And so the winter passed. The Center buzzed with life. Father Feeney was obliged to come in from Weston every day, so many were his appointments. Father’s converts began to grow. The Paulist Guild in New York asked him to write the story of his conversions, but he found himself too busy instructing to tell the story of it. Under Father’s spiritual direction, boys and girls found their life work in religion. Father began to send away to convents and monasteries, to novitiates and seminaries, students chosen by God to carry on his work.
Always we were seeking the best way to do God’s work at the Center. Our love for Mary, God’s Mother, increased by the day, and while we did our best for Her Son, and real success seemed to crown our efforts, we felt always that there was something we were not doing, something we were not saying. We were able to reach a thousand students a week. We were popular. Boys, away in the Army, wrote us from all over the world. They were writing that the truths which Father Feeney had taught them came home to them even more forcibly when they were away from Father than when they were listening to him at the Center. They thanked him for teaching them to appreciate, besides God and His Mother, the things which God had made, the life He had put upon the earth and in the sea. It kept them from going mad with loneliness. One boy wrote, “Having heard your poem on the mouse, Father, I couldn’t even be hard on our scullery mouse.
We had many practical applications of the biblical story of the loaves and fishes. During the winters of 1943 and 1944, we gave once a month, on Sunday, a supper for the men in the Army and Navy schools at Harvard, for the students in the regular Harvard enrollment, and for the girls at Radcliffe College. They became a sort of tradition, these suppers, and we were often at our wit’s end planning first how to fit all our guests into our limited space, and second how to procure enough food in those days of rationed portions. Father Feeney liked to go down to the North End of Boston with us, into the Italian section, to shop. Father loved the North End- he loved the Italians. He would walk in the narrow, crowded streets, filled with children, shopping Italian matrons, push carts, fruit stands, clutter and music, and say to us, “I wish to God that we could replace the thing we call culture with this. These people really live. Look at the children!”
The Italians returned his love. They took him for a little Italian priest. He looks very much like one, a Latin carry-over from a grandfather, who was pure Spanish. A friend of mine came to the Center one night to see me, and found she had arrived in the middle of Father’s lecture. When she reached me later, she said, “What is Father’s name? Feeney? But I didn’t think him Celtic, as I watched him speak. I thought him Iberian.” Students from South America and Spain, seeing Father for the first time, have thought him Spanish. He, himself, is very proud of his Irish blood. He explains his national likes and dislikes, however, in his magical essay, Sentiment and Emotion, in which he concludes,
“The two nations of Europe that seem to me to be best blended and balanced psychologically are Italy and Spain. The Italians are at root a deeply sentimental people, given to strong emotional outbursts. The Spaniards are at root a deeply emotional people, given to a strong sentimental restraint. Taken as a whole, the Italians win my affection most easily. Taken as a whole, the Spaniards most compel my admiration. . . . But my debt is to the Irish for my favorite tradition, and to the English for my favorite language.”
We always came out of the North End of Boston loaded with food from the Italian push carts, and with love from the Italian hearts.
We would begin, after Mass on the Sunday morning of the supper, to make the Center ready and to cook the meal. We cooked for four hundred students on a three-burner gas stove in the tiny Center kitchen. We kept things hot on an electric grille placed upon the only available table, which was a giddy thing. This grille we plugged into a socket used, ordinarily, to hold the electric bulb which lighted our make-shift telephone booth. To answer the telephone during a Sunday supper was to invite death in the darkness by one of two ways, scalding or electrocution.
The supper which finally ended all suppers for us was one to which well over four hundred students came. The menu was, again, Italian. The supper was prepared for us by the mother of one of the Radcliffe students, who was famous for her Italian dishes. When it was ready, we found it was impossible to serve it in the kitchen because the servers could not get through the crowded halls to the dining room, and so carried the spaghetti in its huge vat to the large table in the main room of the Center. The meat sauce, cooking in an enormous wash-boiler sort of utensil, was brought out and placed beside the spaghetti. Bowls of Italian salad and plates of Italian bread were placed in the middle. Hot coffee and dessert were on tables close by. The students formed lines, beginning outside in the little square, and finally they were able to secure their supper.
It was through this scene that Monsignor John Wright, the Archbishop’s secretary and the speaker of the afternoon, made his way to Father Feeney’s room.
“It’s a fine thing,” he said, laughing, “when the guest of honor has to fight seven minutes on the door step to gain entry.”
We had planned a program after the supper. As we looked out of the window and saw students standing on the sidewalk, eating, Father Feeney said, “We never can fit them all inside, seated. We had better take the chairs out into the janitor’s back room. And the students will have to stand. I don’t believe too many will care to do that, and so we may get some room for the chairs later on, and we can make people more comfortable.”
But they all stayed. and stood, packed side by side. The military uniforms and the girls’ dresses, the vigil lights blinking softly before Our Lady’s shrine, and the great lighted picture of the Holy Father looking down on his children, made it a memorable sight. Monsignor Wright spoke. He read to us a letter from a French girl he had known in his parish work in France, who wrote now as a heartbroken mother whose maimed baby had been born in the midst of an air raid, and who was not happy under the American occupation of her village.
The Center students put on some skits they had prepared, Father Feeney gave his famous imitations, a musician played the piano for us.
Looking back on it on Monday morning, we were very grateful. It had been a complete success. However, Father Feeney was not satisfied. “Bread and the circuses!” he said. “Horace says that if you feed people and entertain them, they will always come to you. It is true that the food held out miraculously yesterday, it is true we had a good day. But what did we give the students of Our Lord and Our Lady,? How much good did we do?”
We could not determine. Monsignor Hickey said of us at this time, “The work is glorious.” I met a bank official when I went to the bank in Harvard Square one day, and he said to me, “A high ranking man at Harvard was speaking to me about St. Benedict Center the other day, Mrs. Clarke. He said that he has sent several boys over there, and they couldn’t have been better taken care of. He is very much impressed with the work of the Center.”
We had a good reputation- that was apparent- and we were gratified and grateful. But we wondered.