THE SECOND FOUNDER: Bishop Martin J. O'Connor and the Pontifical North American College

THE SECOND FOUNDER: Bishop Martin J. O'Connor and the Pontifical North American College

by Monsignor Stephen M. DiGiovanni


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781466961494
Publisher: Trafford Publishing
Publication date: 02/18/2013
Pages: 334
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)

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Bishop Martin J. O'Connor and the Pontifical North American College

By Stephen M. DiGiovanni

Trafford Publishing

Copyright © 2013 Monsignor Stephen M. DiGiovanni
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4669-6150-0



Pope Pius IX and the founding of an American seminary in Rome

"You should set up, here in this venerable City of Ours, your own College for clerics from your own nation. For you, in your wisdom, are well aware what great advantages would accrue to your dioceses from such an institution."

—Blessed Pope Pius IX, 1855

Cardinal Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti took the name of Pius IX upon his election as Pope on June 16, 1846. Until his death in 1878, he guided the Catholic Church during one of the most turbulent periods of European history. Among his many accomplishments was the founding of the Pontifical North American College, which opened in 1859.

The idea for a national seminary to train Americans in Rome first came from Archbishop Gaetano Bedini following his visit to the United States in 1853. The Catholic Church in America impressed the Vatican visitor—at least he considered the laity impressive. His report about some of the clergy was less than complimentary. He was shocked at the enormous diocesan and parochial debts, and what he termed "too much selfishness and too great a spirit of independence" among the priests. The debts were the natural result of the poverty of American Catholics, the majority having been European immigrants who arrived in the United States impoverished. The poor quality of some priests was caused by much the same reason: most were themselves penniless immigrants, sometimes poorly educated, and a few came to America seeking to escape their stern bishops or the law. A better crop of priests was required to serve the growing Church in America, and Bedini knew how to provide them. The Archbishop made two recommendations upon his return to Rome: that diplomatic relations between the Holy See and the United States be established; and that an American seminary be founded in the Eternal City.

The establishment of a seminary for Americans was mentioned by the Pope himself, soon after Bedini's return. On New Year's Day, 1855, he wrote John Hughes, Archbishop of New York:

In order that you may be able to provide more easily for the needs of your dioceses, and have diligent and industrious laborers to assist you in cultivating the vineyard of the Lord, We strongly desire ... that after mutual consultation and collaboration [among the American bishops], you should set up, here in this venerable City of Ours, your own College for clerics from your own nation. For you, in your wisdom, are well aware what great advantages would accrue to your dioceses from such an institution.

On July 19, 1858, the Church's missionary authority, the Congregation de Propaganda Fide, while discussing the decisions of the Ninth Provincial Council of Baltimore, considered Bedini's proposal for an American seminary, writing in its report:

One of the greatest works of Catholic wisdom of the successors of Saint Peter is the foundation in Rome of many Pontifical colleges which were built here and still prosper in goodly number with the most noble end of welcoming young men from diverse nations more or less infected with error, and here instructing them in true doctrine, forming in them all virtues, then sending them as priests to their countries to work all their lives to preserve Catholics in the faith and to lead back those in error to the ways of truth and justice.

Another reason for the establishment of an American College in Rome was the concern Propaganda had about the unity of the American bishops among themselves and with the Holy See. A national college in Rome could provide one more link between the Successor of Saint Peter in Rome and the successors of the apostles in the United States.

The Pope, however, had greater concerns about the well-being of the Universal Church, and greater confidence in the Americans than did either Bedini or the Propaganda officials. He saw the United States of America as a land of great promise, in which the ancient Catholic Church could flourish. And it was the Church in America that the Pope was betting on for the future of the Universal Church. The Church in Europe had been under attack for centuries, and nearly destroyed by various kings, governments and revolutions. It was to America, whose first President, George Washington, was one of Pius' heroes, in which the Church could find her sea legs once again and preach the Gospel freely, even as she was being attacked throughout Europe. In America, the land of immigrants, a standardized Roman training of her priests would prove useful in forming a unified Catholic Church to meet the challenges of the future.

Pius expressed his hopes for the Church in America during his inaugural visit to the North American College on January 29, 1860, housed in the former Visitation convent on the Via dell'Umiltà, located around the corner from the Trevi Fountain, and down the street from the former papal palace on the Quirinal Hill (today the palace of the President of the Republic of Italy). It was the feast of Saint Francis de Sales, founder of the Visitation Sisters. While a seminarian, the future Pope had frequently visited the Umiltà convent and served Mass for the Sisters; as a young priest, he often came to the old convent on that feast day to offer Mass for the Sisters, and did so again on July 2, 1846, soon after his election as Pope. And, it was in this chapel that he had made public the decree of heroic sanctity of Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitation sister visionary of the Sacred Heart, a few weeks later on August 23rd. He returned to that former convent, now the new American College, as an old friend.

He told the newly assembled first class of twelve American students that the political violence, and the possible loss of the Papal States did not weigh terribly upon his mind. He continued:

What afflicts Us and frightens Us far more is the perversion of ideas: this horrible evil of falsifying everything. Vice, in fact, is taken for virtue; and virtue for vice. Yet while they lavish acclaim and praise upon the most wicked men and deeds, they have the effrontery to brand as 'hypocrisy,' 'fanaticism', and 'abuse of religion,' firmness in the faith and the very constancy of the bishops in the defense of its sacred rights and its good works.

Now, more than ever before, is the time to take vengeance upon them, in the name of God! And the vengeance of the priesthood and of the Vicar of Christ can only be prayer and supplication that they may all be converted and live. The worst of evils, we know only too well, is the corruption of the heart and the damaging of the mind; and it can be overcome only by the greatest miracle which God can work—and which we must beg Him to accomplish.

The Pope was a realist, and this he clearly demonstrated in the opening of the College. While the days were numbered for the temporal reality of the papal states, which would cease to exist within ten years, there shone a bright future for the Universal Church in America. Pius IX saw himself not so much as the custodian of an outdated political structure, but "as the custodian of the highest principles of good" before those of evil about to burst forth in Europe.

While Pius IX enthusiastically supported the project, the American bishops did not—at least not at first. Unsure of themselves or their ability to provide seminarians for the new College, and with limited finances, since many dioceses were very poor, they held back from any commitment. Some bishops also thought that Americans should be trained in America, where they would serve as priests, and not trained abroad in Europe. Yet the officials of Propaganda along with Bedini urged the Pope forward, and forward the project went with a decision on May 9, 1859 that the new American College would open the following November, whether the American bishops were on board or not.

It was decided that the Propaganda Fide would purchase the older portion of the vacant convent of Visitation nuns on the Via dell'Umiltà, once forcibly occupied by Napoleon's troops. The Americans were not given the property title, but perpetual use of the building and land at no cost, and would be required only to cover the operating expenses and maintenance costs, and to pay for the furnishing of the new College. Circular letters were sent to the American bishops informing them that their new seminary was about to open, requesting that they send students (along with an annual tuition of $150 per student, a considerable sum at that time), and suggest the names of candidates who might be chosen as the institution's first Rector.

Once the decision was made to open the seminary for the American students, the work of reconstruction of the long abandoned convent, damaged by French troops, began under the personal direction of Archbishop Bedini. He guided the architect, Andrea Busiri, as well as the workmen in the extensive renovations of every part of the old buildings, often helping with his own hands. Reuben Parsons of New York, one of the first seminarians, recalled:

... an instance of the zealous prelate's muscular exertions even unto profuse perspiration, as he endeavored to render the long-dismantled College church fit for divine worship. After a cursory inspection of the refectory and the students' rooms we entered the church; and there, amid a cloud of dust, divested of his cassock, resplendent in shirt-sleeves and knee-breeches, was Archbishop Bedini polishing candlesticks, scrubbing marbles ...

The Archbishop replaced the original ancient chapel painting of the Madonna which had been stolen by Napoleon's troops, with an exact copy of his own favorite Madonna: Mary the Mother of Mercy, from the church of Santa Chiara in Rimini. Bedini made her the patroness of the College, located on the Via dell'Umiltà—"Humility Street," under the title of Our Lady of Humility. Bedini's painting resides within the baroque altarpiece above the high altar today. The Archbishop also provided a marble sculpture of the patroness of the United States: Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, and placed the lovely statue atop a stone column, which can still be seen in the main courtyard of the old College on Humility Street.

The first Rector of the College was a New York priest, Reverend Doctor William McCloskey. He was appointed on November 14, 1859, but could not possibly complete the Atlantic crossing in time for the planned opening on December 8th. An Irish Benedictine monk, Dom Bernard Smith, was named the temporary "Pro-Rector".

The College formally began on December 7, 1859 with the entrance into the College of the twelve new Nordamericani, led by their prefect, Edward McGlynn, a New York seminarian who had begun his Roman studies at the missionary Propaganda College. With the solemn inauguration of the College the next day, and the papal visit on January 29th, the College opened to welcome an ever-increasing number of young Americans studying for the priesthood. Within a few decades, it had outgrown its Umiltà home.

* * *

During the years 1859-1910, 649 seminarians lived at the North American College on the Via dell'Umiltà. The College also grew by means of purchasing property and buildings. In 1878, the College built a mortuary chapel in Campo Verano; in 1899, the Villa Santa Caterina in Castel Gandolfo; and in 1901, the Pilotta wing [Palazzo Tomba] contiguous to the Umiltà seminary.

Pope Saint Pius X had urged the Americans to build a larger seminary in 1907. While immediate construction was impossible, fundraising for the future was begun by the Rector, Monsignor Thomas F. Kennedy [NAC 1887], whose building fund eventually amassed $50,000.00 [approximately $1,170,000 in 2012 dollars] for a new college.

More substantial plans for a larger College began following World War I. At first, the College trustees thought to expand the Umiltà site. But the Holy See intervened, suggesting that the American Hierarchy consider joining forces with the Congregation de Propaganda Fide to purchase a large site on the top of the Janiculum Hill for the construction of a new Collegio Urbano and a new Collegio Americano.

The reason was to forestall any possible attempt by Protestant groups to purchase that property overlooking the Vatican, as American Methodists had done earlier atop Monte Mario. The only reason for the failure to construct a Protestant Vatican on Monte Mario "200 spiritual feet higher than Catholicism," towering over Saint Peter's, was popular Roman sentiment that led even the anti-clerical Roman government to refuse zoning and building permits. The Vatican preferred to forestall any possible future attempts at similar Protestant construction by urging the American bishops to purchase the land, the perfect location for a new American seminary, where America's future priests could forge stronger bonds with the Successors of Saint Peter.

The American Hierarchy agreed, and, during their September 1924 meeting, formally approved the purchase of twelve acres [4 ½ hectares] on the Janiculum Hill. The property had been the site of the former mental hospital of Santa Maria della Pieta. The College Rector, Monsignor Charles A. O'Hern [NAC 1906], was given the task of visiting American dioceses in an attempt to secure the $600,000 [$8,073,157.89] needed for the purchase of the parcel of land. Armed with a letter from the Pope supporting the new College, reprinted with photographs of the Vatican in an elegant advertising portfolio designed to inspire generous support, O'Hern secured pledges for $120,000 [$1,577,725.71] within a few weeks. An agreement was reached in July 1925 between the Propaganda Fide and the Italian Ministry of Justice, and the property agreement was concluded.

During these years, the American bishops moved quickly to raise funds and develop designs for a new College. Monsignor Eugene S. Burke [NAC 1911] was named the Rector in 1925, "And then the job of erecting a new college was given me and in old Navy spirit I started to complete the job", he wrote to a potential donor. "I want a building that is a credit to our land and our church and a plant large enough to answer the needs of the present day."

Almost immediately after the agreement to purchase the Janiculum site, the Roman government announced, via newspaper accounts, their plans and designs to cut a new street and tunnel directly through the American's portion of the Janiculum property, dividing in two the site of the new American College. The rest of the area around the new street was to be transformed into parkland, in which development and construction would be prohibited. The Vatican/ American purchase, therefore, would be rendered useless—at least for the Americans—and the Italian government and the Propaganda knew this when the property sale had been finalized. Months of protests followed, resulting in the redesign of the Roman street project, and the closing on the property sale and contract was signed with the American Hierarchy on March 5, 1926.

The next Italian government threat to the College was rumored in the early 1930's, made real in 1938. Once again, the Americans were informed by means of Roman newspapers. The Propaganda Fide officials knew of the plan, but refused to give any information to the College Rector, who finally approached the United States ambassador to Rome. In correspondence between the ambassador and Roman city officials, blueprints emerged that would create a new boulevard cutting through the Umiltà property, destroying all the College buildings, preserving only the historic chapel. In the meantime, the Propaganda Fide refused to negotiate a private entrance for the proposed American College on the Janiculum, making an American facility independent of the new Propaganda College impossible. The final obstacle concerning title to the Umiltà property, and a precise decision about the boundary lines of the Janiculum site was, once again, Propaganda Fide.

Burke was authorized by the American bishops to hire Ettore Rossi as architect to begin plans for the Janiculum building. Rossi and Burke toured England, Ireland, and the United States, visiting seminaries and ecclesiastical buildings, which inspired numerous and detailed architectural plans. The plans are grandiose, incorporating architectural elements from classical Roman buildings such as the Coliseum and the Palazzo Barberini, and mimicking the monumental size of American seminaries then being built in the United States, such as Saint Charles Borromeo in Overbrook, Pennsylvania and Our Lady of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. The fantastic, sometimes over-the-top architectural sketches reflected the American post-war self-confidence, and helped Burke in his fundraising efforts.

But, with the arrival of the Great Depression, and the numerous construction projects in nearly every Catholic diocese in the United States, donations dwindled. There was another reason that support began to evaporate, in that many priest and bishop alumni were opposed to supporting any project of a new seminary building, preferring that the Umiltà property remain the seminary's home, and that any new construction should be there, where the College was born.

During their 1935 bishops' meeting, the College Episcopal Board reported that, to date, O'Hern and Burke had been able to collect only $469,055.00 [$7,877,556.18] for the Seminary Building Fund. Considering all expenses of the College, including the payment of the debt to Propaganda for purchasing the Janiculum property, the Building Fund was in debt to the principal College Fund for $13,061.21 [$219,356.83]. This was partially due to the lowered exchange rate of the American dollar, having decreased in value in Italy by 40%. The one department of the College paying its own way was the house for graduate priests, located in one of the old buildings on the American portion of the Janiculum property, the Casa San Giovanni. An important observation was made that would affect the future decision to build the new seminary on the Janiculum and not on the Umiltà:

Because of special advantages and privileges derived from its location, part of this Institution shows an operating surplus. The Janiculum site is extra-territorial, and as a consequence, property located there is tax-free. The Graduate School, moreover, enjoys the privilege of purchasing staple supplies in the Vatican City where food imports are not levied. A college erected on the new site would continue to enjoy these significant advantages and notably decrease its maintenance costs.

Excerpted from THE SECOND FOUNDER by Stephen M. DiGiovanni. Copyright © 2013 by Monsignor Stephen M. DiGiovanni. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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Table of Contents


Abbreviations....................     ix     

Foreword by Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke....................     xi     

Introduction....................     xix     

Chapter 1: Pope Pius IX and the founding of an American seminary in Rome...     1     

Chapter 2: The New Rector and Post-War Dreams....................     25     

Chapter 3: Securing the Property Titles....................     61     

Chapter 4: Funding a Seminary....................     92     

Chapter 5: Building a Seminary....................     161     

Chapter 6: Unblocking the Lire, Completing the Construction................     209     

Chapter 7: Dedication Day, October 14, 1953....................     260     

Postscript....................     282     

Appendices....................     291     

Index....................     307     

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