Holy Cross history: A conversation with James T. Connelly, C.S.C.

Author: Marianne FitzGerald

Published: December 10, 2020 at Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism

Author: Todd C. Ream

James T. Connelly, C.S.C., is the congregational archivist for the Congregation of Holy Cross and author or editor of a number of books, including Basil Moreau and the Congregation of Holy CrossThe University of Portland: A Century of Teaching, Faith, and Service, and The Chronicles of Notre Dame Du Lac by Edward Sorin, C.S.C. His latest book, from Notre Dame Press, is The History of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Todd Ream (Taylor University) interviewed Father Connelly about the process of writing the book.

Todd Ream: Your previous book-length projects focused on Basil Moreau, C.S.C., Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and the University of Portland. At what point did you decide to write a history of the Congregation of Holy Cross?


James Connelly: I didn’t decide so much as accept an assignment to write a history of the Congregation of Holy Cross. In 1982, the superior general of the Congregation, Father Thomas Barrosse, asked me to research and write a “popular” history of the community. What he wanted was an overview of the Congregation’s development and of significant personalities in its history. He thought it could be done by synthesizing books and articles already in print. In accepting the charge, I failed to ask for a sabbatical of two or three years to do the research and writing. I also failed to ask for funds to travel to various archives for my research.

Once I began to look at materials in some of the archives, I realized that the task would not be as simple as Barrosse had indicated. For example, I found documents relating various attempts to establish the brothers as a separate canonical congregation up until the general chapter of 1932 when a number of priests at the University of Notre Dame petitioned the chapter to make a separation. I don’t recall ever reading about this in any of the published materials. I also found documents relating the role of Bishop Luers of Fort Wayne promoting a separation of the Holy Cross sisters in the United States from their mother house in France. I saw correspondence from Father Verité, the superior in Bengal in the 1850s, telling Moreau not to interfere in his contacts with the Vatican and his direction of the community in Bengal. I hadn’t read about either of these before.

As I worked on the history I had other jobs—archivist, university professor, religious superior—and I had to find moments or occasions to do my research and writing. I was also given other writing projects. That’s why my history of the Congregation took 37 years to complete.


TR: In your estimation, why had no one previously embraced the challenge of telling the history of the Congregation? In what way(s) do you hope your history fills that void? 

JC: By my count, there are at least 11 biographies of the founder, Father Basil Moreau, as well as biographies of various other figures in the Congregation’s history. All of these, insofar as I know, were undertaken to fulfill what was thought to be a particular need or desire at the time. They contain many partial accounts of the community’s history and that seems to have been enough to satisfy demand. I hope, as did Father Barrosse, that a general history would be useful in helping to orient the future development of the Congregation. I speak, for example, of the community’s center shifting from Europe to what were originally missionary efforts in North America in the 19th century and from North America to what were originally missionary efforts in Asia, Africa, and Haiti by the latter decades of the 20th century. 


TR: How did you determine the narrative arc defining your history? 

JC: To begin, I drew up an outline of the history as I thought I could lay it out. I planned on two chapters about the founders, one each on Fathers Dujarié and Moreau, at the beginning. I realized that I would have to treat Canada, the United States and France as separate stories and gave each region separate chapters for the 19th and early 20th centuries. I decided to treat Father Gilbert Français’s long (33 years) general administration as a separate chapter marking the transition from the French era of leadership to the modern, non-French era. In the 20th century I covered developments in Canada and the United States together in the same chapters. In the last chapter, on the 20th century, I covered the large loss of members in the North American provinces and the rise in numbers in Asia, Bangladesh, Africa, and Haiti. The epilogue focuses on the merger of provinces in North America and the creation of new provinces elsewhere in the world.

I decided to treat the women of Holy Cross together with the men in the first two chapters up until the Vatican forced the separation of the sisters as a separate congregation in 1856. In order to partially explain what happened to the women after 1856, I did a separate chapter on their division into three autonomous canonical congregations in the 19th century.


TR: In the process of your research, what repositories did you find most beneficial? What kind of sources were in ample supply? What sort of material was lacking? 

JC: Archival sources in France, Canada, and the United States were sufficient. The archives in other regions that I was able to visit were not always as useful as I wished. For example, I served in Uganda for two years and was given access to the district archives. The papers were mostly about financial matters (receipts, bills, etc.). I was not able to go to India, Bangladesh, West Africa, or Haiti. In Chile, highly sensitive documents had been weeded out of the archives in the early years of the Pinochet regime lest they be used to incriminate members of the community.


TR: How did your identity as a member of the Congregation inform your efforts? How did your identity as a historian inform your efforts? Did you ever find those identities to be complementary or in conflict? 

JC: As a member of the Congregation on assignment from the superior general I was granted access to community archives. As an historian I was determined not to produce a hagiography but as honest an account of the story as I could manage. I have not been asked to submit my manuscript for review by any authorities in the Congregation. Most of the other historians of the Congregation—with the exception of Etienne and Tony Catta, who published a two-volume biography of Fr. Basil Moreau in 1955—have also been members, and most, if not all, of them were deceased when I did my research, so I can’t say whether I had any advantages over them.


TR: After completing your history, where do you believe the Congregation’s history fits within the histories of American Catholicism and of global Catholicism? And how did writing a history of the Congregation impact your perception of its charism? 

JC: I think Holy Cross can be identified as one of those many French missionary communities that supplied so many people and resources to American Catholicism in the first half of the 19th century. I have read that in the mid-19th century half of the personnel working in what were mission lands were French. Holy Cross fits that statistic in Canada, Bangladesh, and the United States. I think the Congregation’s commitment to education is important in the history of global Catholicism. The University of Notre Dame is one of the pre-eminent Catholic universities in the world. There is now a Notre Dame University Bangladesh that has graduated four classes. The Congregation’s schools have enrolled majorities of non-Catholic students in India and Bangladesh because of the high quality of the education offered. This is important for the public image of the Catholic Church in those countries. In Ghana, Uganda, and Haiti, the education of the Catholic population is important for their coming to take their place in the affairs of those countries.

I would have been hard-pressed to define the Congregation’s charism before I wrote its history. I could not find evidence of any spiritual experience or special devotion among its founders and its leaders over the years. The name of the Congregation refers to the place where its administrative center was established in the 1840s, the Sainte-Croix/Holy Cross quarter of Le Mans, France. I think its charism or persistent theme is that it repeatedly responded to the needs of the Church in distant lands and among underserved people as identified by Church leaders, e.g. Popes Pius IX and Pius XII and various bishops. This willingness to serve brought Holy Cross to the United States, Canada, Bangladesh, Chile, Brazil, Ghana, Uganda, and India. I expect that if personnel and financial resources allow, it will continue to go into different lands in the coming years.


TR: In your estimation, what events and figures merit further inquiry? And what advice would you offer scholars who may explore the history of the Congregation or the history of a religious order in general?

JC: While some institutions have received good accounts of their history, many others have not. It would be helpful in telling the larger story to know about individuals who may have been significant at one foundation or for a time. It would be helpful to know more about Alexis Granger, François Cointet, Thomas Walsh, James Connerton, Theotonius Ganguly, and Vincent McCauley.

As for advice for other researchers: Start with what the Congregation says of itself and what it purports to be about in the world. Holy Cross is not a contemplative community, for example. This distinction between active and contemplative is important in studying the history of any religious order. One should not judge an order according to criteria it doesn't itself espouse. The prospective scholar of the history of Holy Cross or any other order should understand where it is in the world and what it does as a community.

Todd C. Ream serves on the higher education and honors faculties at Taylor University, as a fellow with the Lumen Research Institute, and as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including the forthcoming Hesburgh of Notre Dame: The Church’s Public Intellectual.