BLOOMFIELD – When a high-ranking Vatican official visits a community, heads turn. When that official later becomes pope, pages turn.
Seventy-five years ago this month, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli became the first papal secretary of state to visit the United States, and his 8,000-mile, 30-day tour of the country included Connecticut. Wearing his black ermine cape, red zucchetto and black cassock, the tall, slim, 60-year-old cardinal inspired awe and respect wherever he traveled.
He was the guest of Hartford-born Genevieve Garvan Brady of Long Island, a papal benefactor. During his visit, Cardinal Pacelli may have quietly changed the course of U.S.-Vatican relations for the better, in ways that did not immediately become evident.
In Hartford’s Catholic Legacy: Leadership (Archdiocese of Hartford, 1999), Sister of Mercy Dolores Liptak writes: "His stopovers in Connecticut, including the cathedral, St. Joseph College, Mount St. Joseph Academy, and St. Thomas Seminary, were to take on even greater significance when, just three years after his visit, he ascended to the papacy as Pope Pius XII" (309).
But why was he in America?
The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Republican Alf Landon was challenging Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a hard-fought campaign focusing on New Deal policies. Father Charles E. Coughlin of Michigan was scandalizing Americans with anti-Semitic radio rants that also criticized FDR’s policies as "communistic."
The Catholic Transcript
noted in an editorial on Oct. 8, the day the cardinal arrived in New York on the liner Conte di Savoia, that rumors that he was here for a specific papal agenda were wrong. "Were it in order to correct Father Coughlin and his Bishop, the official and accredited representative of His Holiness would be ordered to do the job," the Transcript editorial stated. "That’s his business, and no outsider, however eminent, will be called upon to do the work, unpleasant though it may be."
By coincidence – or not – Cardinal Pacelli visited Boston at the same time as Father Coughlin did. The Transcript editorial predicted that "Cardinal Pacelli will leave Father Coughlin alone." But did he? On Nov. 8, 1936, two days after the cardinal met with newly re-elected President Roosevelt at FDR’s Hyde Park, N.Y., home – and a day after the cardinal’s departure for Italy – Father Coughlin announced that he was making his final broadcast. In fact, it was not, but the announcement aroused suspicion. That meeting between FDR and the cardinal has remained secret, and reporters at a press conference afterward were discouraged from asking the cardinal questions about Father Coughlin. Years later, Father Coughlin admitted he had been "silenced."
U.S. Catholic Historian
(Spring 2006) observed that Cardinal Pacelli came also to consult with Catholic leaders, to strengthen United States-Vatican ties and to find ways to enlist U.S. help in curtailing the spread of communism.
Cardinal Pacelli was accompanied on his Oct. 13 motor trip from Long Island to Boston by Boston Auxiliary Bishop Francis J. Spellman. His first stop in Connecticut was at the Supreme Headquarters of the Knights of Columbus in New Haven. He then traveled to Hartford and visited St. Joseph Cathedral and praised its Gothic architecture, according to a Transcript editorial of Oct. 15, 1936, "The Cardinal’s Visit." Hartford Bishop Maurice F. McAuliffe then joined him in his visit to the former Mount St. Joseph Academy in West Hartford, now the site of Atria Hamilton Heights, a senior living facility.
"There he inspected the beautiful chapel, addressed the student body in the main hall, and gave his blessing," the Transcript reported on Oct. 15. "In the course of his remarks he asked the academy students if their courses were difficult. Receiving a unanimous affirmative, he successfully begged the favor of a holiday for his auditors from the academy superiors."
He then traveled a mile to St. Joseph College in West Hartford, where he had lunch with the college’s head, Mother Angeline Garvan, sister of his host, Genevieve Brady. The cardinal was welcomed at Mercy Hall, then one of only two buildings on the brand-new campus on Asylum Avenue, and was greeted by students speaking to him in five different languages.
According to the college’s student newspaper The Targe of Oct. 19, 1936, Cardinal Pacelli praised the students for their language proficiency and said, "I am very happy to visit this country of America and this great college, and to meet the bishop of Hartford, and the good and zealous priests and Mother M. Angeline, sister of Mrs. Nicolas Brady."
The cardinal proclaimed a holiday for the students and sisters and then extended a papal blessing. As he walked with the papal legate to his car, students lined both sides of the sidewalk and applauded, the Targe reported. Before entering his car, he turned to address the group once more.
"I have changed my mind," he said. "I will give two holidays instead of one."
Cardinal Pacelli then traveled to St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield. "He was welcomed by the faculty, headed by the Rev. Henry O’Brien, president [later bishop and archbishop], and by the students for whom he obtained a holiday," the Transcript reported in its main article. He visited its chapel and stated that it was "exquisite and inspiring," the Oct. 15 Transcript editorial said.
"With bewitching humor he challenged his most reverend guide [Bishop Spellman] to show him anything in the Bay State that could parallel what he had seen in Hartford," the Oct. 15 Transcript editorial stated.
The U.S. Catholic Historian notes that the 1936 visit to America sowed the seeds for future changes. In 1937, the American bishops launched a campaign opposing communism’s infiltration in American social and political arenas. In December 1939, months after Cardinal Pacelli became pope, President Roosevelt reinstated Vatican ties, naming Myron C. Taylor the first "Personal Representative" to the Vatican. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan expanded this post, making William Wilson the first U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, a post held today by Dr. Miguel Diaz.
Thanks to Sisters of Mercy Dolores Liptak and Eleanor Little; St. Joseph College archivist Diana Barnard; Archbishop O’Brien Library director Karen Lesiak; Father Francis T. Kerwan; and Maria Medina, archivist of the Hartford Archdiocese.