The story, which began in 1942, is far from complete. The future at this point in time is locked up in the mind of the Most Holy Redeemer, and I am sure is full of as many surprise as our first half century.
Suppose we take a hurried look over our shoulder at the year when the Vice Province of Richmond was born, 1942. What was going on in the world at that time? It may sound like a gross injustice today when a gyro-twister like Michael Jackson can pull down millions for a few recordings that 1942 was the year when Nelson Eddy, a really outstanding baritone was the highest paid voice in the USA at $3,000 to $3,500 a concert…. The BIGGEST tune hit everyone was whistling was DEEP IN THE HEART OF TEXAS…. The year 1942 was the middle of World War II and supermarkets were the new kid on the block. Sugar, gas and meat were rationed and you needed stamps to get them …… Strange names like Iwo-Jima, Corregidor, Guadalcanal, Midway Island, Bataan, the Solomon Islands became part of the world’s vocabulary and made front page headlines …. for the whole world was at war in 1942 …. the year when our nation and the world first heard of WAACS (the Women’s Army Corps) with the south’s own Father Gig Geary as their chaplain…
You may find this one hard to believe but in 1942 an enemy submarine actually emerged from the floor of the Pacific Ocean and for 20 minutes lobbed shells at an oil refinery near Santa Barbara, California. Yes! 1942 was quite a year…. in addition to all of this it was the year when the south rose and was declared to be the VICE PROVINCE OF RICHMOND with headquarters at 810 Louisiana Street in Richmond, Virginia, and Cornelius Hoffman as first Vice Provincial….
In 1942 the Baltimore Province had a far-seeing Provincial, William T. McCarty, a man always open to the needs of the moment. It was Big Bill McCarty, – as affectionately referred to him, – who during World War II sent 120 Redemptorists into the armed forces as chaplains. It was he who looked South and heard the cry of the poor, – the Latin and black poor in particular. When he was named a Bishop in 1943, he could look back on his years as Provincial of the Baltimore Province as being a time when he became the architect of the new Redemptorist South. (Bishop McCarty, for those here today who did not know him, died as Bishop of Rapid City, SD and is buried in the magnificent Cathedral of Our Lady of Perpetual Help which he built there.
No story of the Southeastern Redemptorists would be complete without a thumbnail sketch of our first Vice Provincial Connie Hoffman. A missionary at heart he had done his theological studies in Poland to prepare to give Polish missions back here at home. He began his days in the south wearing two hats,. VP and local pastor of St. Augustine’s in Richmond. For the next 8 years he drove, from one fledgling foundation to another in a second hand station wagon loaded to the gunwales with everything from bath towels to frying pans and Mass vestments to chalices or spare auto parts. He could have been picked up for peddling without a license. We had no money in those days but we did have lots of fun. Fr. Connie always had a funny story … Like the time he told us of Fr. Joe Heminghaus begging for indoor toilets for the black school of St. Gerard in Aiken, SC. South Carolina can get mighty cold in winter months but Fr. Provincial saw anything “south” as perpetual summer. In a last ditch effort to get the facilities, Fr. Joe told the Provincial he was out walking that a.m. buttoned up in his overcoat and as he passed the port-o-lets he heard a child singing…. MASSAS IN DE COLD, COLD GROUND.(P.S. He got the indoor toilets!)
To back-track for a moment … Lest we forget, the Redemptorists first came south in 1926 to New Smyrna Beach. Fr. Joe Downey the first to arrive was typical of so many Southern Redemptorists. During his time in New Smyrna he not only was pastor of the tiny wooden Sacred Heart Church of those days, but as Frank Donlan puts it so well in his history of the Vice province, IN ADDITION TO HIS PARISH MINISTRY, HE CONDUCTED PARISH MISSIONS, RETREATS, DAYS OF RECOLLECTION AND NOVENAS AS WELL AS ASSISTING-..OTHER PASTORS IN THE DIOCESE. HE ALSO PARTICIPATED IN CIVIC AFFAIRS IN THE TOWN AND AT ONE TIME WAS EXALTED RULER OF THE LOCAL ELKS LODGE … HE BECAME A WELL KNOWN FIGURE IN THE TOWN COMMUNITY. The more you re-read our history, the more you see this as a paradigm of Redemptorist involvement throughout the Southeastern states. Another feature of our coming South is recalled when you hear the story of how the locals were not prepared to sell property to the Catholic Church. In New Smyrna, for example, it was Pierce Keefe, a Brooklyn real estate man and friend of the Redemptorists, who had to buy the property in his own name where the Villa is now located and then turn it over to us. The plain truth is that in more than one place the welcome mat was not prominently displayed in those early days.
From here on out, I believe we can roughly divide the VP story into two parts, our call to minister to the Spanish-speaking and to the blacks. In 1934 we Redemptorists were asked to take over Our Lady of Mercy from the Salesians in the Ybor City section of Tampa. The Jesuits had given up and yielded to them a few years earlier. Some parishioners were a bit cynical. “Ybor City is a tough spot. You’ll be like the others, you’ll give it a few years and then walk out.” Father John Hosey who had just come from the missions in Puerto Rico and had been named first superior responded, “When the Redemptorists make a beachhead they are here to stay!” And we DID stay … all the way until 1980 when Bishop Larkin took us by surprise saying he was considering a transfer of the parish to Spanish Dominicans, who were in charge of the diocesan apostolate for Spanish-speaking and could use the parish for a center of operations. By that time it had been a tale of two cities. Ybor when we arrived was the bustling center of the cigar industry. We had lived on the top floor of the school … built the beautiful Spanish style church and installed a FIRST,- stainless steel altars,- all with Redemptorist funds … added the three story rectory … begged from our friends to build the convent for the SSNDs …. prepared future Tampa parishes with devoted parishioners …. lived through the days of the Spanish Civil War when a collection for Generalissimo Franco’s forces, mandated by Bishop Barry for all parishes, brought about a boycott of the parish … it also brought an offer from our maintenance man Charlie Ince, who had fought with Pancho Villa in Mexico, to mount a machine gun atop the school roof to “hold them off …… (which was, of course politely refused by Fr. Rector) …. OLPH saw 7 hammer and sickle symbols splashed on its doors in red paint and even Molotov cocktails hurled at its front doors. But there were GOOD things. The parish thrilled to the First Mass of the South’s first Redemptorist, Dave Sharrock. We also co-sponsored a Rosary Rally attended by 10,000 whites and blacks side by side, – a real triumph indeed in segregation days. Sounds like something out of the New Testament but during those years we Redemptorists sent 72 confreres to work in the 4 churches, 3 schools and 3 hospitals. When the school finally closed due to a vanishing population the local paper said PERHAPS THE CLOSING OF THE SCHOOL IS DUE TO SUCCESS RATHER THAN FAILURE. Fr. Joe Daly summed up the final chapter of OLPH in Ybor City very well when he wrote of, the urban renewal planned but stalled for lack of funds: WE HAVE BEAUTIFUL ROADS HERE BUT NO HOMES. With 12 Priests and a brother at its peak, OLPH in Ybor City had served St. Joseph Church and school in West Tampa until it became a parish of its own with resident Redemptorist community in 1953 …. Also Most Holy Name for the Italian population…We also started Most Holy Redeemer, today one of Tampa’s largest parishes. To name all 72 confreres who labored here during half a century would be as tedious as rattling off names from a telephone directory. At times the rapid transfers sounds like the C.Ss.R. version of “musical chairs”. However we can and I believe SHOULD mention one name. When he left after serving in all 3 parishes for a total of 24, years the Tampa papers bade farewell to a man they called PADRE TAMPA. Fr. Phil Bardeck.
In the intermediate years, we accepted parishes in Opa-locka and Jacksonville. Their stories would fill a book but can be deduced in some small Way from the Ybor City story. Both Opa-locka and Jacksonville have gone through tremendous transitions. Opa-locka following the Cuban exodus under Fidel Castro is today largely a Latin parish with a growing number of black and diminishing number of white attendees. While Jacksonville appears to be an evangelizing parish with a school attended by a growing number of non-Catholic black children. Much Redemptorist sweat and blood has gone into O.L.P.H. as well as Holy Rosary. Opa-locka came through with ONE Redemptorist priest when Gene Daigle offered his First Mass there in 1972. Following the Vietnam War, OLPH was the first Miami parish to open its doors to a regular weekly Mass in Vietnamese, and later in Creole for the boat people from Haiti. Worthy of special note in the Jacksonville story was the First Mass of Fr. Frank Jones, C.Ss.R. in June of 1973, and again that of Fr. Vang Cong Tram who had begun his studies in Vietnam and was ordained in 1983 in the States. Would that there were time to pay fitting tribute to all the confreres who worked in these foundations! But that glorious story must await your reading of the updated version of the SOUTHEASTERN REDEMPTORIST HERITAGE.
Nonetheless no story of the Southeastern Redemptorists would be even partially adequate without recalling the reason WHY we originally came south and re-visiting a capsulized scene or two. The Redemptorists were invited south to minister to the Spanish-speaking and black peoples. The decades were the 30s and 40s. Their story must inevitable be summarized in details resembling a college or kaleidoscope. For we actually took on at least 13 foundations explicitly to serve black Catholics. Almost all of the stories have certain sameness to them…. a willingness to take over what the local clergy did not want, a handful of really poor people, and a bishop who needed to meet the seemingly opposing demands of evangelization and segregation. But without doubt the challenge was everywhere Alphonsian.
It was the 20th century version of the goat herders of the Neapolitan hills in 18th century Napoli. The stories of these foundations run the gamut from Fr. Gene Helldorfer arriving in Aiken in 1942 to work for the blacks and discovering only ONE Catholic family, to the fascinating Orangeburg SC story, where blacks were plentiful and racism rampant. Sandwiched somewhere in between is the Newton Grove tale of a prelate who was saved from lynching by Fr. Tim Sullivan, when the bishop tried to enforce De-segregation in a white convert congregation where tales of the scandals of Maria Monk were still rampant and Catholicism at best worn very thin. On the other hand there is also the inspiring story of Fr. Joe Ellison arriving to start a parish in Rocky Mount, NC a town with 14,000 black people. As Frank Donlan describes it with a quaint admixture of humor and pathos, AFTER WALKING THE STREETS AND KNOCKING ON DOORS FOR SIX WEEKS (of nothing) HE DISCOVERED ONE DELIGHTFUL OLD LADY WHO HAD NOT BEEN TO MASS SINCE SHE LEFT ANNAPOLIS 52 YEARS BEFORE. SHE BECAME THE FOCAL POINT FOR ATTRACTING CONVERTS … TO MASS IN A RENTED FILLING STATION … WHILE THE SUNDAY COLLECTION SLOWLY INCREASED FROM 69 TO 81 CENTS, But don’t let figures fool you! We Redemptorists got more than our money’s worth out of Wilson, when one of those converts, our own Fr. Glen Parker, celebrated his First Mass in Wilson.
There were some humorous tales like the time when the original Dalton, GA community lived in the local hotel and Ed Moriarty had Protestants, who had strange notions of Catholic priests, doing a double take daily as he arrived at the restaurant for meals dressed in full habit, 15 decade rosary and all! …Then the pioneer days at Ft. Oglethorpe when the community a threesome lived in an abandoned military band house where the sewer water backed up into the cellar every time it rained…. But they also had a swimming pool and old Officers Club, abandoned by the 6th cavalry, where the Fathers put together a summer camp for the poorest of poor kids from the back hills … The Griffin confreres can tell you of being jammed into the old convent converted into a bandbox rectory, where you had to turn sideways to make the Sign of the Cross …. And for sure there are tales of Hampton, Clinton and Concord, Hilton Head Island, and Wauchula with its migrant farming community….. But we need to take a quick look at our apostolate for the black people and in my mind the Orangeburg story summarizes our black southern adventure best of all. I believe there is a bit of all the other stories wrapped up in its telling. One of the first Redemptorists to arrive in Orangeburg later became a WWII chaplain hero. Fr. Larry Lynch, known to GI’s as Padre Cyclone. He was the only C.Ss.R. killed in action. Unlike many other towns, the Orangeburg people warmly greeted the arrival of the Redemptorists. Imagine 7 counties and 3,000 square miles! Who else would take THAT challenge? Besides their parish work it was missions, retreats, triduo, ordinary confessors to religious etc.. The spirit of Alphonsus Liguori was here. Why during WWII one C.Ss.R. actually ministered to German prisoners of war in a concentration camp outside of Orangeburg. Unfortunately this was the South before integration, and the original warm welcome soon wore off. What was known as the Up-town Clan was formed and an economic boycott began against our black parishioners. Hard as it may seem to believe today, because he supported the blacks, a group of 40 Catholics demanded to have Fr. Frank Donlan transferred… And Fr. Jim McGonagle was the only pastor in the entire area to allow blacks into what was then known as a “white church” for a kneel in … Back in the middle 50’s the KKK had threatened to burn a cross in front of Holy Trinity Church. Now in the 60’s a bomb threat was made by telephone. Neither threat materialized. Still it was a time of paradox. Even while the parish was developing and received an award for the best CCD program in SC, racial violence erupted 3 black students were killed and 37 wounded by national guardsmen. Fr. Tom O’Toole spent the entire night comforting students and their grieving families. The Redemptorists had seen just about everything and coped with it admirably well. Immense distances between churches and people…. few Catholics and anti-Catholic bias … racial discrimination and other side of the tracks living conditions.
When St. Alphonsus founded the Redemptorists he probably did not realize he was founding a “giant’. We now have Redemptorists in almost every country in the world. For years we have had a community in hiding in Russia… and in Czechoslovakia…. even in lran….and apartheid South Africa. But among our Southern memories as well as a vital part of the global picture is the tale of Newman Club (Campus ministry today) work for both blacks and whites in numerous places throughout the South….. the weekly and one night stands of our Southern Trailer Chape, with my memories of Fr. Jeff Rockwood being asked by a backwoods Baptist under a starry sky if Catholic priests really had horns like the devil and responding, We sure do. I just happen to be a young priest and mine haven’t grown in yet…We also need to include the continuing success of our Holy Family Retreat House at Hampton …. where the preaching apostolate begun by Alphonsus goes on and on to ever new generations… Vietnam in diaspora, -the Vietnamese apostolate caring for displaces persons… the long list of missions preached throughout our area to civilians as well as military bases..a memorable one at Ft. Bragg was instigated by Father Gigs our C.Ss.R. paratrooper who had completed more than 400 jumps… the quiet but amazing success of retreats for, Alcoholics Anonymous … our students at Whitestone and Washington …. yes even the tombstones in Richmond and Edgewater and the lengthening list of departed confreres … all this and much more is the real story of the Vice Province of Richmond.
Written by Rev. Charley M