Vincent in America through the eyes of Fr. John Rybolt
Noted Vincentian researcher, John Rybolt, CM, received an honorary degree from Niagara University September 29, 2016. The occasion allowed him to share his insights into who brought Vincent to America (perhaps not who we think), what did he do here (how he adapted over the course two centuries) and finally what is he doing today (networking with the Vincentian Family).
Learn more about Fr. Rybolt and his works
Here follows the full text.
Borrowing from the title of a well-known play about angels in America, I would like to discuss “Vincent in America.” My presentation concerns his arrival in North America and how his charism had spread. This is particularly appropriate since it was just two centuries ago that the first Vincentians arrived in Baltimore on July 26, 1816. So, first, how did he get here?
Were Felice DeAndreis, Giuseppe Rosati, Giuseppe Acquaroni, Martin Blanka, and two postulants the first to bring Vincent to America? There are vague accounts from the eighteenth century about a certain French Vincentian, Jean Bobé, coming to Canada, and about French Daughters of Charity escorting young single women from France. These were the “casquette girls” (young women from Church institutions), selected to be brides in Louisiana. Even if these accounts were true, which I doubt, more permanent foundations never resulted.
Might there have been, before 1816, at least a church on this continent dedicated to St. Vincent de Paul? In fact, there was. The first church in North America dedicated to the saint began in 1743 in Laval, Québec, Canada, outside of Montreal, but nothing here. Also, from 1810, the Sisters of Charity founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton developed their own spirit thanks to Vincent’s rule and his writings. What this means is that, even without us, the Vincentians, St. Vincent’s influence was beginning to dawn in America.
- Who brought Vincent to America?
Let me ask, then, who brought Vincent to America? The first to incarnate Vincent in America were those four confreres I just mentioned. There’s quite a story here, one of conflict that reaches back to St. Vincent himself. The reason is this. Vincent was French, he founded the Congregation in France, and its mother house was in Paris. In addition, the Daughters of Charity had the same French roots. King Louis xiv, whom Vincent knew as a child, insisted on the Congregation’s French identity. Louis, an autocratic ruler, believed that he could not control either congregation if their leadership was other than French or if their headquarters lay outside his domains.
The Italian and Polish Vincentians, with a considerable membership in the late seventeenth century, rightly felt aggrieved that the king’s will alone, and not the will of the members, could prevent a non-French member from being elected superior general. They appealed to Pope Clement xi, but he, doing the usual balancing act between Church and state, sought to mollify all parties. He ruled that henceforth anyone could be elected, no matter his nationality. As you may know, however, it took until 1947, two and a half centuries, before a non-French Vincentian led the Double Family, the Vincentians and the Daughters of Charity. He was Father William Slattery, a member of the Eastern Province. And it took until 2015 for the Daughters of Charity to elect an American, Sr. Kathleen Appler, as their superioress general.
I describe this background because it was the Italians and not the French who sent the first Vincentians to America. We are in some way, therefore, the offspring of Italy. One result was that the spirit that developed in the United States was not French. In this, we were unlike later foundations elsewhere in the Americas, such as Brazil, Chile, Peru, and the republics of Central America: they had French superiors, their seminarians studied in France, and their confreres spoke French among themselves, and not Portuguese or Spanish. More importantly, they were noted for their rigorous observance of Vincentian rules. The Italians, on the other hand, followed by Spanish Vincentians (also sons of Italy), were more open and adaptable.
The French Vincentians, following their restoration after the Revolution, criticized their American confreres for not being like them: You don’t give parish missions, moving from village to village, as St. Vincent taught. (We are, as you know, the Congregation of the Mission.) The American response was that, early on, there were no villages, only scattered settlements along the Mississippi River. The French found this impossible to comprehend: mais, c’est impossible, a common reaction by the French in the face of any new realities.
The result of all of this was that the American mission, an outlier in the Vincentian world and its first non-European province, developed its own culture and spirit. When Irish immigrants later arrived on these shores, they added another flavor to our version of Vincentian life. The French insisted on drinking wine for breakfast; the Americans were content with coffee, for example. The French frowned on beer, but we didn’t, since wine was a luxury import. The French did not countenance meat at breakfast—no bacon! Despite such prohibitions, we continued our frontier ways.
More seriously, the enormous problem that faced our Italian pioneers was the enslavement of Africans. Even before our founders left Rome in 1816, they consulted Cardinal Lorenzo Litta, the prefect of Propaganda Fide and responsible for all American missions. The pioneers agreed to tolerate slavery, but they committed themselves to see that their slaves would be treated with equity, charity, and humanity, and the Missioners would speak up for emancipation. In some respects, they were doing exactly what Vincent did in his own time, as for the galley prisoners: accepting the reality of injustice, aiding those mistreated, and working to end injustice. It must be admitted, however, that their hopes faded in the face of reality.
As they contemplated the New World, these pioneers also dreamed of evangelizing the native peoples. This was also more dream than reality, inasmuch as the earliest American foundations served white settlers and the Indians moved away, willingly or unwillingly, from the Europeans. Consequently, contact with Native Americans was scarce and haphazard at best, and no concerted attempt was made either to evangelize them or to minister to those already baptized by missionaries, usually Jesuits or Oratorians from Canada.
Protestants were another story. Our Italian ancestors, accustomed only to Catholic churches, were amazed to see fine and well-attended Protestant churches in Baltimore where they landed, as well as elsewhere. Protestant settlers offered them hospitality on the frontier and were generally polite and kindly to the newcomers. Even better, as far as the Vincentians were concerned, they were open to discussing religion and maybe even conversion.
In summary, the earliest Vincentians had to adapt to their new home. They dressed differently than in Italy, they ate and drank differently, and they had to lay aside inherited prejudices. Unprepared, they also faced diseases: cholera, yellow fever, and malaria, which they treated with only rudimentary medicines. However, the common American spirit of independent thought and action, dissent, free enterprise, and progress infused the thinking of the members of the Congregation, even in our developing years. These are our roots and the context for bringing Vincent to America.
Surprisingly, given these challenges in the New World, by the mid-nineteenth century, the Congregation of the Mission had become the second largest community in the United States after the Jesuits. This changed with the arrival of many more communities from Europe.
- What did Vincent do here?
Let me turn now to what Vincent did here. The same need to adapt was readily apparent from the beginning. The first American house, a seminary, was St. Mary’s of the Barrens, now in Perryville, in southeast Missouri. The accepted model inherited from Italy was a large mission house offering hospitality for clergy and seminary students on retreats. As I mentioned before, there were few parishes to give missions in and very few clergy. Besides, the priests were often overworked and exhausted from pastoral ministry. Still, with our own vocations in Missouri, the Vincentian charism spread to Louisiana, Illinois, and then Texas, where the connection with Niagara begins.
As we started to develop, the province opened seminaries at an outrageous rate: we already had three (Perryville, New Orleans, and Philadelphia), when John Timon, our first provincial (later the founding bishop of this diocese, Buffalo), dove headlong into this work. In 1842, he began in New York, Cincinnati, and Bardstown, Kentucky. Six seminaries were clearly too many for one small province. Wisely, Timon turned down others both in the United States (Mobile, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Vincennes, Emmitsburg, and Galveston) and abroad (the North American College in Rome, and a projected seminary in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada).
The bishops offering these seminaries generally supposed that these institutions would accept students—boys only, of course—to pursue secondary school studies alongside older seminary students. The bishops hoped that tuition income would support the seminary, and that this system would also encourage vocations through solid courses and rigorous spiritual exercises, including daily prayers and Mass, devotions, and catechism lessons. This practice of a mixed institution was as unsuccessful in the United States as it was throughout Latin America. About the only successes were here at Niagara and later in Brooklyn.
The founder in Niagara was John Joseph Lynch. Born in Ireland, he came to the United States, joined the Congregation, and worked first in Texas and then in the seminary of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. While giving a clergy retreat in Buffalo, he received charge of opening a seminary here. You probably know all this already, of course, since he founded the Seminary of Our Lady of Angels in 1856. It fulfilled his childhood wish to minister to Catholics in the region of the falls. The fact that the seminary opened with a faculty of two and a student body of six points to the fragile infrastructure typical of our early attempts. Besides, the main problem for these early Vincentians was that they were either too busy and dispersed, or their houses were too small and rudimentary for community life. Nevertheless, the seminary ministry grew, and Vincentians were among the leaders in this important work.
When we move beyond the seminaries and schools, we find the parishes. Bishops needed seminaries to build up the local church, but their primary intuition was to strengthen the church at the local level. This meant parishes. This has always been a struggle for Vincentians, not only in America but in many provinces. Our Italian ancestors generally did not have them, mostly because the numerous local clergy in Italy were jealous of their pastoral prerogatives. As a result, Italian Vincentians had few parishes, at least before the twentieth century. In America, however, the parish was the basic nucleus of any foundation. St. Vincent was against them, convinced that parishes would keep his confreres from giving missions. That was true, in fact, but the reason was not their laziness but it stemmed rather from the developmental and medical needs of his confreres. Missions here involved hard, exhausting, and dangerous work: traveling, seeking accommodations in private homes or roadside inns, spending days (and nights) preaching, teaching, and hearing confessions, plus visiting the sick and elderly scattered over huge territories. After some years at this, our earliest confreres had to pull back and leave the work to younger men. Parishes or public churches offered older Vincentians a less demanding schedule and greater community support.
In more recent years, we have bowed to the inevitable by regarding a bishop’s invitation to take on a parish as a “call of the Church,” which Vincentians should be ready to answer. The fact is that bishops are not particularly interested in Vincentians as such. They just want any group with enough members willing to minister in their dioceses. For this reason, religious communities in recent times have started asking themselves what are the specific differences that distinguish their parishes from those staffed by diocesan clergy. For us, the answer has been the vocation to the poor. When our predecessors arrived in this country nearly everyone was poor, and this was a mark of Catholic life for decades: new immigrants, working at entry-level jobs, agriculture, factory labor, construction, canal building, military service—that sort of thing.
With the passage of time, however, Catholics in the United States improved their standing by being entrepreneurial, especially through education. Vincentians found that their parishes developed into middle- and upper-class institutions. What, then, was the specific Vincentian difference? What did it mean to incarnate Vincent in America in these years? Should we stay? Should we go? Let me leave those questions for you to ponder, while I turn to a few more considerations about our works.
In our Vincentian tradition, we are called Missioners. This was what Vincent called us. Over the years, we have adapted other names (Lazarists, based on our mother house in Paris, St. Lazare; Vincentians, based on our founder, like Franciscans after St. Francis of Assisi; or, in Spanish and other languages, Paúles, Paulinos). “Missioners” is a great name, inasmuch as indicates our identity. A sustained American focus on missions developed toward the end of the nineteenth century, once there were many parishes requesting missions. In the East, the mission work in Alabama, then a neglected area, joined evangelization (or convert making) to the establishment of parishes. As the American South changed and the local church grew, so our men gradually withdrew from their parishes, another kind of adaptation.
Similarly, the mature American provinces accepted calls to overseas missions. The East began in Panama and later volunteered generously for China. In the West, our folks followed the East somewhat reluctantly to China, where we both worked in Jiangxi Province. These works stand out as the Golden Age in our mythology, but this ended brutally by 1954.
Another myth, if you don’t mind my using that term, is that our two provinces have always been rich. The fact is that we regularly had financial problems, especially systemic indebtedness. To our shame, we even had to borrow from the French! This only confirmed our French confreres’ anxiety about their free-spending American confreres. In the early twentieth century, the French authorities regularly sent special visitors to examine our situation on site, poring over account books, which they didn’t really understand. Their reports assuaged official worries in France, but the examiners’ recommendations for changes made little practical difference here. It was really only after the Second World War that our position turned around, and we became the go-to provinces when others had been impoverished.
III. What is Vincent doing now?
Let me turn to ask what Vincent is doing today in America. What we have seen is that our Vincentian ancestors developed their own style and culture in the New World, and that success blessed only some of their endeavors. This called them to adapt, a major theme in this drama of Vincent in America.
Even now, adaptation has continued. Matters outside our control have necessitated this. The Code of Canon Law, published in 1918, called us to examine closely our Vincentian identity. These discussions led to constitutions in 1954 and again in 1980, approved by the Vatican. These are the fruit of lengthy and, frankly, tiresome conversations about our identity and purpose in the Church. Our chief work, the seminaries, was declining. As one of our confreres reported: We did not leave the seminaries; the seminaries left us. This undercut one of our main apostolates in this country. To adapt, we turned more to work with the pastoral formation of clergy and laity, centered in parishes.
Our parishes varied in number. We left some, we took on others, but the leading idea was the Vincentian charism. We asked ourselves: What would Vincent de Paul be doing here in America in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries? We became convinced that his concern for the poor and marginalized is key to our lives; this is who we are. Even though some prosperous parishes remain under Vincentian direction, their parishioners share actively in our commitments to those touched by poverty.
The same can be said about universities. In the past, our confreres from other countries regularly criticized the Americans for what they deemed to be a work for the privileged classes, as they were in their countries. Perhaps that was true at some point, but we have adapted—there’s that word again—to reach out to those who experience poverty. Our institutions are renowned for accepting and promoting diversity in the faculty and student body. We welcome students who are the first in their families to work for a collegiate and graduate education. We have also become aware of some students on the knife edge between success and failure, some of whom are basically homeless. Education, we are convinced, is a major route out of poverty, and we try to make our friend Vincent living and real in our universities.
Missions, our major work in the past, have lost popularity. Some parishes still want them; most do not. This is pushing us to adapt again to new realities by offering different kinds of catechetical missions.
One of the other great themes in recent years has been networking. As our numbers have declined in many countries, so we have adapted our perspectives about identity to include multitudes of others who appreciate and venerate the Vincentian charism. It is common these days to speak of the Vincentian Family. For so many years, there have been thousands of fellow citizens all around us whose identity is Vincentian: the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Ladies of Charity, the many congregations of Sisters of Charity descended from Mother Seton, to say nothing of the Daughters of Charity. Add to that the hundreds of thousands associated with our universities, schools, hospitals, and other works of charity. In 1992, our late superior general, Richard McCullen, reported this: “The potential of the specifically lay Vincentian movements is enormous, but often the giant continues to sleep, because we have not taken sufficient pains to rouse him.” Happily, this is changing. These movements, individuals, and organizations also incarnate Vincent in today’s America, and our cooperation mutually enriches us, the Church and society, and those in poverty.
All this won’t mean much, therefore, unless we commit ourselves to “love what he loved, and practice what he taught,” phrases taken from the first prayer established for our Holy Founder shortly after his death. He made a huge impact then, and he continues to do so now through his daughters, his sons, and his extended family throughout the world. That’s where you come in.
Thanks for listening.
John E. Rybolt, C.M.