When Women Preach The Passion of Jesus:
Passionist Sisters in the United States, 1924 - 1994
by Mary Ann Strain, C.P.
In February of 1924 four Sisters of the Cross and Passion boarded the Cunard liner Berengaria at Southampton, England and embarked on a journey. These women, Mother Gonzaga McCunnin and Sisters Louis Myers, Pius Rudden and Dionysius Fitzpatrick, were each shaped and formed by their experiences of life so far, by their national origin, by their times. Mother Gonzaga, the Superior of the group, was born in Dublin in 1859. She had held the office of Provincial and was "an experienced 'founder' of new convents in the Old Country, and a woman of deep faith, joyous spirit and tremendous initiative." Sister Louis was a pre-primary teacher who was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1860. Sister Pius, born in Laraha, County Cavan, Ireland in 1884, had been Vice-Mistress of Novices at the Motherhouse in Bolton, England and had nursed Rev. Mother Aloysius Stanley, a former Superior General, in her last illness. Sister Dionysius, the youngest of the four, was a cook. She was born in 1898 in Downpatrick, County Down, Ireland.
In the years that followed, other women, mostly from Ireland, followed the original four to the United States. Until the 1950s they established new foundations only in Rhode Island. Beginning in the 1930s they were joined by American women. The Americans, too, were products of their times and cultures. Together these women formed a community of Passionist Sisters in the United States. Over the years they created something new. They created a feminine, American expression of Passionist life.
Last year I was asked by Sister Eileen Fucito, my Provincial, to write a history of my North American Province of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, and so I, a woman who is also a product of her time and culture and life experience, have begun a journey of my own. I am a Passionist Sister and a member of our North American Province. I was born in Springfield, MA, in 1956 and grew up there and in Narragansett, RI. I was professed in 1979. I have an undergraduate degree in history and a master's in religious studies. Since my profession I have ministered as a teacher and retreat director. This project is one of the most challenging I have ever taken on. Part of the challenge comes with the knowledge that in writing the chronicle of my community here in the United States, I am giving shape to a history that has shaped and formed me. I am part of the story that I write. The other part of the challenge is not purely personal. In order for the history of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion in North America to be written, I need the assistance of the entire Passionist Congregation. I did not personally witness much of what I must write about, so I rely on the willingness of others to share their stories with me.
I have spent a good deal of time during the past year doing research. This has consisted of going through the house records of our earliest foundations in this country. St. Gabriel's Hostel (1924) in Providence, RI, was our first American foundation. St. Gabriel's was a residence for working girls. The Passionist Sisters operated several facilities of this type in England. William A. Hickey, Bishop of Providence, purchased the house and invited the Sisters to his diocese for the purpose of staffing it. The Assumption (1926), our second foundation, also in Providence, RI, was a parish school and convent. Mt. St. Joseph in Bristol, RI, (1932) was established as the American novitiate. My research has also included reading the surviving letters of Mother Gonzaga to her friend Rev. Mother Gerard Dunn, Superior General of the Congregation, at the Motherhouse in Bolton, England, from 1924-1926, about her experiences in this new country. I have also read what we possess of her correspondence with Father Stanislaus Grennan, Passionist Provincial, written during the same period, as well as with others. My research has led me to spend hours reading the files of our deceased Sisters coming to know something of who these "pioneers" were and where they came from. Finally, I have listened to stories, some while conducting "official" taped interviews, other times, informally, just sharing a cup of tea or something stronger and talking about old times.