America’s Jesuit Apostle: Father Arnold Damen

Having an aversion to serialized articles on the Internet, I have opted not to call this “Father Arnold Damen, Chicago’s Jesuit Apostle: Part II.” A clunky name, that. This is, nonetheless, a second article on Father Damen, but a “free-standing” one. Whereas Chicago’s Jesuit Apostle focused on our subject’s Windy-City work, here, we will consider Father Damen the missionary and, for your edification and/or amusement, Father Damen the ghost; for, according to some, the departed Dutch Jesuit still has an affinity for his old haunts in Chicago.

The Home Missions

Given the rather supine state of the Church in America today, it may seem hard to believe, but, once upon a time, there were “mission bands” of priests that traveled this country in pursuit of souls to save. Most famous for this work were the Redemptorists (like Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos), the Passionists, the Paulists (sad to say, pioneer Americanists), and the Jesuits. The missions these men preached were not the foreign missions such as those in Africa, Korea, or China; no, these were “home missions” or “parish missions.” In this variety of missionary work, a band of priests would travel from parish to parish, stopping for one, two, or three weeks at each destination to preach a series of highly targeted sermons, carry on spiritual exercises, teach catechism, and hear confessions much of the day and sometimes well into the night.

The Counter-Reformation gave the Church religious communities that specialized in home missions as part of the Catholic response to the Protestant revolt, and to the decrepit religiosity of Catholics that had led to that mass defection of baptized souls from the Church. The Vincentians (the “Congregation of the Missions”) and other congregations specialized in this sort of apostolate. Saint Louis de Montfort, speaking of “missionary priests,” would have had in mind primarily the home missions, though he would not have been unconscious of the foreign missions. He himself labored extensively as a missionary in his native France.

In the nineteenth century, the Church having been established here with its dioceses and parishes, the United States was suitable for the home missions, much as Baroque Europe had been. This is true even though the U.S. was still officially mission territory.[1]

The parish mission movement fit into the national life of an America already teeming with activity: the spread of industrialism, rapid westward expansion (aided by the newfangled railroad system), and a large influx of immigrants made nineteenth-century America a bustling place. In religious circles, Protestant revivalism was at its hight.[2] The Catholic populace was growing because many of the immigrants hailed from Catholic countries, especially Ireland, where starving masses fled An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). Otto von Bismark’s Kulturkampf, the effort to rid his new Empire of Catholic political influence, chased German Catholics to U.S. shores. Moreover, the Catholic ranks were swelled by immigrations of Dutch, Italians, Polish, Czechs, Slovaks, Lithuanians, and other huddled masses from across the Pond. Sadly, many of the newly arrived came to this country with a poor grasp of their religion, a circumstance largely due to social conditions in Europe, with its Masonic revolutions against throne and altar. Parish missions, preached by priests who came from some of these same countries, would help such unfortunates, just as they would win over the convert and fire up the lukewarm to a more Catholic life.

Damen the Missionary

A modern Jesuit writer, Father Tom Clancy, S.J.,  describes the work of the Jesuit missioners:

Singly or in teams they would respond to invitations from bishops and pastors to visit parishes whether in New York, St. Louis, New Orleans, Denver, or points in between, such as Lynn, Mass., Oliphant, Pa., Parsons, Kans., and Rochelle, Ill. For anywhere from one to three weeks they would give sermons, hear confessions, accept converts, and prepare parishioners for first communion and confirmation.

It was remarked in the earlier piece on Father Damen that what brought him to Chicago was a mission he and his brother Jesuits made there while he was still pastor of Saint Francis Xavier parish in Saint Louis. When he established the Society in Chicago, Damen continued this work, even though he was the founding pastor of a large frontier parish and the father of some daring educational apostolates.  What is related of his accomplishments in the book, Holy Family Parish, Priests and People, is astounding:

In 1879, after twenty-two years of excursions from Chicago, it was reckoned that Father Damen had conducted in person 208 missions, averaging two weeks time for each; he had traveled on an average of 6,000 miles each year; he and his different bands of companions together had given 2,800,000 holy Communions and had made 12,000 conversions to the Faith. At one church, in New York, a party of his missionaries, in the course of four weeks, distributed no less than 42,000 Holy Communions.’ It may be interesting to note that [retired Confederate] General [James] Longstreet was converted during a mission given by Father Damen in New Orleans, in February 1877, and that twenty-seven of the Father’s converts have been Protestant ministers.

If my math serves me, Father Damen was on the road more than one out of every three days of this twenty-two year period, an astonishing fact given his pastoral responsibilities.

What was Father Damen’s preaching like? Thankfully, we have written memorials in the form of published sermons. Two of them are on this web site (The One True Church and The Church or the Bible). No-nonsense, straightforward, hard-hitting, and powerful might be adequate labels for these works. Damen was not flamboyant in the pulpit, nor highly erudite, but he preached the unvarnished truth in a charitable and challenging way. His non-Catholic auditors, if they took his words to heart, would not have walked away with the false security of their “blessed assurance“; for, heavily featured in Arnold Damen’s preaching was the necessity of the Catholic Church for salvation. Consider these excepts from The One True Church:

I have said, out of the Catholic Church there is no divine faith — can be no divine faith out of that Church. Some of the Protestant friends will be shocked at this, to hear me say that out of the Catholic Church there is no divine faith, and that without faith there is no salvation, but damnation. I will prove all I have said. …

[Christ] speaks of His Church as a tree, and all the branches of that tree are connected with the trunk, and the trunk with the roots; and Christ is the root, and the trunk is Peter and the Popes, and the large branches are the bishops, and the smaller branches the priests, and the fruit upon that tree are the faithful throughout the world; and the branch, says He, that is cut off from that tree shall wither away, produce no fruit, and is only fit to be cast into the fire-that is, damnation.

This is plain speaking, my dear people; but there is no use in covering the truth. I want to speak the truth to you, as the Apostles preached it in their time-no salvation out of the Church of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. …

But, my dear friend, if you admit that the Catholic Church is the first and the oldest-the Church established by Christ-why are you not a Catholic? To this they answer that the Catholic Church has become corrupted; has fallen into error, and that, therefore, it was necessary to establish a new church. A new church, a new religion.

And to this we answer: that if the Catholic Church had been once the true church, then she is true yet, and shall be the true Church of God to the end of time, or Jesus Christ has deceived us.

Hear me, Jesus, hear what I say! I say that if the Catholic Church now, in the nineteenth century, is not the true Church of God as she was 1854 years ago, then I say, Jesus, Thou hast deceived us, and Thou art an impostor! And if I do not speak the truth, Jesus, strike me dead in this pulpit-let me fall dead in this pulpit, for I do not want to be a preacher of a false religion!

Behold the robust stuff fired from pulpits in a day when missionaries were interested in saving souls rather than preaching the gospel of secular social reform. It is impressive to consider that General Longstreet heard words like that and was moved to conversion — General Longstreet, with his big beard and bigger stogie, and years of seeing blood and guts on the field of battle. He probably recognized a fellow soldier in the pulpit.

Speaking of famous converts, another of Father Damen’s triumphs became, not only a Catholic, but also a Jesuit, and a missioner. Father James Chrysostom Bouchard, S.J. (1823-1889) was the son of a Delaware Indian father and a French mother. As a mission preacher Father Bouchard won hundreds of converts to the faith through his work in California, Nevada, Oregon, and other western territories. When he died in 1889, a newspaper in New York eulogized this first Native American Jesuit as “the Father Damen of the West.”

That he might dedicate more of his energies to the missions, Father Damen was replaced by Reverend Peter C. Koopmans, S.J., his former assistant, as pastor of Holy Family Parish. This was in the fall of 1877, when the founding pastor was sixty-two years old. His new assignment was as superior of the Jesuit Missions, headquartered at Saint Ignatius College, one of his own foundations. The new superior would give himself full-time to this work until 1879, when he was appointed pastor of the nearby Sacred Heart Church — which he had also been instrumental in erecting.

Notable Fellow Laborers

Father Damen did not work solo. He had help in his missions, and there were, besides, other mission bands with their accomplished preachers. The Jesuits of those days were men of renown, “men astutely trained” as the title of a book says, and men zealous for the spread of Catholicism.

Possibly the most notable Jesuit missioner of the day was the Austrian, Father Francis X. Weninger (1805-1888). Already a priest and a doctor of theology when he joined the Jesuits in 1848, Father Weninger requested of the parish-mission-friendly Superior General, Father John Roothaan, an assignment in the United States. Father Weninger traveled widely throughout the Republic, giving sermons in German, English, and French. Often, because of the need to preach to different national groups at the same mission, he was forced to give upwards of eight sermons a day or sixty total during an eight-day mission. He admitted that the trilingual mission was “very taxing” on the missionary, but considered the effects of such a labor greater than a mission directed to each group individually. “This indefatigable apostle gave over 800 missions, preached 30,000 sermons, made between 2,000 and 3,000 converts, and journeyed over 200,000 miles; besides, he found time to write 41 books and pamphlets in German, English, and Latin.” (Martin P. Harney, S.J., The Jesuits in History, p. 406)

Father Damen had as a frequent mission partner a fellow Hollander, Father Cornelius Smarius (1823 — 1870), a much-lauded controversialist and eloquent preacher. While Father Smarius was stationed as a professor in Saint Louis, Catholics and Protestants alike crowded in to hear his Sunday sermons. He made such an impression that a Protestant newspaper, The Republic, published his sermons with accompanying refutations provided by the editorial staff. In this strange way, Father Smarius’ preaching traveled the country, even before he himself did.

On the missions, Father Smarius became widely known for his eloquence and distinguished appearance, while Father Damen was known to move hearts by his unction. The harvest reaped by the Dutch duo would suggest that they made a good team. According to Holy Family Parish, Priests and People, “Every visible token of undoubted success marked the parochial missions preached by Fathers Damen and Smarius. During the twelve months, September 1861, to September 1862, each of the two had conducted eighteen missions, resulting in 600 conversions to the Faith and in 120 reclamations of fallen-away Catholics to the Church. Moreover, they distributed during the same period 50,000 Holy Communions, at least one-fifth of these being to persons who had long neglected their religious duties, some for as many as ten, twenty, thirty and even fifty years.”

In 1863, the work of Fathers Damen and Smarius was observed by another preacher in the mission band during a three-week tour-de-force at New York’s Saint Francis Xavier Parish. His name is not revealed in our source, but this priest’s written memorial leaves us with some precious details concerning how the mission was carried out, with sermon content custom tailored to specific groups of men, women, Catholics, and non-Catholics:

Our mission finished yesterday . . . Father Smarius preached in the church to men and women, Father Damen in the large college hall to men only . . . Each . . . was greeted with the sight of crowds of people thronging with every eagerness to hear him . . . The stage from which the Father preached was crowded with men standing up. At the entrance to the hall, a hundred auditors, unable to find room in the hall, were ranged along the steps of the stairway. Several controversial sermons [i.e., sermons of an apologetical nature, to convince non-Catholics of the truth of the faith] were given in the church. The Protestants came in good number. Last Sunday after high mass twenty of them were baptized in presence of the whole congregation . . . The confessions began the second day of the mission and thereafter there was no falling-off in the crowds around the confessionals. (“Preachers: Jesuits on the Mission Band”)

Another accomplished mission preacher was Father Bernard Maguire (1818-1886). His favorite apostolate was the parish mission, although, as an accomplished academic, he was twice president of Georgetown University in the mid 1800s.

Father Damen’s Death

On June 7, 1889, The New York Times reported news that really was fit to print. The report was datelined Chicago, and ran thus in its entirety: “City Controller Onahan received a dispatch to-day saying that Father Arnold Damen, S.J., has been stricken with paralysis at Evanston, Wyoming Territory. Father Damen is over seventy-five years old. As a missionary he has long been famous among Catholics from New York to San Francisco and St. Paul to the Gulf.”[3] That The New York Times took notice of his passing is evidence of our Hollander’s celebrity status.

William J. Onahan

The preceding summer, the aging apostle had been sent to Creighton College, Omaha, for health reasons. Still, he continued to give missions, and virtually died with his boots on. On June fourth, 1889, while in the act of distributing Holy Communion at a mission in Evanston, Wyoming, he suffered a stroke. He was brought back to Omaha and lingered on until January 1, 1890, the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord and the Octave Day of Christmas. His remains were brought to Florissant, Missouri — the cradle of his Jesuit vocation — and were laid to rest near those of other Jesuit pioneers of the Middle West, including Father Pierre-Jean de Smet, the intrepid Belgian who recruited him into the Society of Jesus over half-a-century earlier.

The City of Chicago memorialized its Jesuit apostle in 1927, when it renamed Robey Street, “Damen Avenue.”

Miracles and Ghost Stories

What we Catholics call “miracles” are often called “paranormal phenomena” by the children of this world, while extraordinary events properly called preternatural (such as visits of the Holy Souls or apparitions of the saints, angels, or demons) might be called “ghost stories” in the popular parlance. We shouldn’t let this upset us: “ghost” comes from the German word for “spirit” (Holy Ghost = Holy Spirit), so these really are, quite literally, “ghost stories.” Besides, as Charles Coulombe points out, the sharp distinction we Protestant-influenced Anglophones often draw between the normal and the paranormal, between the real and the weird, was not inherited from our Catholic forebears, whose world might and did receive visits, welcome or unwelcome, from God, His saints, or the angels — the latter coming in good and evil varieties. There are missionaries from Africa who can tell hair-raising true accounts of spectacles performed by witch doctors, no doubt with the aid of evil spirits. The accounts of the saints are filled with holy and evil “ghost stories.”

Extraordinary Cure. However we label them, there are accounts of miracles and beyond-the-grave visitations associated with the name of Arnold Damen. One involves the cure of a little girl, the daughter of a Mrs. Griffin. The child had been crying continuously, day and night, for three days, due to a sore on her neck. The doctor declared that three months’ treatment would scarcely cure the child. At the suggestion of a friend, the distraught mother brought the child to Father Damen, who suggested that she see a doctor. When he heard that they had indeed seen one, but to no avail, the priest put on his stole, prayed over the baby, and had the mother put Saint Ignatius water on the sore spot. The girl stopped crying after the blessing. Three days later, the sore, which had swelled to an immense size, broke. The doctor responsible for the infelicitous prognosis was quite surprised.

Many years later, after a retreat preached by Father Damen, that little girl professed her vows as Sister M. Sylvester, a Sister of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Fire! Another impressive story of supernatural intervention involves the Chicago Fire of 1871.[4] Father Damen was in Brooklyn giving a parish mission when his assistant telegraphed him with news that a raging fire was endangering the parish. The message was handed to him while he was hearing confessions in Saint Patrick’s Church. He spent the greater part of that night in a vigil of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, begging Our Lord with tears for the protection of his parishioners and the church. He made a vow to keep seven lights burning in front of an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help if his prayers were answered. The wind changed direction, blowing the fire eastward and then north. Not only was the church itself spared, but the homes of his parishioners were, too — every one. The providential wind spared thousands of their wood-framed cottages, while elsewhere, the conflagration reduced iron, stone, and brick structures to ruins. It would be dubbed “the Miracle on Roosevelt Road.”

Father Damen took the first train he could for Chicago. Finding the greater part of the city a charred wasteland, he offered a Mass of thanksgiving for God’s intervention on behalf of his parish. In dramatic fashion, the preacher announced that his vow must be kept, and even charged his parishioners to hold his successors bound to it. Ever since that time, seven votive lights have burned before an image of Our Lady.[5]

Needless to say, Father Damen and those who worked under him gave relief to many of the homeless victims of the tragedy.[6]

Night of the Undead Altar Boys. One out-of-the-ordinary account from the annals of Holy Family Church involves a mysterious late-night sick call. The visitor to Holy Family Church will notice two statues of acolytes seen high over the entrances of the sanctuary. The boys are facing each other, holding candles. Father Damen had them placed there to commemorate the following incident, which I relate here in the words of Holy Family Church, Priests and People, pg. 135-136:

One stormy night, the door bell of the pastor’s residence rang, and, as the porter opened the door, two young boys stepped in and inquired for the priest, requesting that he accompany them on an urgent sick call. The storm was so severe and Father Damen’s work had been so trying during the day that the porter, thinking to spare the priest, asked the boys if it would not be possible to wait until morning. The boys assured him that the woman was so ill that she could not live through the night. Father Damen, overhearing the conversation, at once prepared to accompany the lads, and started out with them. The boys preceded the priest and let him to a tumble down house in a remote part of the parish, where they told him the patient would be found in the garret. Father Damen climbed the rickety stairs and found the dying woman lying on a poor bed in a corner of the room. When he entered, she looked up with astonishment, but Father Damen heard her confession, and gave her the last sacraments. As he was about to leave, the old lady said, ‘Father, may I ask who called you to me? I have been very ill and I have wanted a priest, but I had no one to send.’ Father Damen replied that two young boys had come for him, neighbors no doubt, he suggested. ‘No, Father,’ said the old lady, ‘there is none near, and no one knows of my sickness.’ Father Damen was accordingly puzzled. ‘Have you no boys of your own?’ said he. ‘None living,’ answered the poor woman, ‘I had two boys who were acolytes of the Holy Family Church, but they are dead.’ Father Damen told her, so it is said, that he believed that those two boys had come for him that night. The woman died before morning, and the two statues, the story runs, were erected over the entrance to the sanctuary in memory of the incident.

The Flying Dutchman. But the ghost stories don’t end there. Numerous witnesses have reportedly seen Father Damen himself wandering around the church and nearby Saint Ignatius Prep. One account I read had it that he was seen with greater frequency during some renovations that were being made, whether to the church or the school I know not. The grumbling traditionalist in me thought the old priest must not have liked the new look.[7]

The Ghost of the Parish Mission

Whether or not Father Damen continues to wander the halls of his old foundations is of far less consequence than the reality of another specter, this one much darker. The Jesuit home missions are no more. Here is the testimony of the already-cited Father Tom Clancy, S.J.:

What happened to the parish mission? Somewhere in the 1960s the “mission band” entry in province catalogues disappears. Jesuits are still giving retreats today, but usually in their own retreat houses. Perhaps parish missions are no longer popular because of movies and TV. Or perhaps fire-and-brimstone sermons are no longer palatable, though there was a time when Catholics at their missions, like Protestants at their revivals, loved to hear about the horror of sin and the pains of hell. (“Preachers: Jesuits on the Mission Band”)

Pace, Father Clancy, but it seems to me there is a much deeper cause, a cause going beyond sociology and style. It is a question of dogma. Thanks to the new enthusiasms of progressivist priests and religious, the urgent mission to save souls by converting them to the true Church is about as robust today as Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Whereas Cardinal George could say of our Duchman that “Fr. Damen himself never abandoned his early desire to convert America,” the same can hardly be said of those modern clerics whose commitment to the gospel of pluralism is antithetical to real missionary work. Thank God there are notable exceptions.

The Jesuit parish mission can rise again. For the Spirit that animated it is the Holy Ghost, ever sanctifying, ever fructifying, ever at work in the Church of Jesus Christ. I shall cite Father Clancy once more on the Jesuit home missions. Taking this last glance at an impressive page of American Church history, let us pray to the great Jesuit saints — and Father Damen — that these glories may be revived, for the twenty-first century is in desperate need of apostolic laborers like the priests who did this work.

The mission band is a thing of the past. But in their heyday, parish missions were a wonderful way to catechize Catholics, 95 percent of whom had never attended Catholic schools. Parish missions were also an opportunity for healing feuds, going to confession, and uniting families divided by long-forgotten grievances. Parish missions were one of the most important instruments for the growth of the Catholic Church in this country.

“The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he send labourers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).

[1] Until 1908, when Pope Saint Pius X promulgated a document that reorganized much of the Catholic hierarchy (Sapienti Consilio) the Church in the United States was under the Holy See’s Propaganda Fidei Congregation, signifying that it was missionary territory.

[2] The “Third Great Awakening” began in the 1850’s. The second was earlier in the century.

[3] City Controller Onahan — William James, Count Onahan — was a parishioner of Father Damen’s at Holy Family. A very influential Chicago Irishman, he was named Chamberlain of the Cape and Sword by Pope Leo XIII.

[4] Contrary to popular legend, the fire was not started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow, as the journalist who made up this story later admitted. As far as I can tell, despite what the Wikipedia article on the subject says, neither Mrs. O’Leary, nor Mr. O’Leary, nor their much-maligned milker were among Father Damen’s parishioners; their farm on DeKoven Street appears to have been  just across parish lines. But they were part of the city’s massive Irish immigrant population, many of whom were Father Damen’s charges. The myth of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow — including as it did the tale of a drunken Gaelic orgy — was charged with anti-Irish bigotry.

[5] According to the Holy Family web site, the lights currently burning before Our Lady’s image are electric lights, not candles. Perhaps someone is afraid of another fire.

[6] The fire killed some 200-300 Chicagoans and left 90,000 of the city’s 300,000 inhabitants homeless.

[7] Those interested in learning more about the ghostly side of Father Damen are referred to Ursula Bielski’s two volumes:. Chicago Haunts: Ghostlore of the Windy City and Creepy Chicago: A Ghosthunter’s Tales of the City’s Scariest Sites. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the information. Supposedly, Chicago has the dreary distinction of being America’s most haunted city.