Saint Benedict Center had had for years a personal devotion to Pope Pius XII. Since Father Feeney’s coming to us, we had remembered the Holy Father nightly in our prayers. We were especially concerned about him at this time because the Germans were in the air over Rome and the newspapers were speculating as to whether, in the bombing of the city, the Vatican could possibly escape devastation. One of the Center men, Giovanni Bricca, was given an appointment abroad which had to do with the disbursement of American aid to Italy.
“Please, Giovanni,” we said to him, “will you see that the Pope is protected?”
He laughed. “Of all the people in Europe at the present time,” he said, “the Holy Father seems best able to take care of himself. He is protecting the refugees.”
It was after this that the Holy Father’s blessing, mentioned in the first chapter of this book, reached the Center. It was in the winter of 1945. It had been delayed, we were later told, because they had not been pleased at the Vatican with the first copy which had been made. The illumination of the letters had not quite satisfied them!
The blessing came to us as the result of an audience one of the Center members had had with the Holy Father. Before his audience, our friend had, at the suggestion of someone at the Vatican, written out the story of the Center and sent it in for the Holy Father to read. He had been assured that the account would interest His Holiness. He saw the Pope later, with a group of seven people, all of whom gave to the Holy Father, as is the custom, not their names but the places from which they came. When our friend said he was from Boston, the Holy Father told him, “Ah, yes. And you have a foundation in Cambridge, St. Benedict Center. I have read your account of it, and I send St. Benedict Center my blessing.”
That we should be in the mind of His Holiness for even a moment in the midst of his many and solemn cares, touched us deeply. We thanked God for the grace of the blessing of Christ’s Vicar. I went across the street to share our news with Monsignor Hickey, and it was in the telling of the Pope’s blessing upon the Center work that I suddenly found myself with courage to ask Monsignor something that had been in my mind for a long time. I asked him if he felt he could ask Archbishop Cushing to request of the Jesuit Provincial the official appointment of Father Leonard Feeney to full time work at St. Benedict Center. Father was now living at the Jesuit house which was attached to the Immaculate Conception Church, in the South End of Boston. He was being driven from there for his classes at Weston, and every moment in between those classes, from ten o’clock in the morning until eleven o’clock at night, he was busy in the Center.
“No one appreciates Father Feeney’s work at St. Benedict Center more than I do, Mrs. Clarke”, Monsignor Hickey told me. “But do you realize what you are asking? You are requesting the Jesuit Order to give you one of its most valuable men, and you have nothing in the way of salary to offer him. I’m sure the Jesuits would not think first of the salary, but they do have young Jesuits to educate, and they have many needs.”
“I understand, Monsignor. But, as you know, no one receives a salary at the Center. We feel Our Lady can bless us most when we are poor. We don’t have a salary to give Father, but we are sure Our Lady will make it up to the Jesuit Order somehow.”
“Well, I will see what I can do”, Monsignor told me.
Monsignor Hickey wrote to the Archbishop, and I wrote to the Archbishop’s secretary, Monsignor Wright. Archbishop Cushing told us later, when we were all at his house for Confirmation by His Excellency of Father Feeney’s converts, that Monsignor Hickey’s letter of recommendation had been such a wonderful one that he could do nothing but request the Provincial of the Jesuit Order to give us Father Feeney.
The Very Reverend John J. McEleney, newly appointed Provincial of the Society of Jesus in New England, called Father Feeney into his office. “I was very happy”, he told him, “to receive a request from Archbishop Cushing my first day in office, a request which it gave me so much pleasure to fulfill. You are appointed to the work of St. Benedict Center, full time, Father.”
Our gratitude knew no bounds. We were very edified. The Jesuits did not mention a salary for Father, or in any way make us feel that we had taken one of their most valuable priests, whose writings and lectures over the country were a source of income for the education of the young members of the Society. We felt that Our Lady was keeping our side of the bargain, however, when, on a Tuesday evening two years later, Father McEleney came over to the Center to listen to Dr. Maluf’s course in philosophy, and said, in his tribute to Father Feeney and the Center:
“I am grateful to St. Benedict Center for the unusually fine boys it has sent, through Father Feeney, to the Jesuit Order.”
The paternity in the Jesuit Order so impressed us on this occasion that we were totally unprepared for the lack of paternity in the treatment we later received.
And so we entered upon our second five years. The Holy Father’s blessing had come to us, and the first fruit of it was Father Feeney’s official appointment as full time spiritual director of St. Benedict Center.
The Center was busy, at this time, with a work which was dear to Father. Across the street from the Immaculate Conception Church on Harrison Avenue in Boston, where Father Feeney lived, is the Home for Destitute Catholic Children. Father said the early Sunday morning Mass there during the summer. He had come to be very fond of the children and the nuns who took care of them. He used to listen to the children singing, and one day he said to a group of them,
“Do you like the songs you sing? Do you understand what they are saying?”
“No, Father”, they answered.
“Well, you just wait. I’ll write some songs especially for you, and a friend of mine will write music for them. I think you’ll like our songs.”
Father took the text of every song over to the children, and made sure that they both liked and understood it before he issued it in final form. We remember his saying about the song called “Grandma” that you cannot begin “Grandma’s old and she doesn’t like the cold”, because Grandma is short of breath and she never abbreviates because abbreviation is only two shortened words making one long one. And so Grandma would have to say; or rather you would have to say in a song about her which kept the spirit of the frail precision of her words, “Grandma is old and she does not like the cold. She prefers the spring and summer to the fall. And the winter she prefers the least of all.” This last is by way of putting in delicate form what would be a violent hate in a younger person.
To be honest, some of the songs had music first, and words second. There were at least two of these, one called “The Rose” and one called “Moo is a Cow”. It is almost unbelievable to think that in the lines of “Moo is a Cow”, which are some of the most felicitous Father Feeney has ever written, that they were words written to music already composed. In “Moo is a Cow”, Father took all the lovable noises the children hear and identified them with the objects from which they issued, or with which they were associated. It is a daring license, but children are daring in such regard, as Father knew, and they delighted in the audacity that made the sound of a cow be the whole of the beast, from horns to tail. “Moo is a Cow” is haunting, with or without music, inside of the barn or out in the field. This is the way it runs, in terms of its own music:
Moo is a Cow
Moo is a cow
When she makes a bow
To a meadow-full of hay;
Shoo is a hen
When she’s back again
And you want her to go away;
Is maybe I don’t see you
But I’m sure you can’t see me;
Splash is a stone
When a big one’s thrown
In a river or lake or sea.
Snap is a twig;
Grunt is a pig,
Baa is the tune of a sheep:
There’s a melody hid
In the katy-did,
And the cricket that likes to peep.
Hush is your lip
When your finger-tip
Says you shouldn’t make a sound;
Hop is a toad
Right across the road,
Without stopping to look around;
Pit-a-pat is rain
On the window-pane;
Buzz-a-buzz a busy bee;
Creak is a stair,
When you ask “Who’s there?”
And there’s no one to say “It’s me”.
Tick is a clock,
Click is a lock
After you’ve closed the door;
And a soft tiptoe
Is to let you know
You have fallen asleep once more.
Bounce is a ball
Up against a wall,
When you’ve given it a throw.
Rip is a tear
In a thing you wear,
That your mother will want to sew;
Rub-a-dub-dub-dubIs a drummer-boy,
When a band goes marching by;
Twinkle’s a bright
Little star at night,
Or a funny look in your eye.
Ouch is a pain,
Toot is a train,
Sneeze is perhaps a cold;
And a My, oh my
Is: I wonder why
You will never do what you’re told.
The children liked “Moo is a Cow” by way of zoology and cosmology. Here is how Father wrote them a musical history lesson:
Once upon a Time 1
Once upon a time,
Mary went to call the cattle home:
Once upon a time,
Nero played a fiddle while they burned down Rome;
Once upon a time,
Noah built the ark when it started to rain-
Launcelot loved Elaine,
Christopher Columbus grew tired of Spain,-
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time,
The dish ran away with the spoon;-
Once upon a time,
The butterfly came from the cocoon,
Once upon a time.
There wasn’t any you and there wasn’t any I,
But Washington never told a lie,
And four and twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie,
Once upon a time.
Once upon a time,-
A turtle beat a rabbit in a race,
Once upon a time;-
Everything remarkable always took place
Once upon a time;-
Someone wrote a song about an old gray mare,
Simple Simon met a pieman going to a Fair;
Isn’t it unfortunate we couldn’t have been there?
Once upon a time
The outcome of all this was told in the Boston newspapers in May, 1945. In the DRAMA column of the Boston Record for Monday, May 5, 1945, there appeared the following story by Mr. Leo Gaffney:
Unique is the word for “The Children”, song cycle by Leonard Feeney and Theodore Chanler, presented on three successive Sunday afternoons at the Hotel Commander ballroom in Cambridge. (Final performance of the series next Sunday.)
It is unique because it is probably the first time since “Walter, Walter Wild Flower” that the adult mind has set down in song and story the true heart and mind of a child- in terms of the child rather than in the smarty-smarty way of, say, the public evidences of the Quiz Kids.
Leonard Feeney, who is as much distinguished as a Jesuit priest as he is as a poet, has a genius for simple, perfect, effortless rhyming. Specimen: “Wind is the air in your hair when you stand on the sand.” And his rare perception of the chaste beauty of the child-soul together with his humorous understanding of its bodily wriggles permit him to express “The Children” with unexampled skill and, at times, overpowering beauty.
Too, it is with Father Feeney a high development of the pastoral love of all the young. This is the devotion that earns for the priest the title, Father.
. . . It is not ‘easy’ music to impart either to the child or to the adult, yet it is remarkable how easily the 30 odd tots from The Home for Destitute Catholic Children (who take part) grasp the tricky modulations and subtle changes of musical pace bound up with this eventful, lively and charming contribution to the art of song.
Father Feeney has provided also a series of adroit sketches, eloquently enacted by grown up students of St. Benedict’s Center, that range in variety and humor from a travesty on a Vermont undertaker toying with a new ‘deep freeze’ method to the Magnificat of the Blessed Mother.
Most effective of the sketch players are David Supple and Mary Maluf.
The commercial theatre will probable take little note of “The Children”, though in its desperate frenzy to be clever it would do well to borrow from the freshness of Feeney and Chanler.
It is a temptation to linger with the telling of the story of “The Children”, so exquisite a memory is it. All five performances were packed. Great numbers of priests attended, which delighted Father, and nearly all of Boston’s distinguished composers, who were interested in Mr. Chanler. A well-known music publisher was in the audience for the last performance. He was enthusiastic about the songs.
“The words are perennial”, he told me. “They have that ineffable, human quality, so simple and yet so hard to attain- the same thing that has made ‘Silent Night’ live for centuries.”
Mr. Boland, the owner of the Hotel Commander, gave the ball-room to Father Feeney for the last afternoon, for the project dearest to Father’s heart. This was the showing of his play to the nuns, the patient, unsung teachers of little children. Father had written for the American sisters all through his years. He understood nuns, reverenced and loved them, and he had passed this reverence on to us, at the Center. Nuns, all over America, had taught their school children his poems. One of his hardest blows, apart from the blow to the sacrament of his priesthood and to his parents, which Father has received as a result of the calumny and persecution to which he has been subjected for this last year and a half, is the silencing of his poems in the Catholic grammar schools of the country.
Father was very happy on the afternoon when the sisters from the schools on the Cambridge side of the Charles River came to the Hotel Commander and watched the performance in “The Children” of forty little girls; and twenty big girls and boys, under his direction and the direction of Sister Louise, the beautiful Sister of Charity at the Home for Destitute Catholic Children who had charge of music for the children. Mr. Boland said of Sister Louise that she did more good just by walking through the lobby of the hotel than a thousand sermons could do.
The number of adult (and infant) baptisms, marriages, and vocations at the Center had by this time become remarkable, and they were the work of one priest, Father Feeney. We have a list of them all. We used to say that Our Lady seemed to send us things in cycles. For several weeks, there seemed to be nothing but engagements. One by one, or two by two, boys and girls would go to see Father in his room, from which they would emerge, Father holding a hand of each, and the new engagement would be announced to the expectant Center, who scarcely ever failed to say, “We knew, it right along.”
One night a Harvard Navy student rushed in, and coming upon Father in the middle of the room, he blurted hurriedly, “Father, will you bless this ring, please? I’m catching the train to see my girl in half an hour. She lives in Pittsburgh!”
“Of course,” said Father, taking the ring, “but have I met you before?”
“No, Father”, the boy answered. “I haven’t had time to come over. They work us hard, you know. But my friends told me that when you bless engagements, they stick. Thanks a lot, Father. I’ll bring her to see you when she comes up. Good-bye.”
Then for another while we seemed to have nothing but vocations. And then nothing but marriages. All the Center babies seemed to come at once, and we were every other day standing outside the baby room of a hospital, while Father blessed the newest Center baby through the window.
One Thursday afternoon, at dusk, walking up to Harvard Square, I caught sight of the headlines in the evening newspapers. ATOMIC BOMB DROPPED ON JAPAN! I read about it and could not go on. I returned to St. Benedict Center, and told them that hundreds of thousands of women, children, and old men had been killed or injured by something called an atom bomb which had been dropped on a teeming Japanese city from an American airplane.
That evening, after Father’s lecture, St. Benedict Center stated that it was deeply grieved by the news of the atom bombing in the evening papers. We could not find it in our hearts to rejoice over the wholesale slaughter of innocent people. We had, months before this, been obliged to disagree with the officers who were in the Army Occupation courses, who had come into the Center and had told us that it was part of their teaching that the Japanese were sub-human. We were at a loss to understand what a “sub-human” being could possibly be, since all men were possessed of spiritual souls, and the Japanese were admittedly men. This “sub-human” theory seemed very much like the old attacks on the nature of man, against which the Council of Vienne pronounced, in 1311, when it condemned as erroneous any teaching which denied that the rational soul was by itself and by its nature the form of the body. 2
The atomic bombing of Japan, to our thinking, was un-Christian. The discussion which followed this announcement lasted a long time. The military personnel who were present explained the possible technical reasons for the dropping of the bomb. We reiterated our ethical and Catholic indignation. Actually, we said, we were fearful for Western civilization.
1 “Moo Is a Cow” and “Once Upon a Time” are reprinted here with permission of G. Schirmer, Inc., New York.
2 Mourret-Thompson, History of the Catholic Church, Vol. 5: “By ‘form’ in this connection is meant the principle of activity which differentiates beings and which by penetrating them with its power, gives them the properties that distinguish them. In the present case, it is the rational soul that penetrates the body with its force and power, thereby giving it its ‘human’ properties, which distinguish it from plants and animals. The condemnation of the Council of Vienne seems, however, to go farther and to include any doctrine which, while recognizing in each man an individual rational soul, would place outside of it the ‘form,’ i.e., the principle of human life.”