Saint Benedict Center History

Index

All who profess the Catholic faith and are incorporated in the Mystical Body of Christ by baptism share in the apostolic life of the Church. Throughout history the light of the Gospel has shone forth anew to a world in continual need of enlightenment. In each generation, devoted men and women as disciples of Christ, have faithfully responded to the call of evangelization. The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, inspired by zeal for the salvation of souls and the spread of the Catholic faith, began their own unique response to the needs of evangelization in the 20th Century – and their work continues to the present.  

The Beginning: A Student Center

Saint Benedict Center was established to provide religious instruction for the Catholic students attending non-Catholic universities in the greater Boston area. It was founded in 1940 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a devout Catholic woman, Catherine Goddard Clarke, with several lay collaborators.

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At first, they were not sure what form their work would take but they knew there was dire need for a Catholic library and a meeting place for informal gatherings. They also saw the potential good that such a center could provide for non-Catholic students interested in learning more about Church teachings. They chose the intersection of Bow and Arrow Streets, directly across from Saint Paul’s Church and only a block from Harvard University, for their location. 

With tentative approval from the pastor of Saint Paul’s, Saint Benedict Center first opened its doors to twelve Harvard boys for a weekly study and discussion session. Other students expressed interest and the program was expanded to include Church philosophy and Latin classes several times a week. Attendance grew during the academic year and in the fall of 1941 the Harvard Catholic Club was granted permission to have its meetings at the Center on Thursday evenings. Catholic girls from Radcliffe College, a woman’s annex to Harvard, also began attending sessions at this time. The Center’s work was blossoming beyond expectations. To reach its full potential, however, it lacked an essential element – a priest willing to devote his time to this important work.


Renowned Spiritual Director Arrives

In 1942, the well-known and loved Jesuit, Father Leonard Feeney, became associated with the work of the Center. At forty-five, Father Feeney was already famous as a great poet and writer. Almost every English textbook used in the thriving parochial schools of the time contained his poems and stories. He brought to the Center the fruits of his scholarship, many years of study in the U.S. and abroad. As a master story-teller with a great sense of humor, he filled his listeners with joy. Most importantly were the spiritual riches he shared – real holiness, priestly zeal, deep devotion to Our Lady and an extraordinary gift as a spiritual director. 

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Father Feeney made a deep and lasting impression on all who frequented the Center. Here was the highly acclaimed author of numerous books and the dynamic speaker heard on NBC’s radio program, “Catholic Hour,” humbly going about his priestly work with young students. With Father’s spiritual direction, many boys and girls discerned the call to the priesthood and to religious life. At this time also, he began to receive a steadily growing number of converts into the Church. One of the Center's most renowned members was a convert and godson of Catherine Clarke, Avery Cardinal Dulles, son of John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower. Reminiscing about the “early days” he remarked, “Life at the Center had an indelible effect on all the associates. Before long 100 members of the Center had accepted vocations to the religious life…and at least 200 became converts to the Faith.”

While teaching at the Jesuit seminary in Weston, Father Feeney found time to visit Cambridge, at first several times a week, but eventually, because of so many appointments, every day. Whether counseling, lecturing, or simply holding conversation his love of Sacred Scripture and the depths of his theological insight were self-evident. His provincial superior, Father John McEleney, later to become Archbishop of Jamaica, once referred to him as, “the greatest theologian we have in the United States, by far.”  Catherine Clarke and her associates, therefore, were most grateful when Father Feeney was officially assigned as spiritual director of Saint Benedict Center by his superiors and the Archdiocesan authorities.


  Politics of Liberalism

Years passed and under Father Feeney’s guidance the influence of Saint Benedict Center at Harvard and other colleges continued to grow. After World War II, the work of the Center became all the more intense, all the more necessary. The Godless thinking that had given rise to Fascism and Communism was alive and well not only in Russia and other European nations, but in America as well as. It was flourishing right down the street from the Center at Harvard and the other universities in the area where the doctrines of atheism inspired by Marx, Darwin, Freud, and company reigned supreme. The morbid and destructive effects of touting this non-sense shocked the Center associates – many reports came to them of some students losing their faith and of others committing suicide. To do their part in combating these great evils, Father Feeney and all at the Center were determined to give the clear, uncompromising message of truth revealed in Sacred Scripture, preserved by the Church’s tradition and proclaimed infallibly by the teaching authority of the Church. It was with this intention that they began publishing, in September 1946, the periodical, From the Housetops, with the approval and blessing of Archbishop Cushing. 

Inevitably conflict began to develop on several fronts. The first was Harvard where a number of students who were associated with the Center began to defend the Faith and to challenge any teaching contrary to it. Some, especially those from influential families who had converted to Catholicism through the Center, went so far as to withdraw from Harvard and other academic institutions, to protest the anti-Catholic bias taught there. The resignations predictably caused no little upset, both to the universities and to the students’ families. 

fathebookThe Center soon began to encounter opposition from where it was least expected. Auxiliary Bishop John Wright informed Father Feeney that there were complaints against Saint Benedict Center – issues involving, first, the students who left their colleges, and second, certain articles in From the Housetops that supported the teaching “outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation.”  

Was their teaching on salvation erroneous? No, they were told, but they had said something controversial. The fact that Father Feeney’s strong message was the very reason so many converts had come into the Church was of no consequence in the events that followed. Harvard elites, among them liberal Catholics embarrassed by the Center’s forthright teaching, apparently had little difficulty convincing Archbishop Cushing and the Jesuit provincial that something had to be done about the disturbance caused by Father Feeney and Saint Benedict Center. Measures for restoring peaceful co-existence were deemed necessary - Father Feeney had to go. Expediency would triumph over truth and justice. 

It should be noted here that having fulfilled the requirements for accreditation, the Saint Benedict Center School was by this time offering college credits in several liberal arts disciplines, especially the classics. The number of students disenchanted with the secular schools and now enrolled at the Center was steadily increasing.   

Just days before the start of classes for Fall of 1948, without warning or a hearing, Father Feeney received a letter in which he was informed by his superior that he was relieved of his duties at Saint Benedict Center. This was shocking news to Father and to all his associates at the Center. He had been already officially assigned to the Center for the coming year and now suddenly, and it seemed arbitrarily, was being reassigned. In a subsequent meeting with his superior, he was told the decision could not be appealed because it had come down from “higher authorities” - no doubt from the Archdiocese. When he asked what it was they objected to, he was told, “Your doctrine.”  “My doctrine about what?” was the pertinent question his superior and others up the chain of command refused to answer. Catherine Clarke was denied a meeting with the superior and had recourse to a letter in which she reminded him that Father was conscience–bound to fulfill his commitments to the Center for the academic year. She received no reply to the letter. 

If Father Feeney had gone astray, were he in error concerning doctrine, certainly he should have been corrected and given a hearing. Were Leonard Feeney and the publishers of From the Housetops out of line for upholding traditional Catholic teaching on salvation?  Were they expecting too much by placing their confidence in their superiors for the answer to such an important question?  Apparently their only crime was having said something controversial. 

Lost in the decision to remove Father Feeney was the essence of Catholic authority and obedience. All authority has its source and model in God – a loving Father. Clearly, in refusing to even discuss the reasons for such serious reprisals, a bishop or other superior abuses his authority. The main issue was the infallibly defined teaching on salvation – Father Feeney was being sent from Boston for “his doctrine”. With much prayerful consideration, and doctrine in the balance, Father Feeney and all his associates at the Center agreed that doctrinal truth must take precedence over discipline. Confident that he would eventually get a hearing on the salvation issue, Father Feeney chose to delay compliance to a command calculated to give the impression that he, or anyone else, could be punished for professing the truth. 

Both his adherence to an infallibly defined doctrine and the authority of canon law undoubtedly protected Father Feeney and those associated with his work. As things developed and it became clear that discipline to the exclusion of orthodoxy was the policy of their superiors, they prepared to suffer the consequences. And suffer they did.


While Boston College’s theology department was taking issue with the literal teaching on salvation in From the Housetops not a word was said about the egregious heresy taught by the faculty on its own campus. One Jesuit priest at BC, for example, informed his class that if anyone says there is no salvation outside the Church, he is a heretic and cannot save his soul. Students who had left the secular schools and had enrolled in BC were justifiably scandalized. They were expecting the truth but they found themselves submerged in the vague, totally compromising message of Liberalism. When faculty members at BC, who were also associates of Saint Benedict Center, protested to the Jesuit authorities the blatant heresy taught there, they were summarily fired for “bigotry and intolerance”. For publicly defending the ousted teachers, Father Feeney was silenced and the Center closed.  

Father Feeney’s attempts to defend himself and the Center were not successful. In his letters to the American Assistant to the General of the Society of Jesus, and later to the General, John Baptist Janssens, S.J., his appeals to the clearing of the doctrinal difficulty were brushed aside as inconsequential. Again and again he affirmed his willingness to be tried. In a letter to the Superior General he states, “I am perfectly willing to appear before an impartial court in order to defend myself against the false accusations of my adversaries, if my judges do not persistently try to ignore the doctrinal controversy, for it is the basis of my so-called “disobedience” and the cause of everything that has taken place since last September…”

That due process –theright of a professed priest to plead his cause before an impartial judge in the Society of Jesus – should be denied Father Feeney was unconscionable. That he should be expelled from his congregation for protesting this injustice is incomprehensible. 

In October 1952, Father Feeney was summoned to Rome by the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office for a hearing. Again, he expressed his willingness to comply, in this case, when an accusation against him could be produced. Unless named a defendant in some breach of canon law, Father Feeney was not bound to appear in any judicial process. In February of 1953 - without ever knowing that he had been a party in litigation - he received word from the secular press that he had been excommunicated– for “disobedience.”  His appeal to Rome protesting this sentence and proving its invalidity received no response. 

In her book “The Loyolas and the Cabots”, Catherine Clarke assures her readers that retelling this story is no mere “bitter statement of wrongs”. It is a portrayal of a decline in the Faith caused by Liberalism – a denial of the authoritative teaching of the Church inspired by Protestantism and later Modernism. Liberalism reduces the foundation of Divine Revelation and the infallible teaching of the Church to an evolving, personal religious experience. In this case, the divinely revealed, infallibly taught and unchanging doctrine on salvation was too controversial for modern pluralism and was thus deemed no longer valid for the times. 

Rome’s response to the salvation question, a letter to Archbishop Cushing from the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, failed to address Father Feeney’s contention that dogmas are to be understood by the very words used in defining them and not in re-interpretation that destroys the original meaning. If this doctrine can be so “re-conceptualized” as to lose its literal meaning, what is there to prevent other doctrines from suffering the same fate?  Limiting this account to the historical facts, we will offer more on the theological controversy in another article. 

The unrelenting condemnation of Father Feeney in the media invariably portrayed him as a disobedient renegade. Catholic and secular press coverage of the story spread the utterly false claim that Father Feeney was excommunicated “for teaching outside the Catholic Church there is no salvation.”  In the face of such slander, and having exhausted every recourse to their superiors, those duty-bound to be the guardians of the Faith - Leonard Feeney, and those who espoused his cause, had only one last option – to remain faithful.  


Standing Strong

Over 100 members bound together to continue their work, a doctrinal crusade.  The date of this important development was January 17, 1949. They chose Saint Louis Marie de Montfort’s total consecration to Our Lady from his treatise True Devotion to Mary as their pledge of fidelity. The words of the co-foundress, Catherine Goddard Clarke explained the reason for this common dedication: “We were beginning to realize the character of the battle before us,” wrote Sister Catherine, “not only for the preservation of the sacred dogmas of the Church, but actually for their restoration. It was to prepare ourselves by prayer and discipline, and to secure graces enough to enable us to face such a battle, that we became a Religious Order.”  

The Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary continued as an unofficial Catholic entity in exile. With fearless determination they defended the faith, even bringing their campaign to an open forum by preaching on the Boston Common. Crowds gathered in the park every Sunday afternoon to listen to Father Feeney preach. The enemies of the Church of every description who are the most strident advocates of “free speech” attempted to disrupt the talks with blasphemous taunts and insults – even spitting on him and his followers. The same indignities were also heaped on the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe the Brothers carried in procession to the Common. Having persevered in their courageous witness to the faith in Boston for over seven years, they turned their attention to other works of apostolic life.


Move to the Country

In January of 1958, the community moved from Cambridge, ironically, to the town of Harvard. They acquired a 300-year-old farm on a beautiful tract of land overlooking the Nashoba Valley where they settled down to a semi-monastic life with private vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Dairy farming and gardening helped support the community. They also received income from publishing devotional books which they distributed nation-wide.

Ten years later Sister Catherine Clarke died. The co-foundress had been a constant source of edification and inspiration to the community. As an able administrator she helped co-ordinate the various projects of the apostolate and contributed in many ways a unifying influence. With her passing and Father Feeney now 70 and in weak health, the community began to fragment.

Disagreements between those devoted to the apostolic life are nothing new. Saints Paul and Barnabus went their separate ways and there are numerous branches of many religious orders, for example the Franciscans. Within a complexity of issues that divided the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary one of the most important was what should be done to rectify the injustice of Father Feeney’s “excommunication”. It was assumed that any course of action to resolve the case would be initiated by Father in unanimity with the community. Unknown to the founder, however, several Brothers representing a majority of the members initiated negotiations with the hierarchy in the summer of 1971. Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, the successor to Richard Cushing in Boston, became the principle agent for a “reconciliation.”  The negotiations remained a secret, unknown to Father Feeney and the rest of the community, because they would have strongly objected to any need for “reconciliation” since it implied the validity of the censures, i.e., that there was a need for Father Feeney to be “brought back into full communion” with the Church. Father had officially appealed the excommunication and had never thought himself to be outside the Church. That claim would have to be dropped, by default, if the reconciliation were not in fact also a vindication of the beleaguered priest. 

A reconciliation approved by Rome was completed in 1972. In a regular Tuesday evening lecture at the Center with auxiliary bishop Lawrence Riley from Boston, Father Feeney and everyone present recited the Athanasian Creed. Unknown to Father, this profession of faith was accepted as a submission to Church authority. The reciting of the Athanasian Creed was significant for it begins, “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic faith which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled without doubt he shall perish everlastingly…” This is the very teaching Father Feeney had supposedly misinterpreted and, as some claimed, for which he was put out of the Church. Whatever else might be said about the reconciliation, the champion of the dogma “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus” remained ever faithful to his own cause. 

The original community split into several groups at this time. A majority opted to form men’s and women’s Benedictine communities. In doing so they espoused the liturgical changes of Vatican II and chose contemplative life rather than the active apostolate of the original foundation. To all appearances, Father Feeney’s crusade for orthodoxy was on the verge of coming to an abrupt end. 


Divisions: Our Re-founding

The impasse that separated the original community was formalized by a legal division of property among three groups, the Benedictines, the Sisters of Saint Ann's House and our community. It was at this time that our re-founding took place – with Father Feeney’s blessing – under Brother Hugh MacIsaac. The smallest parcel of land was allotted to us on which a house was established for the Brothers under Brother Hugh and one for the Sisters under Sister Marie Louise. 

Overcoming great obstacles, Brother Hugh did everything in his power to perpetuate the original charism and apostolic work of the community. In 1976, he began to republish From the Housetops magazine, keeping the initial evangelizing spirit of the Center alive. The impressive leadership and spiritual guidance of Brother Hugh was monumental and about 10 new members joined that same year. The community was able to acquire property close-by where our chapel was built and Immaculate Heart of Mary School was started. 

Father Feeney remained in residence with the Benedictines during his last years. Having fought the good fight, the deeply revered and loved defender of the faith died on January 30, 1978. The same year Brother Hugh was diagnosed with terminal cancer and on July 11, 1979, he was called home to God, after having set in motion in three short years, a foundation and spirit that reflected the charism of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Brother Thomas Augustine Dalton was then elected the superior to succeed Brother Hugh.

Contested Authority

Unfortunately, three years after the election of Brother Thomas Augustine as the new superior, some of the older members contested his authority and asked him to step down. Voting members of the community were consulted, as he was willing to relinquish his position for the sake of peace. But the voting members re-affirmed their choice. Brother Francis Maluf, an original member of Saint Benedict Center, then initiated a civil law suit to acquire superiorship. The court action lasted five humiliating years, ending in a negative verdict for Brother Francis, who subsequently left with four followers and established a community in New Hampshire.


Broadening Horizons

A new era began for us. Supported by the graces of the Traditional Latin Mass and deep spirituality of Saint Louis de Montfort’s True Devotion to Mary, our apostolate began to flourish. Families seeking the reverence of the traditional liturgy continued to find their way to Immaculate Heart of Mary Chapel in increasing numbers where two daily Masses and three on Sunday are offered to accommodate them. Immaculate Heart of Mary School, grades 1 to 12, was enlarged and filled to capacity. The From the Housetops publication, produced in our own state-of-the-art print shop, is circulated to an ever-increasing number of subscribers throughout the country and abroad. Through the generosity of benefactors, the Center has grown from a small parcel of land with three buildings to a complex of more than 20 acres and 11 buildings. After years of renting facilities for our 30-year-old summer camp apostolate, we acquired 200 acres of waterfront property in Washington, New Hampshire where the Brothers and friends built Montfort Retreat. With its 15 cabins, a large dining hall and pavilion, lodge and impressive chapel, Montfort is used for the summer youth programs as well as adult retreats and days of recollection.

Steps toward recognition of the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Diocese of Worcester have also advanced. In 2002, then Bishop Daniel Reilly came to the Center and after a ceremony in the chapel where the community recited and signed a copy of the Creed, he gave his formal blessing for our “regularization” – meaning, the Slaves are Catholics in good standing.

On October 27, 2017, Most Reverend Robert J. McManus, Bishop Reilly’s successor issued a decree giving us canonical juridical status, raising our community to a Public Association of the Faithful. This was our single prayer intention from the beginning of the year—the Centennial of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima. 

To Jesus through Mary

The Divine command to “teach all nations” is all the more necessary in this 21st Century of relentless dissent and apostasy. By total dependence on Our Lady’s intercession, the Brothers and Sisters – with the priests who devotedly assist us – continue the work begun by Father Feeney. “Ever responsive to the needs of the Church,” our Constitutions state, “the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary shall devote themselves to any facet of the apostolic life necessary for the preservation and propagation of the Catholic faith.”  We seek no other glory than contributing our share to strengthening the Mystical Body by a constant and uncompromising profession of all the truths the Catholic Church believes and professes. 

Our spirituality of consecration to Mary is and always will be the foundation of our spiritual lives and apostolates. It is exciting to see the spirit of slavery to Mary spreading through the wide distribution of our "Manual for Total Consecration" and the conferences we present. It is an honor to live out our lives in holy slavery doing all and giving all by, with, for and in Jesus through Mary! We pray that many who are discerning a religious vocation may offer themselves to serve our Heavenly Queen for the salvation of souls and the triumph of Her Immaculate Heart.

All for Jesus through Mary!