Old St Mary's
Show thyself in all things an example of good
works, in teaching, in integrity and dignity ;
let thy speech be sound and blameless.
TITUS 2:7 -8
WHEN Father John Carroll, “ the Father of the Church in America ”, journeyed to Europe in 1790, to be consecrated first bishop of Baltimore, he was a man beset by a host of worries. The infant Church in America had many problems, and among them none more important than the answer to the question of how to train American candidates for the greatly-needed American clergy. Father Carroll's see embraced all of the United States, and the papal brief appointing him bishop also commanded him “ to establish an episcopal seminary ”.
In England, after his consecration, Bishop Carroll was approached by a representative of the Superior General of the Society of St Sulpice. The Sulpician Fathers had been advised, because of troubled conditions in France, to offer their services to Bishop Carroll since it was known that he was in need of a seminary. They were prepared to start such a project without any cost to the bishop, and to open classes as soon as they could reach America with some of their own seminaries who were willing to accompany them as candidates for new diocese.
Despite the unusual generosity of the offer, Bishop Carroll hesitated. As a possible answer to his needs, he was about to establish Georgetown College for which he had been collecting funds in England. Then, too, he was not sure how French
training methods would be received in Baltimore. He prayed over the Sulpician offer, and at last decided to accept it. It was one of the wisest decisions that this very wise churchman ever made.
Four Sulpicians and five seminaries arrived in Baltimore and opened St Mary's Seminary in the autumn of 1791, shortly before Georgetown College opened its own doors. The first priest to finish the full course at the new seminary was ordained in 1795. He was Prince Demetrius Gallitzin, the holy and zealous apostle of western Pennsylvania. The numbers of priests trained at St Mary's grew slowly, but their quality was outstanding. The road of progress was not an easy one, however. The officials at Georgetown College were antagonistic to the seminary; the college had been expected to supply candidates for the seminary but failed to do so, Georgetown next established a course in philosophy that took students from St Mary's. In order to provide candidates for their own seminary, the Sulpicians opened a minor seminary, but under pressure from Georgetown, Bishop Carroll ordered this minor seminary closed.
“ And thus at the end of the century, ” writes Theodore Roemer in The Catholic Church in the United States, “ St Mary's Seminary was on the verge of extinction, while no other means were available to produce a native American clergy. ”
In 1848, however, St Mary's began an era of growth and prosperity with the establishment of St Charles College in Ellicott City, a suburban town directly west of Baltimore. This school acted as a preparatory seminary for St Mary's, and accepted boys from all parts of the country. It was this latter institution that Patrick Byrne entered in 1908, to prepare for entrance into St Mary.
There is little recorded of Patrick's stay at St Charles. We do know it was here that he first met John Francis Swift, who shared the same desk with him in the study hall, and the two formed the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Some years later, when Pat joined the newly founded Maryknoll,
Frank Swift, as he was commonly known, followed him.
Some of the professors remember Patrick for his mechanical bent. One of the priests at St Charles had an auto, another a motor-cycle. Because Pat had once owned a “ tin-lizzie ” that he had completely dismantled and reassembled, the two “ mobilized ”faculty members frequently sought his advice.
His chief relaxation in college was reading. He still did not participate in sports, except for an occasional baseball game in inter-class competition. He was better known for his contagious good humour and his original anecdotes. These were to amuse still another generation of students at St Charles and St Mary's when Father Byrne returned at an alumnus to speak to them.
At St Charles he began to show an interest in music. He played a home-made violin, but of consideration for the rule and his fellow students, he used a mute. He also enjoyed hearing others play and could be counted on to listen with attention and to provide intelligent and constructive criticism.
In September, 1909, Pat entered St Mary's Seminary, on Paca Street, Baltimore, to begin the study of philosophy. As at St Charles, he became noted for his mental quickness. He was often asked by other students for aid with knotty problems, and professors found him a source of lucid illustrations. One day he was called on to give an example of meanness. He kept the class amused for the rest of the period with a story about a man who gave each of his children a nickel and then sent them to bed without supper. During the night the father stole the money and then on the morning punished the children for losing it.
There are many anecdotes of Pat Byrne's days at St Mary's that fellow classmates can recall. A typical example is the day he was in the yard of St Mary's and suddenly noticed a wisp of smoke curling from the window of his room. He almost knocked down several seminarians as he bolted up the stairs two at a time. Reaching the fourth floor, he dashed down the
corridor, flung open the door to his room, and crossed swiftly to his desk. It took him only a moment to beat out the smouldering handkerchiefs that had caught fire from his desk lamp near which he had left them to dry.
As he slumped in a chair, trying to calm his breath, he thought of the conflagration his carelessness could have caused in the old, combustible building. He perspired freely from both the thought and the exertion. That was the last time he ever hung wet hand kerchiefs near his desk.
In his seminary days, Pat was still, of medium weight, and slightly stooped. He never complained of illness but suffered severe attacks of hay fever. In August every year he became a pitiable sight. His eyes watered, his nose was inflamed, and breathing proved to be a struggle. All month long he kept to his room as much as possible, patiently awaiting the September frost. To relieve the constant irritation of his throat, he carried a supply of cough drops. Curiously, as a missioner in Korea and Japan he was never bothered with hay fever, but whenever he arrived back at San Francisco the sneezing began.
In September 1911, Pat moved to the theologian's side of the seminary. It was about this time that he had his first encounter with Father Thomas Frederick Price and Father James Anthony Walsh, the co-founders of Maryknoll. Father Price, when active in the North Carolina apostolate, visited the seminary annually to ask prayers for his work and to seek catechists for the summer months. Father Walsh spoke to the students about plans to start a foreign-mission seminary in the United States. Pat Byrne listened with interest. Unknown to him, other seminarians were also being stirred by Father Walsh's talk. Although they never discussed the foreign missions among themselves, four of Father Walsh's listeners were destined to join Maryknoll and eventually to go to Asia as missioners.
The first was Daniel L. McShane of Columbus, Indiana. He entered Maryknoll at the end of first Theology. Pat Byrne
was second, in 1915. Frank Swift joined Maryknoll in 1918, four years after he was ordained. The fourth was John E. Morris of Fall River, Massachusetts, who came in 1921, seven years after his ordination. Father McShane was the first to give his life; he died in China in 1927, a victim of smallpox. The second was Bishop Byrne, who was to die in the hands of Communists.
Father Walsh and Father Price had also been educated by the Sulpicians. Through them, Maryknollers came to know the professors at St Charles and St Mary's. They learned the professors' habits, their nicknames, and many amusing incidents about them. Maryknoll students developed an affection for these men whom most of them would never meet personally, and they could easily understand why the many diocesan priests who had been trained by the Sulpicians held them in such high esteem.
“ A seminary is a place to which you come to get out. ” “ Common sense is the most uncommon thing in the world. ” These were only two of the many saying of Father Joseph Bruneau, the best-remembered and most-quoted of the Sulpician professors. Hitler would have disapproved of another. “ You say you are an Aryan; I thought you were a seminarian. ” When dissatisfied with a recitation, Father Bruneau would remark, “You stop where you ought to begin, proof that you do not understand. ”
Father Dyer, the rector while Bishop Byrne was a student at St Mary's, also had a favourite.“ Remember the Ninth Beatitude. Blessed are they who expect nothing, for they shall not be disappointed. ”
Most of the Sulpicians were French. Occasionally they had difficulty expressing their thoughts in English, and some unintentional humour often resulted. On one occasion prayers were requested for a Sulpician who was ill and “ for another old lady who lives down in the ally ”. The students were startled one day to be told, “ Gentlemen, you are not gentlemen.” Father Manzetti, the plain-chant instructor, started a
small riot by asking,“ Who is the man who sings the scale up when the rest is singing it down? ”
Another day the quiet of the seminary was shattered by a lusty yell from sixty throats, accompanied by a burst of applause. The beloved Father Boyer had successfully completed an extremely delicate physics experiment that demanded great accuracy, but several days earlier he had rebuked the student for being too noisy in class. So, when his experiment was completed, the class, by prearrangement, remained perfectly silent, giving no sign of recognition or admiration. The kindly old priest thought he had offended them, and two large tears formed slowly in his eyes. That was all that was needed to touch off the congratulatory demonstration.
The priest at St Mary's were remarkable for their support of the foreign-mission movement. There are literally dozens of Maryknollers who attended St Mary's at one time or another, and a number who completed their studies there and entered Maryknoll after they had been ordained. Father Bruneau was especially helpful. He was one of four priests who began what became known as the American Foreign Mission Bureau in Boston in 1908, the organization that eventually became the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. The others were Father James Anthony Walsh, James F. Stanton, and John I. Lane.
In preparing this book on Bishop Byrne, I wrote to some of his former professors who are still alive, and asked them to give me their recollections of him. The tributes and descriptions were many, but no one has provided a better description of Patrick Byrne, the student, than Father Joseph Nevins, his professor of Moral Theology. I trust that every reader will enjoy this long quotation, for it skilfully draws a portrait far better than my own words could. This is what Father Nevins wrote:
“ Of all the students, he is the one of whom I have the clearest and most impression; it is still vivid. At first
my reaction was: Would that he were fatter! He seemed somewhat quizzical and said little. On closer observation in the classroom I noticed that the faint smile that almost always played on his face blended with an earnest, keen look which I soon learned, somewhat to my discomfort, was the evidence of a very active, big mind. I doubt that I ever had another student of his calibre.
“ He was not an interlocutor as the seminarians style some, nor was he a quibbler, a heckler, or a smart show-off. He seldom asked a question, but when he did, he put me on my mettle. His habit, a somewhat rare one, was to wrestle with a difficulty himself. I often noticed his brow wrinkle as I said something, not always ex cathedra. He would apparently drop out of the class mentally, scratch his head, look back at his textbook, and usually in a shorter or longer time, toss back his head with a relieved look and smoothed -out forehead and rejoined the class. That relieved me, too; for whenever I noticed his perplexity, I went on with what I was saying, but in the back of my mind was perplexity, too. What was his difficulty? Sometimes I divined it, sometimes not. When he could not clear it up after, perhaps, twenty minutes, he would look up at me and wait for an opportunity to interrogate. Unlike some, he asked a question and wanted only an answer...
“ His sense of humour was the quiet deep sort, and I think that he never missed an appreciation of a disproportionate and incongruous situation. He was not the mere jokesmith type but was characteristic of a strong, rangy mind. Of course, it got him into difficulty at times. ”
Father Navins describes at some length a classroom incident. One of the professors asked Pat what he found perpetually entertaining in class and why he had a constantly amused expression. The boy replied at first that he was not aware of it and finally, in confusion, blurted out the worst possible answer,
“ I suppose I can't help it. ”