SAINT BENEDICT CENTER is situated in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is exactly on the corner of Bow and Arrow Streets, a fact which is commemorated by the bow and arrow on the Center shield, above the door. The Center’s wide front windows overlook the Romanesque porch of St. Paul’s Catholic Church, directly across the street. Its side windows look out on Adams House, one of the ivy covered Harvard College houses. There hangs in the long main room of Saint Benedict Center a life-size picture of His Holiness, Pope Pius XII. Under the picture there is an inscription, which reads:
“Most Holy Father
Prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, the members of St. Benedict Center, a Catholic lay organization founded on the Feast of St. Joseph, 1940, in the Parish of St. Paul in the Archdiocese of Boston for the purpose of encouraging the Life of the Church among the people of Cambridge and among the students of Harvard University and Radcliffe College, conscious of their own inadequacy to their task, dedicate themselves to Our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ and to the patronage of His Blessed Mother, and humbly implore of You, Most Holy Father, on the occasion of this, the Feast of St. Matthew the Apostle, in the year of Our Lord 1944, the Apostolic Blessing.”
There follows the blessing of the Pope, signed with his name and stamped with his personal seal.
Almost five years had passed from the founding of Saint Benedict Center to the arrival there of this blessing of the Center by His Holiness. Almost another five years have passed since the day on which it was hung on the Center wall. We hung it in what we believed to be the choicest place, and we arranged an electric light so that it shone upon it in the daytime and at night.
St. Paul’s Church is situated on a peninsula, which in this case is a body of land almost entirely surrounded by streets. These streets converge, some as euphoniously as Bow and Arrow Streets, and some not so euphoniously, as Mount Auburn and DeWolf Streets, but all forming a charming little square, not unlike a famous Italian square. We found that in the evening, when the students walked through the square on their way to the dormitories at the end of DeWolf Street, or to Adams House, or the parishioners strolled in the square on their way to “make a visit” to St. Paul’s, the great picture of the Holy Father shone out upon them. It also shone upon us who were within.
The history of Saint Benedict Center during the five years before the coming of the Holy Father’s blessing had been one of quiet and steady growth. Of the three people who began the Center, two had been called to war. I do not mention their names because, by reason of what happened toward the end of the second five years, they would not want me to. The third person is the writer of this book, who, in the course of it, will tell you why she is humbly grateful to have her name connected with these latter days, the days of the most real work of Saint Benedict Center.
We had not known, in the beginning, just what form the Center should take. We knew there should be an excellent Catholic library; indeed, the need of a Catholic library for the use of Catholic students at Harvard University was one of the reasons for having a center at all. A further need was shown to us by a student who was not a Catholic. He asked how he could find out from Catholics what the Church was teaching without getting in touch with any of its “professionals”.
And so we came to have a location, and a library. However, we had no way of letting the students know about us, that we were here, and that we would like them to come in and avail themselves of what we had to offer. Maybe, we thought, if we became a Catholic bookstore, that would give passersby a reason for coming in. The service of finding the right book to answer the question in the mind of the purchaser or the renter was a very real service. Anyone had a right to walk into a bookstore.
We laid our plans before the pastor of St. Paul’s Church. His name is Monsignor Augustine F. Hickey. We asked Monsignor Hickey if he approved of our plans. He gave the matter a good deal of thought, and he finally said that we had his approval. Some months went by, and our preparations were well under way, when one morning the telephone rang at my home. It was Monsignor Hickey.
“Can you come in to see me this morning, Mrs. Clarke?” he asked.
“Of course, Monsignor”, I replied.
“What I have to tell you pains me very much”, he told me later in his office. “It is all my fault, and I blame myself entirely. I have thought over the matter of your having a bookstore across the street, and as much as I appreciate your reasons for wanting it, I must withdraw my permission. I do not want you to have a bookstore.”
“Yes, Monsignor”, I was able to reply after some moments. “I see.” And then after another interval, I managed to say. “We have a lease over there, with six months to go on it. May we use the place for anything else?”
“What else did you have in mind?”
“I have a group of college students who meet there for study on Monday evenings. They come from several colleges, in Cambridge and in Boston, and we are giving them a course in theodicy. They call themselves the St. Andrew’s Club. They seem to be making real progress. That is on Monday evening. On Wednesday evenings we have been having lectures in philosophy.”
“Do you do anything else?”
“St. Andrew’s meets for a Communion breakfast once a month.”
“Continue with these meetings, if you like, until your lease runs out,” Monsignor Hickey said, “but you cannot have a bookstore.”
We had set our hearts so hard on what we had conceived as the way to achieve our purpose, that it seemed as if we had been stopped in full flight. For some days we experienced a bleak sense of abandonment, which, we have since been told, seems to be part of the chastisement, the purification by which God tests those who desire to work for Him.
We kept the Center closed in the daytime, and the curtains drawn, as Monsignor had asked us to do, and we met on Monday and Wednesday evenings for the courses in Catholic philosophy. We found, after awhile, that the courses were growing in attendance. St. Andrew’s had grown from twelve students to fifty-one, and the philosophy class on Wednesday evening had a good following. We added a course in Church Latin, and scheduled it for Friday afternoons. Without our being too much aware of it, we seemed to be taking form, after all.
We decided on a name by which we would be known, and we dedicated the work to Mary, the Mother of God, under the patronage of St. Joseph. We chose for our name Saint Benedict Center. We had been studying the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, and we felt that the spirit of St. Benedict embraced beautifully the doctrine of community living. Too, we were told that the college students, coming upon St. Benedict in their history classes, and seemed to have affection for him.
And so, the months went by. One afternoon, when about six months had passed, someone thought of the lease for the Center quarters. None of us was sure of the date of expiration, but we vaguely, remembered that it was the sort of lease which renewed itself automatically. Monsignor Hickey had said we might go on only until our lease expired. It took us a little while to locate the document. We had become so absorbed in our work that we couldn’t remember which of us had it. When we found it, we gasped. Our contract ran out that day, and our new tenure would begin on the following day. Whatever we did had to be done at once.
Monsignor Hickey is a formal little man. We hadn’t seen him to talk to since the day he had made his decision about us, and each of us admitted that we and Monsignor’s altar boys had one thing in common- we were scared of the Monsignor.
Well, there was nothing to be done but go and see Monsignor Hickey. One of us did just that- and came back with the Monsignor. Formal as he appears in his everyday clothes, he looked even more formal on this occasion by reason of the red robes and biretta which he was wearing. His attire impressed us, and his expression told us he was prepared for anything.
What we said to him I do not remember. But I have never forgotten what he answered. “It has never been my purpose”, he told us, “to stop a work that is doing good. What you report to me of your year’s work, the number of students who have been helped, the attendance at your classes, all is good. As long as you can take care of the financial responsibility of it, I can see no objection to your renewing your lease and going on with your work. God bless you. Good afternoon.”
We were relieved and overjoyed. When we closed our door and walked out into the little square that night, we did so with assurance. We had the approval of the pastor of the parish, we were wanted, we had made no mistake, we did have work to do, the work was for God, and His minister had told us so. St. Benedict’s had come out of the catacombs. It was St. Benedict’s before the world- small, yes, but truly a part of integral Catholic life.
St. Benedict’s is back in the catacombs again. That is the subject of this book. St. Benedict’s is in the catacombs, but it is truly a part of the Church, and when it rises, it prays that it will be in a Church free of the palsying effects of Liberalism, for the purging of which St. Benedict’s was willing to go back into the catacombs.