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OUR HISTORY: The American Parish

The Paulists and Santa Susanna

In January 1921 the Superior General of the Paulist Fathers, Thomas Burke together with his Consultor, Joseph McSorley, arrived in Rome and met in audience with Pope Benedict XV. Father Burke had come to seek formal Roman recognition of the Paulist Fathers. Founded in New York City in 1858, with the approval of Pope Pius IX, the order was recognized only in the United States and was under the supervision of the Archbishop of New York. Membership in the Paulists had grown to such an extent by the First World War, that the time seemed right to seek formal approval from Rome. This was initially granted by Pope Pius XI in 1929, and formally approved by Pope Pius XII in 1940.

When the Paulists came to Rome in 1921, they wanted, like many other religious orders, to establish a "Procura" or formal residence and appoint a Procurator General, who would represent them to the Holy See. They were also interested in acquiring a church. Rome had a growing American community which might form the basis for a parish. While visiting the American Embassy which was located on Via Venti Settembre, Burke and McSorley noticed the church of Santa Susanna that sat next door. (Today the Largo S. Susanna stands in the place of the old embassy building). The church adjoined a three hundred year old convent of Cistercian sisters. Rarely opened to the public, the church had been without a titular cardinal for a number of years.

Rev. Thomas Burke, CSP

To the Paulists, the church seemed perfectly located. The area between the Porta Pia and the Quirinale Palace had been extensively developed after Rome became the capital of Italy in 1871. The church now sat among a number of government ministries and apartment buildings. What was most attractive to the Paulists was that the church adjoined the embassy, and was near both The Grand Hotel and the railroad station.

Returning to America, Father Burke appointed Father Thomas Lantry O'Neill, then chaplain at the University of California at Berkeley, as the first Procurator General of the Paulists. Burke also named Father Lewis O'Hern as O'Neill's assistant. O'Hern had coordinated the appointment of priests as chaplains during the First World War and by 1921 was ready for a new assignment. O'Neill and O'Hern arrived in Rome in the Spring of 1921 and found a small apartment on the Via Aurora to serve as their "Procura."

Father Thomas Burke had not forgotten about Church of Santa Susanna after his return to America. His brother was also a Paulist, Father John J. Burke, the first General Secretary of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, an organization that coordinated the work of the American bishops on a national level. A discussion between the two brothers led Father John Burke to speak with President Warren Harding. When the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Giovanni Bonzano, paid a call at the White House in June 1921, he was surprised to hear President Harding express a desire for an American church in Rome. The president specifically mentioned the Church of Santa Susanna. Bonzano wrote Cardinal Gasparri, the Vatican Secretary of State and recommended that the Americans be given the church as a gesture that would bring about much good will.

President Harding also asked his Ambassador to Italy, Richard Washburn Childs, to do whatever he could to encourage the acquisition of Santa Susanna. There was a problem as Santa Susanna had no Titular Cardinal. Under the laws of the Kingdom of Italy, the Titular owned the church. To assure that the possession of the church and monastery remained under the control of the church, the Vatican appointed Cardinal Oreste Giorgi as "Acting Titular." This was in addition to his own church. Because this was a temporary situation, neither Cardinal Giorgi, nor the Vicar of Rome, Cardinal Pompili wanted to make any changes that involved the use of the church. By the end of 1921 however, Pope Benedict XV authorized the Paulists to use the Church of Santa Susanna for the purpose of creating a national church for American Catholics in Rome.

Father O'Neill took possession of the church on January 1, 1922, receiving the keys to the front door from the Cistercian sisters. The actual document, from the Vicariate of Rome, authorizing the Paulists to begin a sacred ministry to Americans at Santa Susanna did not arrive until January 10, 1922. The Cistercian sisters also gave O'Neill the keys to the building to the right of the church, where he created a library and office space for the American community. The new rector set out to find a carpenter in Rome who could build pews, an American tradition that made the church quite an oddity during the 1920s. Traditionally Roman churches stored wicker chairs and the sacristan rented them to parishioners on Sunday morning. He also built a winter wall with doors, immediately inside the main doorway of the church. This replaced the older Roman custom of using large pieces of heavy leather which blocked the wind. Finally he added an electric light system, the first of its kind in Rome. He had wires hung from the walls in order to light the church in American style. As Roman churches were lit only by candlelight, this caused quite a controversy. The lights were ordered to be removed, until a guided tour of the new system changed everyone's mind. It was O'Neill's lighting system that was used until this year, when a new system was mandated by code.

The American community held their first public Mass in the church on February 26, 1922. The mass was postponed twice. The original date was set for January 29th, but on January 22nd, Pope Benedict XV died at the age of 68. The pope's health had been quite fragile, and he had caught pneumonia, standing outside in the cold on New Year s Day. The events of his funeral and the Conclave that elected his successor, Pope Pius XI on February 6th, brought everything in Rome to a halt.

Rev. Thomas J. Lantry O'Neill, CSP

William Cardinal O'Connell, the Archbishop of Boston, had arrived in Rome and was for a second time, too late to enter the Conclave. There was a rule that the Papal Conclave must begin within 10 days of the pope’s death. This made it impossible for cardinals who had to travel great distances to get to Rome. With the exception of O'Connell, no American cardinal had ever attempted the trip. The cardinal complained so strongly to the new pope, that the rule was changed. Some 17 years later he and four other American cardinals attended their first Conclave which elected Pope Pius XII.

A second date for the opening Mass was set for February 12th. But a story in Il Messagero incorrectly stated that the new pope had "given" the church to the American community, rather than simply authorizing its use. Possession actually belonged to the Titular Cardinal who had always been an Italian. There was an outcry in the Chamber of Deputies that a national treasure had been lost to the Americans. A representative of the Ministry of Worship stated that no money would be given to the church in the future, as the Paulists were foreigners. The outcry delayed the opening ceremonies for two more weeks. Finally on February 26, 1922, the first Sunday Mass was celebrated for the American community. Cardinal O'Connell who was still in Rome, presided and the choir of the North American College sang. Ambassador Childs and Consul General Keane, who were not Catholics, attended together with much of the English speaking community. The church remained open throughout the day for the first time in many years. Thousands of Italians, among whom were many of the noble families of Rome, came by to visit the church and to see the frescoes. The presence of Cardinal O'Connell at the opening Mass began a long and rich relationship between Santa Susanna and the Archdiocese of Boston. The Cardinal regularly celebrated and preached at Santa Susanna during his official visits to Rome, as did Cardinal Hayes of New York. In 1925, in the midst of the Jubilee Year, all of the American Cardinals, O’Connell, Dougherty, Hayes and Mundelien, along with much of the American hierarchy visited the American church and celebrated the liturgy with their respective pilgrimage groups. In 1946, Cardinal Edward Mooney, the first Archbishop of Detroit, became the first American Titular Cardinal of Santa Susanna. He succeeded Cardinal Arthur Hinsley, the Archbishop of Westminster, who was the first English-speaking Titular Cardinal. Both men had previously served as seminary rectors in Rome and had often preached and celebrated Mass at Santa Susanna in the 1920s. Both felt at home as Titular Cardinals. Richard Cushing, succeeded O'Connell as Archbishop of Boston, and in 1958 was created Titular Cardinal of Santa Susanna. His successors, Cardinal Medieros and Cardinal Law have received the same title. The relationship between the Archdiocese of Boston has continued to develop over the last 75 years of the American community.

The first two years of the new parish were quite difficult. On October 26, 1922 the leader of Italy's Fascists, Benito Mussolini whose party held only 32 of the 500 seats in Parliament, ordered his followers to march from Naples to Rome. The crisis was resolved on October 30, when King Victor Emmanuel III invited Mussolini to form a new government as prime minister. In 1923 there was an attempt on Il Duce’s life. The would-be assassin was a Scottish woman who often attended Mass at Santa Susanna. This led to an investigation by the Foreign Ministry and after several months, the American community was cleared of any complicity in the act. The Romanian Ambassador also began a campaign to try and remove the American community from the church in late 1922. Negotiations to establish a Concordat between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Romania were in process, and the church of Santa Susanna had been verbally promised as a site for a Romanian National Church.

The Romanian Ambassador was not satisfied with the presence of the American community, and he continually complained throughout the year to Cardinal Gasparri, the Secretary of State. Gasparri suggested to the Paulists that they move and that the American bishops purchase a German Lutheran Church on the Via Toscana, which had closed after the First World War. O’Neill remained adamant. He not only refused to consider any kind of a move but he even refused to meet with Cardinal Gasparri. The situation became so heated by 1923, that the Romanian ambassador appeared at the church with his personal guard and attempted to evict the Paulists.

A resolution finally occurred when in a Consistory of the College of Cardinals in December 1924, Cardinal Giovanni Bonzano, asked to transfer his "title" from the Church of San Vitale on the Via Nazionale to Santa Susanna. Pope Pius XI granted the request, and in January 1925 he took formal possession. Bonzano had been Apostolic Delegate to the United States, and he wanted to assist the young American community in Rome. Now the legal owner of both the church and the monastery, Bonzano formally installed Father O'Neill as his rector. While the cardinal unexpectedly died in 1927, his two years as titular finally ended all debate over the use of the church. Santa Susanna had become the American National Church in Rome.