Our work was not immediately increased under our new status. Monsignor Hickey did not remember to tell the chaplain of the Harvard Catholic Club, who at that time was Father Francis Greene, that we had his approval, and so, although we had longed for the advice and direction of a priest at the Center, we were obliged to go on on our own, as best we could. The officers of the Harvard Catholic Club dropped in one afternoon, and said they were delighted to find such a place for the use of Catholic students at Harvard, and they went away saying that they would discuss St. Benedict’s with Father Greene when they had their next meeting with him. Weeks went by, however, and they did not return.
One afternoon one of my friends brought a priest to see us.
“This is my dear friend, Father Leonard Feeney”, she said. “I was talking with Father about the Center, and he said he would like to see it.”
We were most interested to meet Father Leonard Feeney. We had heard a great deal about him, and we had read his books. He was teaching at Weston College, the Jesuit seminary, at this time. He asked us some questions about the Center work, and his interest warmed us. We had been anxious to talk to a priest about the Center, and Father Feeney seemed to understand what we were trying to do. We told him all about it.
“It is a wonderful idea”, he told us. “A beautiful work. Don’t let discouragement or anything stop you from doing it. Our Lord and Our Lady will bless you.”
We were deeply grateful to Father Feeney. It was the first unsolicited priestly encouragement we had had for the Center. We hoped he would come again.
Father Feeney did drop in again. He came one Wednesday night to the philosophy course, and he joined in the discussion which took place after the lecture. One of the students who was present asked Father a question. When the meeting was over, the student came to me and said:
“How can I talk some more to Father Feeney? That was the most satisfactory answer I have ever received. The question was one which has been bothering me for a long time.”
“I will ask Father when it would be possible for you to meet him again”, I answered. I related this conversation to Father Feeney later on.
“Don’t you have a priest here?” Father asked me.
“No, Father”, I told him.
“I am busy at Weston, as you know,” Father Feeney said, “but I can find time to take care of this student, and whenever I can help you in any way, you just let me know.”
After that, several students found their way out to Weston College, a distance of twenty miles, to consult Father. And the Center life went quietly on. Several of our girls were planning to enter convents at the end of the term. We had built a shrine to Our Lady at the far end of the long, main
room, and we often gathered down there to ask Her to fill the Center with grace.
In the fall of 1941, the officers of the Harvard Catholic Club came to see me again. These officers were Joseph Fochwell and Arthur Egan.
“You know, Mrs. Clarke,” they said, “we’ve been thinking St. Ben’s over. We’ve always wanted to have a place where we could meet and talk things out among ourselves- where we could have a real discussion. No priest or anything. Would you let us have the Center for that sort of thing, say once or twice a week, in the evening?”
I replied that we would be delighted.
The boys came in again a few days later. They had chosen the evening, Thursday evening. They had put a notice in the college newspaper. The first meeting of the Harvard Catholic Club at St. Benedict Center would take place the following week.
We learned a great deal from that first meeting. (The boys had invited us to sit in on it.) We found that when some student made a point which he thought was the end-all of the argument, his opponent felled him by the simple process of putting to him this question:
“How do you know that? Can you say that with authority?” And the student was obliged to admit that he could not.
We talked it over afterward.
“I guess we have to have some kind of authority”, Arthur Egan decided. “Not a priest, though. That takes it out of the amateur class.”
“What would you think of someone on the Harvard faculty?” I asked him. “I know a Catholic who might be what you need.”
“Fine, let’s get him”, the boys agreed.
And so we had our second session. The new chairman, from the Harvard faculty and a Catholic, sat up front, and was modestly authoritative. We lent him support. The meeting was a little more ordered, but not one bit more conclusive.
This time, some girls from Radcliffe College sat in with the Harvard boys on the “post-mortem”, and a Radcliffe girl named Betty Reichert supplied the solution:
“We’ve simply got to have a priest”, she said. “For religious matters there’s only one authority, and that is a priest. We can get a nice one, one who understands us, and yet is above us and can teach us.”
“Just who would that be- a priest who would understand us?” Joe Bothwell asked.
“I know just the one”, Betty answered. “Father Leonard Feeney. He was here this afternoon, and since tomorrow is Halloween, we got to talking about the meaning of hallows. None of us knew its origin, and Father Feeney’s explanation was fascinating. If he could explain religion to us
that way, and I think he can, it would be splendid. Could we have Father Feeney?” she asked me.
“Well, I don’t know”, I told her. “Father is teaching at Weston College. He is an important man. He has written many books; he is popular and in demand everywhere for lectures and sermons; he is going to give a series of talks over the radio for the National Broadcasting Company. We are so small.”
“Still,” said Betty; “I don’t think Father would let any broadcast interfere with his work among people. He said that personal work was what he liked best.”
“That’s right”, said one of the boys. “When Father Feeney was on the staff of the Jesuit weekly, America, he had to be intellectual, and his only comfort was in talking with the New York taxi drivers.”
“What happened?” asked a matter-of-fact student.
“Well, some of Father’s best stories are his taxi-cab stories and some of his very best friends are these drivers. They are also some of his best conversions, including Jerry Hohenstein, at the corner of Broadway and 108th Street, a Jew whom Father brought into the Faith and never has stopped talking about.”
“Well, there’s no harm in asking Father Feeney to come and sit in on our meetings”, Arthur Egan broke in. “Will you write and ask Father then, Betty?”
Betty wrote to Weston College, and asked Father Leonard Feeney if he would come down to St. Benedict Center and address the Catholic students of Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges every Thursday evening. Father Feeney wrote back that he would be honored to do that, and that he was most happy that we should ask him.
That is how Father Feeney ‘s famous Thursday nights at St. Benedict Center began. Thousands of people have attended them. During the war, boys came into the Center to see us, saying that they had timed their visit so they would hear Father Feeney on Thursday evening. We asked one Navy boy how he had known about it. He said he had heard it on every ship to which he had been assigned in the Navy. He had managed to find on every ship one man, at least, who had listened to Father Leonard Feeney and St. Benedict Center on Thursday night.
People laughingly told us, after Thursday evenings were well under way, that the Center walls viewed from across the street on Thursday nights literally appeared to bulge. Students filled the aisles, jammed the doorway, and stood on the sidewalk, at each window.
When the old students came back to Cambridge, they always came back for Thursday evening. When parents came, it was always for Thursday evening. Over the years, Father’s friends, men of letters, artists, publishers, musicians, priests, all came to St. Benedict Center, and always for Thursday evening.