To build a house to our God can be no common task...
I ESDRAS 4:3
SEVERAL MONTHS LATER, Father Byrne was teaching at Maryknoll. One day, he opened the class period by saying, “ If you have only two minutes before your bus arrives, this is the argument to use on a prospective convert. ” With that introduction, Father Byrne proceeded to give his class a brief but comprehensive résumé of Catholic doctrine. Intended as a joke, his exposition was nevertheless a classic example of conciseness and clarity. He was an excellent teacher who could bring subjects alive and brighten his lectures with a fine humour. The voluminous notes he had taken at St Mary's Seminary were put to good use. Father Bruneau, in answer to a query from Father Walsh, said that Father Byrne could teach any subject in the curriculum, and Father Bruneau was not given exaggeration.
Perhaps because of his youth, Father Byrne had to endure an occasional mild heckling from some of his defence, only to be told: “ Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself. ”
On September 3, 1916, Father Byrne was named assistant to Father James Anthony Walsh and was made a member of the Maryknoll Council. From this date until his death he was always in a post of administrative authority. He never relished it, but he never shirked responsibility. In 1917, when Father Walsh made his first trip to the Orient seeking a mission field, Father Byrne became acting Superior General. The
real Superior General was “ gone but not forgotten ”, and Father Byrne kept his memory alive by helping himself to whatever he could use from Father Walsh's linen closet. Father Walsh was short and stout; Father Byrne was tall and had practically no waist. As the latter remarked one day, “ I can fill Father General's shoes but not his trousers. ” He had appropriated both, but he had to take a six-inch tuck with a safety pin to make the trousers secure.
As acting Superior General, Father Byrne had no illusions of grandeur. Father Robert E. Sheridan, then a seminarian at St Mary's, recall one of Father Byrne's visits. “ When Father Byrne was introduced by Father Dyer as superior of maryknoll, a position he had acquired after five years in the priesthood, the speaker, Father Byrne, referred to the much-repeated line in the rule whereby seminarians are urged to report, after returning from walks, to the superior or ‘ to him who takes his place ’. The ready quip was that he, Father Byrne, was not the superior but ‘ he who takes his place ’. ”
In addition to supervising the erection of Maryknoll's major seminary in New York and the preparatory seminary in Clarks Summit, near Scranton, Pennsylvania, Father Byrne served at various times as rector of the preparatory seminary, rector of the major seminary, editor of The Field Afetr, Vicar-general, and treasurer of the Society. In the early days, there was little that he was not responsible for at one time or another.
The Society's pocket-book was very lean at times. The work was not well known. We had strong faith in American Catholics, however, and we were not disappointed. At the spiritual-reading period one evening Father Byrne reminded the seminarians that the bill collectors were beginning to lose their smiles and that the students should all bend their knees a little longer and importune the Lord more fervently for their daily bread.
“ When you are out of funds, you lock the door of the office, hie yourself to the great metropolis, forget your troubles, and
who knows, on your return the savig cheque may have arrived. ” That was Father Byrne's system, and it seemed to work. I remember particularly one week-end when he was in the midst of a building programme at Maryknoll; weekly requisitions were coming in fast, and receipts were in no way adequate to meet them. He was absent from the Knoll only from Friday evening until early Monday morning. Over that week-end he went to a World Series game, saw Mary Roberts Rinehart's famous play The Bat, attended a meeting in Scranton, and sure enough, when he returned, the wherewithal for carrying on the work was there on his desk.
He had a good memory for some things, a wretched one for others. If there was a pipe line to be laid, or some other project to be plotted, his memory was most retentive; but if there were letters to acknowledge or office details to care for, his memory progressively worsened. As manual labour became more engrossing, he got into difficulties, but finally devised a plan to keep himself out of trouble. He would place notes concerning the more important items on the floor just inside his door. There were islands of important items between the door and the bed; less urgent items upon the bed; and even on the bed, notes were arranged in a hierarchy of importance.
While supervising construction of the new seminary building Father Byrne expressed definite ideas on the weak points of architects and builders. No doubt they in turn were very articulate about clerics who thought they knew something about building. One of his pet grievances was the darkness of the seminary corridors, and he never forgave the architects for failing to put the refectory on the west side of the building where all might enjoy a view of the Hudson River.
The job was a cost-plus arrangement; “ the more the cost, the more the plus ”. It is easy to imagine Father Byrne's exasperation when the head contractor, confronted with a leaking wall and with puddles in the middle of the refectory, in all simplicity argued: “ The wall cannot leak. We used waterproofing in the cement. ”
Periodically, the acting Superior General had to make progress reports to the Maryknoll Council. On one occasion, after receiving a notification, he replied: “ Dear Vineyard Master: We have received your note regarding Council meeting report and shall be ready on August 5 to render an account of our stewardship. P.S. To beg I am not able, to dig I am ashamed. I know what I shall do: I shall take out heavy insurance. ”
During Father Walsh's absences, Father Byrne kept the Superior General informed by mail. A letter written in February, 1922, gives the Maryknoll co-founder this warning: “ We just received your letter from Port said and rejoice that you are a week ahead of schedule. On the other hand, it is my duty to warn you that, if you get home in March, you will have to rustle for the March bills; whereas, if you are later than April 10, you will escape this ossifying onus. ”
Later in the same letter the theme of finances appears again. “ The enclosure is an informal summary of the monthly receipts. October and November were poor, but in December the pendulum began to swing our way again. May it abide for a lengthy stay before getting nervous again!
“ Before I close, another word of explanation about the building programme. While we have started a little spurt, i is being carefully measured in anticipation so that we will keep within the fringe of the month's receipts. Fissell and the rest of us have a little council every payday, to see how much prudence will allow to be done before the next payday. The student's rooms are surprisingly comfortable. We may have to leave them as they are for an indefinite length of time. It gives good atmosphere of the spirit of poverty, besides furnishing the students with something to brag about in later years when ruminating and recollecting. ”
One of Father Byrne's great ambitions was to have the new seminary kitchen completed before Father Walsh returned. It was a tough job requiring his personal attention for weeks,
but he revelled in it. He worked there himself, and at times came out covered with dirt from head to foot. He could ruin a new cassock more quickly than any man I ever met, and he did so more than once.
Maryknoll was frequently a stopping place for “ knights of the road ”. Father Byrne made great efforts to get those down-and -outers back o their feet. Some were clever artisans, and he put them to good use. He carried on the pay roll for many years a skilled painter who, unfortunately, was too friendly with old John Barleycorn; he showed that man no end of patience and kindness.
Father Byrne loved music and wished that he might be a good musician hmself. He persevered with the violin and in the opinion of the non-critical listener he played well. He was enthusiastic over the playing of Kreisler and of Heifets. He loved double stops. When he practised, he used a mute to spare his neighbours. What he lacked in ability he made up in appreciation. His infrequent trips to the Metropolitan Opera also gave him great pleasure.
Although he did not enjoy rough sports, he was a good tennis player. He often played with Father Thomas Gavan Duffy, who taught for a year at Maryknoll. That colourful missioner, noted for his books on travel and mission life, was the son of Sir Thomas Gavan Duffy, an exile from Ireland who had lived in France and Australia. Father Duffy, born in Nice, had entered the Paris Foreign Mission Society and had spent some time in India before coming to Maryknoll. He presented an exciting picture as he scurried about Maryknoll's tennis court with his flaming red beard waving in the wind; the incongruity of the red beard and the tennis outfit delighted Father Byrne. These two men had opposite views on almost everything. They disagreed congenially, and their conversations were sprinkled with amiable insults, neither given nor taken seriously. Later they exchanged similarly insulting letters between Korea and India.
In June, 1918, Father Byrne was named rector of the
Venard, Maryknoll's preparatory seminary located a short distance from Scranton, Pennsylvania. For several months he was both rector of the Venard and acting Superior General of the Society. In September, 1919, he was relieved other duties in order to give his full attention to the Venard. For its first two or three years the preparatory seminary had occupied a rented house on Clay Avenue, in Scranton, while the students attended the old St Thomas College, now Scranton University. Later, property for Maryknoll was acquired at Clarks Summit, a short distance from Scranton. Most of the present buildings of the preparatory seminary were started during Father Byrne's term as rector.
The influenza epidemic hit the Venard very hard during the school year of 1918 - 1919. Richard Fitzgerald, a student, was rushed to the hospital in Scranton, and died there. One of the professors, Father John J. Massoth, who accompanied him to the hospital, contracted the disease and died two weeks later. A student of those early days, who is now a priest, contributes the following recollections:
“ Thirty-five of us slept in the attic of the little farmhouse. There were two rows of beds, with a passage about two feet wide between them. Our toes were against the rafters. it was a real winter of the Venard style, and because of the epidemic, the windows at both ends were opened wide. In the morning there would be snowdrifts on the beds near the end. Climbing out in the morning in sub-zero weather was no picnic, and faces got only a hurried splash before we went to chapel.
“ Waking at night, we could hear Father Byrne's asthmatic cough. Perhaps it was only hay fever, but he spent a hard night. his coughing at times seemed almost continuous. After those nights his face would be drawn and his eyes red and watery, but his humour continued good, nevertheless. It was at spiritual-reading time that we especially enjoyed him. We were reading Canon Sheehan's My New Curate. How Father Byrne could dissect the story! It all seemed off the cuff, but he must have digested it well in advance. ”
Those were rugged days,with heavy snow in the winter and mud in the spring. The power house was nearing completion. War bonds from kind friends across the country were paying for it, and soon it would serve not only for power, but also as a classroom and dormitory. Father Byrne was quietly but steadily furthering its completion. Already plans for a part of the new school, to be called Venard College, were under way. The power house could care for only a limited number of students, and that quota would be reached soon. No doubt many an idea of Father Byrne went into the building's construction. It was designed to be ready for the fall semester, but suddenly a strike occurred. Many of the men left their jobs, and the autumn plans seemed out of the question. Telegrams were flashed to most of the students at their homes, and they responded immediately. Donning overalls, the boys wheeled sand and gravel, and did a hundred other tasks; thanks to their backbreaking efforts the job was completed in time for the fall opening of the college.
Father Byrne recalls an interesting sidelight that occurred shortly after the opening. There were so many newcomers to Venard that for a while they upset the routine,and were not so rapidly assimilated into the Venard student body and spirit as in the past when newcomers were a minority. The older students became alarmed. One day a delegation asked Father Byrne if they could form a group of “ Rule Keepers ” who would try, by example and a timely word, if necessary, to develop the precious Venard spirit in the newcomers through an honour system. Father Byrne was very much impressed with the request and the loyalty and community which is showed.
When Christmas arrived it was celebrated as Christmas should be, and everyone was happy. Even though the students were away from home, the Venard had become their home ー an adopted home, if you will, but home, nevertheless. Home is where the heart belongs, and if the heart was set on foreign missions, the Venard was the place of happiness for
those who celebrated the coming into the world of the first Foreign Missioner, who left His home in heaven to bring the divine gifts of God's forgiveness and His love to the nations at their first Christmas. True happiness comes only from giving, and the spirit of Christmas brought blessings to many hearts inspired with a determination to seek happiness in giving themselves to the service of the Babe of Bethlehem.
Those days were busy ones, especially with all the construction under way, but dwellers at the Venard were never too busy to follow the travels of the four Maryknoll pioneers in South China. Maryknoll was concerned about the welfare of foreign missioners, and in particular about Fathers Price, Walsh, Meyer, and Ford, who had left in September. The Venarders naturally felt that, having supplied three of the big four, they were entitled to a keener and more personal interest in the exploits and the fate of this apostolic advance guard. Accordingly, when an occasional postcard or scrap of news filtered through the censor's hands, it was instantly pounced upon, devoured, memorized, and archived in perpetuum.
Father Byrne had always shown a keen interest in manual labour and usually worked along with the students. Under his direction, the boys raised much of the food for the entire personnel of the college. But not all was left to human diligence, as Father Byrne recalled. “ On a beautiful Sunday morning early in the month, the fields were blessed. During the procession we visited each duly planted crop to ask the benediction of our Heavenly Father who supplies our daily bread. Such a ceremony makes us realize more deeply our dependence on Providence and our duty of gratitude for the unfailing care with which every want has been supplied. It brings home to us, too, the terrible lot of the families in famine-stricken China, and we pray all more fervently that their material needs be more speedily relieved, and that their physical suffering may mean their spiritual glory. ”
Father Byrne's manner helped to make Maryknollers wel-
come among the families of Scranton. The people always found him a gentle, genial host. Maryknoll's gracious patron, Bishop Edward F. Hoban, enjoyed his company. The memory of Father Byrne still lingers among those good people, even as the memory of Bishop Hoban will linger always in the minds of all early Maryknollers.