Thursday, May 21, 2015

Fr. Bresnahan, Part II

screen grab of vintage newspaper page
Detail of the Feb. 20, 1908 edition that included an article
about a card received from Fr. Bresnahan
Back in March, I wrote about Father Patrick J. Bresnahan's memoir, which recounts his travels through Catholic mission territory in early 1900s Florida. Just yesterday, I stumbled across two other mentions of Fr. Bresnahan's efforts. They were articles in two newspapers in Madison, a North Florida town cited in the priest's memoir as having more than its share of bigotry and prejudice against Catholics.

The first was in the Feb. 20, 1908 New Enterprise and concerned a card the newspaper received from Fr. Bresnahan. Being a former print journalist, I know that story placement in a newspaper isn't random. So I noticed the editors put the article about Fr. Bresnahan directly below a story that described how "an unknown negro was shot to death by a posse who were chasing him" because he was a habitual thief.

Fr. Bresnahan's article seems to chastise unknown harassers for disliking how people of color were allowed to worship in the Catholic church along with whites. This was during segregation, and I assume the two races sat in separate parts of the church. In keeping with the times, the priest used the word negro in his card.

To the newspaper's credit, it allowed Fr. Bresnahan's voice to be heard. The story appears to recount the priest's card verbatim. He wrote "for the benefit of the individual who penned the anonymous threat found at the door of the Catholic church last week ..."

The unnamed threat wasn't explained, and wasn't carried out. However, Fr. Bresnahan wanted the individual responsible to know that a Catholic priest "is not the hired minion of any social aggregation."  Likewise, a Catholic church was "not a social club meeting house but a temple of God." Everyone was welcome to hear the word of God and have the mysteries of God dispensed to them. "Every human soul has a right to these blessings, no matter what color its habitation may be." You rock, Fr. Bresnahan.

He goes on to write that he wasn't a politician, that all money he received in Madison went toward the local Catholic presence, and that he wasn't trying to make a white man colored or a colored man white. He bore his anonymous "friend" no malice "as life is too short for such nonsense." But he also noted that his mission was to appeal to man's higher nature, and that if the unnamed individual ever visited the Catholic church, he shouldn't be surprised "to see a place reserved for the colored people."

Townsfolk overall seem to have been receptive. Nine months later, Fr Bresnahan's missionary services were drawing crowds, as the Enterprise-Recorder reported Nov. 5, 1908. The beautiful music was cited as one reason. But, overall, the "people of Madison are beginning to know for themselves what the Catholic church really is, and the prejudice is therefore disappearing." It was predicted that by the end of services, everyone would understand that there was "one Truth, one Faith, one Baptism...," that Christ wasn't divided.

It's hard to say how deeply inroads were made. Fr. Bresnahan was preaching in the heart of Bible Belt Protestantism. I admire the priest's initiatives, and think we might consider emulating some of the talks he lined up for the week:

  • Thursday, church rules and Confession; 
  • Friday, the rosary and praying for the dead; 
  • Saturday, devotion to the Blessed Virgin; 
  • Sunday morning, necessity of charity; 
  • Sunday afternoon, the threatening evil of socialism;  
  • Sunday night, the secret of Catholic success. 
Sounds almost modern. It's also a refreshing reminder of the ever-present continuity of our ancient faith.

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