and in 1947 the general assembly elected him superior general.

On 16 March 1926 Michael S. Ryan, the rector of Kenrick Seminary in Saint Louis, was appointed provincial of the Western Province. Apparently he had not been consulted about the matter for he quickly secured the testimony of three doctors that his high blood pressure made it impossible for him to accept. Ryan’s term was the briefest in the history of the province. On 28 April William P. Barr was appointed to replace him. Barr’s name had not been on Thomas Finney’s list of suggested replacements, and there is no evidence of anyone’s having urged his appointment.

Barr was born at New Orleans in 1881 and entered the Congrega­tion in 1896. He was ordained in Rome in 1903 where he obtained his doctorates in theology and philosophy in 1905. His priestly ministry was almost entirely in educational works. As provincial he showed a great deal of energy and decisiveness. He closed the University of Dallas, while retaining Holy Trinity parish, and terminated the province’s connection with Saint Mary’s parish and Laneri College, both in Fort Worth. He made a visitation of the missions in China. During his term the province accepted the direc­tion of preparatory seminaries in Kansas City, Missouri, and Los Angeles. He also began to bring some fmancial stability to the province, though much of his work was undone by the Great Depression. He left office in 1932 and became a faculty member at Kenrick Seminary. On 21 March 1938 he was reappointed provin­cial, but because he was believed to have cancer he resigned after three months (3 July 1938). In 1939 he became the first rector of Saint John’s Seminary in Camarillo, California, and worked in the seminary apostolate until his death on 20 June 1964.

Barr was succeeded in 1932 by Timothy Flavin, who had been born in Ivesdale, Illinois, in 1887. He entered the Community in 1908 and was ordained in 1916. His entire priestly ministry was spent in education, both at DePaul University and in various seminaries. When he took office, the province was feeling the impact of the Depression. The provincial treasury was so depleted that it was impossible to send students to Rome for higher studies. The office of provincial seems to have been taxing for him, and he resigned for reasons of health in 1938. In subsequent years he taught at the preparatory seminary in Los Angeles, was treasurer at DePaul University, and then was provincial treasurer. He died on 20 February 1946.

After Barr’s brief interregnum, Marshall F. Winne was named provincial (3 July 1938). A native of California, he had been involved in both educational and parochial work. At the time of his appointment he was pastor of Saint Vincent’s parish in Kansas City, Missouri, and principal of the parish high school. Like Slat­tery in the East, he found himself cut off from communication with Paris during the Second World War. He was active and energetic. During his term seminaries were accepted at Camarillo, California, San Antonio, Texas, and Bethany, Oklahoma. Three parishes were accepted, two in Texas and one in Perryville, Missouri. He set up the Miraculous Medal Novena Band in the West, opened the house of studies in Washington, D.C., and established the Vincentian Foreign Mission Society. He also began the association with the Religious Information Bureau in Saint Louis.

Diverging Paths

The impact of the division of the provinces seems to have been strong from the beginning. There are relatively few records of individuals’ seeking to be transferred from one to the other. Geographical distances and rapid growth of new recruits in both provinces weakened the bonds of mutual knowledge and contact. William Barnwell, who died in 1906, was the last provincial of the Western Province who had lived in the single American province — and that for only three years. Only eighteen years after the division, there was a provincial superior, Thomas Finney, whose knowledge of the East was restricted to a short period as a student at Niagara University. Psychological separation followed hard on geographical separation, in no small part because of the large numbers of candidates who entered both provinces in the early twentieth century.

Both provinces expanded but at different rates and in different ways. As will be evident in later chapters, the Eastern Province remained more concentrated. The new houses that it opened were not at great distances from the older ones and they also contained relatively larger numbers of men. The geographical spread of the Western Province was wider, and some of the houses, especially parishes, had few members. In general, the East remained more consolidated than the West.

The Eastern Province showed the same stability in its apostolates. Although it successfully operated two colleges which later became universities (Saint John’s and Niagara), it still emphasized parish missions, an emphasis that will be treated in full in chapter III. The Western Province, on the other hand, began to concentrate on educational work, both seminary and non-seminary. Especially after 1900, the young and ambitious personnel of the West saw its future in colleges and universities rather than missions or parishes. Despite Fiat’s warnings, the province began an improvident move toward lay education, accepting or negotiating commitments in Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, Portland (Oregon), and Lincoln (Nebraska). The resources of the province, both in manpower and money, were not equal to the commitments, and the result was an ongoing series of crises. Thomas Finney, as provincial, revived the time-honored but dubious expedient of using scholastics as teachers in these institutions, something that proved harmful to the forma­tion and education of future Vincentians.

Both provinces became involved in the foreign missions. The Eastern Province began sending men to Panama in 1914 and to China in 1920. The Western Province reluctantly followed suit in 1923. These stories are treated in chapter VI.

The demands of the new century brought to the fore the question of professional preparation of confreres for their apostolates. Already in 1882, Fiat had followed up a decree of a previous general assembly with a circular letter in which he encouraged the provinces throughout the world to send some of their better men to Rome to obtain higher degrees. He also mandated that Vincen­tian scholastics should take at least two years of philosophy and four of theology. The response of the two American provinces was somewhat slow because of manpower shortages. The East, however, soon had a more or less regular program for such degrees. In the West the response was slower because the provincial, Thomas Smith, believed that such preparation was unnecessary and that any Vincentian could teach any subject in the classroom. Despite that, a few western confreres obtained Roman degrees during his time.

The programs accelerated in both provinces and Roman degrees predominated until about the beginning of World War II. They appear to have been relatively common among those Vincentians who taught in major seminaries. It must be admitted, however, that in the earlier days the quality of Roman doctorates left much to be desired. The academic requirements were not demanding, and the awarding of a doctorate in theology could bring with it, at almost no extra effort, a doctorate in philosophy. Programs of graduate studies outside of Rome began in the 1930s but did not become the norm until after the Second World War. The construction of a house of studies adjacent to the Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 1940 was of great help to both provinces.

Ethnic differences existed between the two provinces. The vast majority of the Eastern Province was Irish in origin. One reason for this was that the houses of the East were situated in cities with large concentrations of Irish, such as New York and Philadelphia. The ethnic composition of the Western Province was more mixed, reflecting the French and Irish influence of New Orleans and the German influence of Saint Louis. In both provinces the majority of vocations seems to have come from parishes directed by the Vincentians. Fewer came from the Vincenfian-directed diocesan seminaries because of a longstanding policy against recruiting in those institutions. Formal vocation recruitment did not begin until the 1940s. Until 1918 the Western Province had more priests than the East, and the average age was younger. After that the ratio changed drastically and the East has since outnumbered the West.

The influx of first and second generation Irish into the American Vincentian Community after the Civil war coincided with the appearance of a relatively new problem that superiors were ill equipped to cope with: alcoholism. From the 1870s on it was a major topic in the provincials’ correspondence with the superior general. As far as can be determined, the problem was more acute in those areas where work pressures were most intense—that is, the missions and the colleges. It is incontrovertible, however, that the overwhelming majority of those mentioned by name were first or second generation Irish. Superiors tried to deal with what was regarded as an increasingly serious situation by warnings, transfers, and as a fmal measure, expulsion from the Community. In addition to the scandal that was caused, the problem seriously threatened the work of at least one apostolate, the parish missions, and created a great deal of scandal in another, the universities. “How difficult it is to destroy that vice,” wrote Rolando in 1875.5

Both provinces experienced a drastic decline in vocations to the brotherhood in the period of the 1920s and 1930s. The reason is not clear. Traditionally, the brothers had occupied a second rank in the community. Until 1949 they were not named in the personnel cata­logues but simply lumped together as frcres coadjuteurs, along with the number assigned to each house. Until recent times, especially in larger houses, there was a rule of separation between priests and brothers. No matter how long a brother had been in the Community, he never took precedence over even the youngest priest. Whether this sort of ranking or discrimination had anything to do with the decline in vocations is difficult to say. When Brother Edward Puncher took vows in the Western Province in 1937, he was the first brother to do so since 1910. In the years following the Second World War, the Western Province recruited brothers more actively than the East and soon had a larger number.

In the Western Province from about 1905 on, the brothers began to take names in religion, a practice at variance with Vinentian tradition (though it was a common practice in Germany and Austria at that time). How or why this started is not known, but it became general. In 1954, this same province, under its provincial, James Stakelum, decided that the brothers should wear the same type of habit as the pioneer Italian confreres. In Italy this dress,

with an external white collar and a rosary at the belt, had been worn by both priests and brothers and was identical with the habit of the Redemptorists.6 Because of complaints from the brothers and the difficulty of tailoring the new habits, the innovation was even­tually dropped.

From the 1840s to shortly after the time of the Civil War there also existed another class of person associated with the Community: the oblates. These were pious laymen who lived with the Community but took no vows. They followed at least part of the Vincentian order of the day and contributed their work to it. Many seemed to have given their money to the Community, either during their lifetimes or by will, and then to have come to live and work with it. The oblates were never numerous and most seem to have been older Irishmen. There never has been an adequate study of who and what the oblates were.

  1. Etienne to Hayden, from Paris, 10 October 1870, DRMA, Hayden papers.
  2. In fact there was no house as such in Bordentown, just land that had been purchased for one.
  3. Fiat to the Vincentians of the United States, from Paris, 1888, DRMA, Smith Papers.
  4. Barnwell to Fiat, 20 Apri11898, GCUSA, series A, roll 2, item 420.
  5. Rolando to Bore, 12 May 1875, GCUSA, series C, reel 3, item 22.
  6. The Redemptorists, in their turn, borrowed their habit from the Vincentians, whose rules and customs strongly influenced the Redemptorists’ founder, Saint Alphonsus Ligourt. All Italian Vincentians continued to dress in that way until 1964. Their dress was changed in that year because of the transfer of the General Curia from Paris to Rome and the consequent need for uniformity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *