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Last Call To Save Symbol of Irish Argentina

By Michael J. Geraghty

First published by The Buenos Aires Herald (15 April 2007)

St. Paul’s monastery, based in Buenos Aires province, is set to lose its grounds. In an amazing turn of the implacable wheel of time the destination of a monastery and its grounds has brought the relationship between Irish Argentina and the Congregation of Discalced Clerks of the Most Holy Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose members are popularly called “Passionists,” right back to the exact opposite of where it started in the 1880s: The circumstances then under which the congregation arrived in Argentina as opposed to the circumstances now under which it is leaving the monastery that was one of its main establishments here and that it was able to construct thanks to Irish Argentina.  

The monastery, St. Paul’s, is located in Capitan Sarmiento, an area which was and still is, to a large extent, the very heartland of rural Irish Argentina, where huge numbers of the 19th-century Irish immigrants settled, lived, and died and where their mortal remains lie in local cemeteries, in graves often marked by Celtic crosses, an unexpected symbol far away from the land of their birth in silent tribute to their once vigorous presence on these fertile grasslands, and where their descendants still abound and are now vigorously defending what they consider part of their heritage.

It is also a cruel turn of the wheel of time since no religious congregation has ever been as near and dear to Irish Argentina as this one, which was founded by Paul Francis Daneo, St. Paul of the Cross, in Italy in the 18th century, and whose coming to Buenos Aires was intimately related to Irish Argentina. The circumstances of its arrival are described in detail by Thomas Murray in his book “The Story of the Irish in Argentina,” which was published in New York in 1919. It is the earliest and most objective history ever written of Irish Argentina and although it managed to pass into oblivion, it is now about to be republished by Corregidor in Buenos Aires and in English, principally for the US market, another sign of the times.

Murray relates that Archbishop of Buenos Aires Leon Federico Aneiros wrote to Rome in 1879 requesting a religious congregation of men from Ireland to come to Argentina to minister to the “Irish population,” which “is undergoing a great change in their customs and ideas and this change, particularly among the young of both sexes, is causing serious alarm for their spiritual good.” “The position of the Irish is rendered more critical by the fact that they have accumulated immense wealth by their industry” and “their future is sad if a timely remedy be not brought to them.” “Missions are most necessary in the camp, in order that the people may be instructed in the faith and taught to practise its most holy principles.” Aneiros, obviously as practical as he was spiritual, added an important detail in his final paragraph: The funds needed to bring the congregation to Buenos Aires “will be ready whenever your Eminence will favour me with an answer.” 

Meanwhile, a young Irish Passionist, Father Martin Byrne, was already in Buenos Aires “on a collecting mission” -- Irish congregations used to send priests here to raise funds -- and “a committee, on behalf of the Irish people” made arrangements, which Archbishop Aneiros approved in every way, “to pay the Passionist Order in Dublin a large sum of money in exchange for a certain number of Irish priests, of their community, who were to come to Buenos Aires and establish a branch of their order in the city, and who would attend to the spiritual wants of the Irish Catholics.”

“The money was paid, but the General of the Order, in Rome, began at once putting in conditions contrary to the terms and spirit of the agreement entered into between the Irish Committee of Buenos Aires” and the Passionates in Dublin. He ordered Father Byrne “home at once and sent other priests from the United States and Italy in his stead.” “Then commenced a campaign of intriguing, double dealing, and deceit on the part of the Passionist authorities that would be a disgrace to any body of men professing to be Christians, much less an order of priests,” relates Murray, who adds that “the deceit succeeded; the Order was founded on Irish money but turned out to be for Italian and other purposes as much as, or more than, for any Irish end or aim”.

“The Irish community protested that their want and their arrangement were for Irish priests and they would support no other”, and issued a pamphlet which stated that “we insist that the Passionist houses in this country should be Irish;” “that their atmosphere, so to say, should be Irish; “that their Superiors and most of the priests in them should be Irish or Irish-Argentine; “that these houses be placed under the Hibernian province of the Passionist Order,” and “that we receive a guarantee that these will always be destined to the object for which the Irish people contributed to build them and for which they have always supported them, that is, that the churches be in charge of Irish or Irish-Argentine priests, whose special mission it would be to attend to the Irish people.”

The document added that “neither do we pretend that the Passionist Order should leave the country; on the contrary we should be very sorry if it did so; but if the Superiors find no other alternative, in order to guarantee to us that we shall not lose what we have a right to, then, by all means, let them go, it being understood that in that case, they should be expected to leave the properties.”

It does sound unreasonable, to say the least, to expect an Italian congregation to come to a country whose population was mainly Italian and not minister to it and “as years went by this condition of affairs grew worse,” “became such a public scandal that protests, loud and unmeasured, arose from various Irish sections and parties,” and the “committee,” threatened “to lay the whole case before the Ecclesiastical Courts of Rome for a final settlement” and “was unanimously of the opinion that until the question is satisfactorily settled all relations with the Passionist community as such should be suspended and all support should be withdrawn from it.” This was no idle threat and the Passionists soon found themselves “practically isolated and did nothing publicly excepting to attend some sick calls.”

Father Fidelis Kent-Stone was the Passionist sent here by Rome to head the Argentine mission. He was an American, a convert from Protestanism, “a man of the world, learned and diplomatic”, and “had no scruples about agreements entered into.” “His attainments and varied experience enabled him to take the Irish-Argentine community in hands and, notwithstanding the difficulties of the situation, to successfully carry out the plans of the Superior General.” “He knew the Irish well from his experience in the United States”, soon distinguished between the “committee” and the “community”, concentrated on the latter, the “humbler” Irish,” “especially the servant girls,” and convinced them “that his mission was one of love and charity and that it was a religious obligation to support him.”       

He got his support, the Passionists survived, and went on to become immensely important to Irish Argentina and produced some of its finest priests. Irish Argentina also became, of course, immensely important to the Passionists. It was a mutually beneficial relationship and its expression par excellence has always been the annual mass, and party afterwards, to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day at the Passionist Holy Cross Church in Almagro, with a display of devotion which has to be experienced to be believed and which would probably not be seen even in Ireland today.

Mainline Argentina, into which Irish Argentina was integrating gradually at first and then completely, also benefited because the Passionists were also ministering to its spiritual needs, through priests like Frs. Fidelis Rush and Federico Richards, to name but two. 

No priest did more than “Father Fidelis” in the second half of the 20th century to keep Irish Argentines together. He went wherever they were and founded the legendary “Cross and Shamrock” group, aptly named to merge the Passionist and Irish symbols. His pastoral approach was simple and consisted, at community social events, in celebrating mass, staying for lunch, whatever it was and it was usually a barbeque, and for tea, usually with scones, and mixing with his flock all day, talking and listening to everyone, young and old, rich and poor. Lifelong friend Johnny Rattagan, 84, remembers that Fidelis’s favourite expression was that “God will provide.”  Fidelis be remembered forever in the annals of Irish Argentina.

No priest did more than “Father Fred” to defend human rights in Argentina during the long, dark night of the 1976-1982 dictatorship.  He was the editor of The Southern Cross, the 132-year-old Irish Argentine newspaper, and he lambasted the warlords in his editorials month after month and thus became, along with Robert “Bob” Cox in the Buenos Aires Herald and Jacobo Timmerman in La Opinion, one of the very few brave men who stood up to the despots, when it was very, very dangerous to do so. He also did much more and was a founding and very active member of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights (APDH) and made rooms available at Holy Cross to the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo for their meetings, when they were starting and when people were not exactly queuing up to meet them. Human rights’ leader Irishman Patrick Rice, the former priest, who was kidnapped and tortured in the infamous Navy Mechanics School (ESMA), says forthrightly that “Fred helped to save me. He used his family contacts to get in touch with Videla and to vouch for me.” How many other lives he saved will never be known, but he will be remembered forever in the annals of Argentine human rights. 

Fidelis, Fred, and their confreres lie buried in Saint Paul’s, the sale of which brings the central issue to the surface: The modern decline of traditional religion and the sale of church property for the sole and simple reason that religious congregations can no longer maintain them, be they big or small, for a variety of reasons, which include the fact that they do not have the same congregations that they once had and do not receive the same donations that they once did. To make matters worse, few people enter the religious life today and even if congregations could maintain their properties and had parishioners, they would have no personnel to run the one or to minister to the other. It is a vicious circle, the opposite of which is that “evangelical” churches are popping up everywhere, filling up to standing-room-only, and doing a roaring trade, literally, in another churning turn of the wheel of time.

Meanwhile, Irish Argentines from Rio Negro, Bahia Blanca, La Plata, Federal Capital, and the areas surrounding Capitan Sarmiento will “embrace” the monastery at noon on Saturday 21 April in an attempt to get Buenos Aires Legislature to enact a bill, presented by Deputy Eduardo Carlos Fox, declaring St. Pauls a place of historic interest to be conserved for Irish Argentina.

All of this is no more than a sign of the times, modern times. It is still the best of times and the worst of times, still the age of wisdom and foolishness, but it is probably no longer the age of belief, at least as it was once known, and it remains to be seen if “God will provide.”

Michael John Geraghty


Father Fidelis Kent Stone D.D, L.L.D

Thomas Murray could well be guilty of defamation of character in some of his statements about Father Fidelis Kent Stone who, according to the “Golden Jubilee Album” of Holy Cross Church, published in 1940, “was born in Boston, U.S.A. in 1840 of a distinguished family and received a brilliant university education in the United States and Germany. He fought as lieutenant in the Civil War and afterwards became a Protestant minister. At 24 he married Miss Fay, a Protestant, who died after six years, leaving him three daughters. In 1869 he became a Catholic. Joined the Paulist Fathers and was ordained priest in 1872. He joined the Passionists in 1877. In 1881 he arrived in Buenos Aires and in the course of years founded three Retreats here, and established the Order in Chile and Brazil, returning to U.S.A. in 1918, where he died in 1921. He was a distinguished convert, a fervent Passionist, an eloquent preacher, a learned professor, and an energetic rector of Holy Cross.” There is no reason to doubt the statements in the “Album” because a large bibliography is available to sustain them and many other highly positive aspects of Kent Stone’s life. The Passionists chose him on his merits to come to South America and he certainly came in a winner against very heavy odds. He has already entered the annals of Catholic history forever. MJG

Acknowledgement: we are thankful to Andrew Graham-Yooll, editor-in-chief of The Buenos Aires Herald, for the permission to republish this article.



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