Project Canterbury

An American Cloister

The Life and Work of the Order of the Holy Cross

By Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C.

West Park, New York: Holy Cross Press, 1948.

Chapter II. The Early Beginnings.

THE principles set forth in the foregoing chapter are those upon which the life and work of the Order of the Holy Cross are based. What, then is this community and how did it come into being?

In 1881 Canon Knox-Little, the distinguished English mission preacher, paid an extended visit to the United States, preaching and giving retreats in various parts of the country. Amongst other works he conducted a retreat for priests at St. Clement's Church, Philadelphia, which was then under the pastoral care of the Cowley Fathers. Amongst those who [6/7] made this retreat was James Otis Sargent Huntington, the third son of the Right Reverend Frederic Dan Huntington, the first bishop of the diocese of Central New York. It was in this retreat that he found his vocation to the Religious Life. James Huntington was born in Boston in the year 1854. In 1875 he graduated from Harvard College, and after a course at the St. Andrew's Divinity School in Syracuse, New York, under the scholarly direction of his father, he proceeded to carry out the intention that he had had from his earliest childhood, and was ordained to the priesthood in 1880.

He was for a brief time in charge of Calvary Mission Church, Syracuse, New York, but it was not to the ordinary duties of the parish priest that Father Huntington was called. In 1881, we find him in the Holy Cross Mission working amid the slums on the east side of New York, with two other priests. This venture marked the beginnings of the Order of the Holy Cross, the response to the call that had been given him in the Philadelphia retreat. This Mission had been founded by the Sisters of the Community of St. John Baptist. The Fathers in the beginning of their work lived in a hired house on East 7th Street between Avenues C and D.

From the beginning of this venture of faith for God the little group lived a strict monastic life. However unceasing the calls on their time and energy, and even while they lived, as they did for one period, amid the confusion of a tenement house, the choir [7/8] was kept with dignity and regularity, and until the Church of the Holy Cross was built, they had a chapel in their contracted quarters, at the altar of which Mass was celebrated daily.

It was on All Saints' Day, 1881, that these three young knights of God took the monastic habit in the Chapel of St. John Baptist House on East 17th Street, and began their novitiate in Holy Religion. On this auspicious feast the first foundations of the Order of the Holy Cross were laid, though not as yet in the true sense a Religious Community since the life vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, which are essential to the Religious state, had not yet been assumed. The guiding genius in this critical time was the Rev. George Hendricks Houghton, the saintly founder of the Church of the Transfiguration, who was for half a century in one way or another, the pillar and strength of every movement looking to the revival and development of the Catholic life and work in the American Church.

Failure of health and other causes brought changes in the personnel of this little group, but on November 25th, the feast of St. Katharine of Alexandria, 1884, Father Huntington was professed in the Chapel of St. John Baptist House by the Right Rev. Henry C. Potter, Bishop of the diocese of New York. There were present at his profession, his father, the Bishop of Central New York, and Bishop Charles T. Quintard, of the diocese of Tennessee. The founding of a monastic Order in the American [8/9] Church was not without some repercussion however, and, as usual, good men were deceived into thinking that in thus opposing the work of the Holy Spirit they were doing God service.

Bishop Lee, of Delaware, the Presiding Bishop of the American Church, was the leader of the attack, which was, however, directed against Bishop Potter rather than against the infant Community. But no one knew better how to take care of himself in such a controversy than the then Bishop of New York. The completeness and vigour of his answer must have dazed his assailant, who apparently expected his younger brother, if not to acknowledge his error, at least with all meekness to plead that he meant no harm. But Bishop Potter was not made of that kind of stuff. He generally knew what he was doing, and thought out beforehand what he did. So he had no apologies to make. Father Huntington wrote him, thanking him for his kindness, and expressing regret that he had been the cause of attack upon the Bishop. The latter replied characteristically that he was at least free from the woe which our Lord had pronounced upon those "of whom all men speak well." The whole story, with the correspondence, can be found in Dean Hodges' life of the Bishop, and interesting reading it is.

It was just at this time that he was joined by the Rev. Sturgis Allen, of whom we shall hear more in later chapters. Father Allen spent his novitiate on the East Side, and was professed in 1888.

[10] For something short of ten years, the two priests, then constituting this small religious group, carried on the work at Holy Cross Mission Church, which afforded them an unparalleled opportunity amongst the poor and depressed. They had large numbers of children under their care. The boys and young men were a special charge, as the Sisters taught and trained the girls. The work was very engrossing, visiting, day and night, teaching, carrying on the guilds, keeping up the choir offices and the public services and in summer conducting a Fresh Air work for boys in a barn-like building put up for the purpose and known as "St. Andrew's Cottage," on a lot next to the Mission. When in New York they rarely left the East Side and had few acquaintances among "up-town" folk. All along, however, they had many visitors, and almost always one or two priests and laymen living with them.

Many years afterwards Father Huntington wrote:

"We came gradually to understand something as to the attitude of mind of those among whom we laboured. We knew how they ate (or starved), toiled, slept (often on the floor), sickened (tuberculosis was rife), and died. Yet I think that we never succeeded in realizing how they felt,--what it must have meant, for instance, to grow up without having ever been out of the presence of other people, so crowded were the conditions.

"One thing was to us surprising and significant. Poor as our people were, always on the edge, at least, [10/11] of utter destitution, they scarcely ever came to us for material assistance. They had the pride of their race, honest German peasants or craftsmen, and they wanted to feel that what they had of religion was not spoiled for them by mendicancy and material dependence. When we had a two weeks' Mission at Holy Cross Church, under the Cowley Fathers our people gave, from their scant earnings, nearly five hundred dollars for the expenses of the Mission."

Those who know the pathos and tragedy of work amongst the poor, haloed as it always is with something close akin to romance, can understand the life that the Order lived on the East Side. It was a drive, but a happy drive. In and out of the lofty tenements, day and night seeking out the sick, the poor; ministering incessantly to bodies and souls--in such a work every day offered opportunities for cementing sacred spiritual relationships that filled life with a satisfaction which those who have not ministered under such conditions can never know.

But as the work developed, and the burdens of it grew heavier, it was borne in upon them that the real purpose, that of building up the Religious life for men in the American Church, could not be carried out amid the seething millions of a great city. It was just another instance of the necessity of the quiet preparation which in all ages God has required of those whom He calls to such special service. Moses spent forty years in the wilderness preparing for the great work of leading Israel out of bondage. St. [11/12] John Baptist was in the deserts until the time of his showing unto Israel, and when St. Paul received his vocation, he spent three years in a retired life of prayer. It was in these solitudes that they were able to store up the spiritual power necessary for the accomplishment of the work that God had prepared for them. This same principle has held good in every age, and no exception was to be made for the Order of the Holy Cross. Not that its members were to withdraw themselves from ministering to the people of God. Those who can recall the years after the Order left the Holy Cross Mission, will testify that little time was left--far too little indeed--to the members for the retirement for prayer and study which is so necessary for the development of the spirit and power required for the interpretation of the will and revelation of God to others. It might not have been so difficult for those who had already gone through their training, but for the younger men who were coming on a quieter environment was needed, not to speak of the necessity of the most ex-experienced veterans, finding, for example, after a hard Lenten campaign, place and time for going apart with God.

With this conviction, which has in the intervening years been amply proved to have been correct, the Order in 1889 withdrew from this work, and secured a house in Pleasant Avenue, near 125th Street, in New York, where it lived its life quietly for three years, coming and going, as calls for work outside [12/13] came in. It was during this period that the foundations of the nationwide work which God raised up for the Community, were laid.

The same principle was involved as that which governed our action when nearly ten years later Bishop McClaren offered his Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in the slums of Chicago to the Order. Father Dolling, the great and saintly slum-priest of Portsmouth, England, who was in America at the time, expressed the situation in one of his direct sentences. "It would be fine for the Cathedral," he said, "but it would kill your order."

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