Missionary Society of St. James celebrates 45 years

The instrumental role of The Pilot in the establishment of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle is revealed by recent research commemorating the 45th anniversary of the organization. Then and now it has been the custom of the The Pilot to publish a commentary or teaching from the bishop in a weekly column. It is also conventional for diocesan news to be distributed via a news service to subscribing diocesan editors.

Forty-five years ago Archbishop Richard J. Cushing referred to a “great idea” in his weekly column. The comment was no sooner distributed when the inspired design took on a life of its own. The result being the establishment of a diocesan missionary organization that has enhanced the lives of hundreds of priests, thousands of supporting laity and millions of the “poorest of the poor” in South America.

The year 1958 marked the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Diocese of Boston and Archbishop Cushing desired to honor the occasion in a memorable way. By this date Archbishop Cushing was internationally known as a generous financial supporter of churches, shrines, colleges, high schools, hospitals, convents, and similar establishments. But what could the greatest brick and mortar bishop of the 20th century do to commemorate the establishing anniversary of the archdiocese?

The first public mention of establishing a diocesan missionary organization appeared in the archbishop’s weekly column published in the Feb. 1, 1958, edition of The Pilot "...to meet the needs of the Church throughout Latin American countries, I am considering the sponsorship of a new society to be known as The Society of St. James. As of the present, I don't know how far I am going to get with the project. It is merely in the planning stage... give this great idea, please, some prayerful mementos."

Five days later on, the Feb. 6, the Davenport, Iowa, diocesan newspaper The Catholic Messenger reported: “Cushing to Form Missionary Society.” The archbishop’s thought was reported as more than just an idea. When recently contacted, Arnie Wieser, archivist for the The Catholic Messenger stated, “How and why it got to our lowly diocese I do not know.” Archbishop Cushing’s idea did not remain idle in Davenport for long. The Catholic Messenger truly heralded The Pilot's news item.

Archbishop Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, then-Apostolic Delegate to the United States, soon contacted the Archbishop of Boston. In a letter dated March 28, 1958, Archbishop Cicognani wrote, “His Excellency, Archbishop Samore, has written to say that he noticed in The Catholic Messenger of Feb. 6, 1958, that Your Excellency has plans to form a new missionary group to be called the ‘Society of St. James the Apostle’ …His Excellency was very pleased to read this and would be grateful to receive more detailed information about it.” At the time, Archbishop Antonio Samore was the Vicar General of Rome and Secretary of Sacred Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs.

Archbishop Cushing replied to the apostolic delegate on March 31, 1958: “I have Your Excellency’s note of March 28th with regard to the proposed Society of St. James the Apostle. This Society is only in the so-called ‘dream’ stage. I am looking for the possibility… to get a few capable, dedicated priests who will help to get it well established. There is much interest in the idea, even though the publicity it received was only accidental. If it is God’s Will, it will come into existence in due time.”

God’s Will it must have been. On April 30, 1958, Father William Pearsall was welcomed by Archbishop Cushing as the first official volunteer of the Society of St. James in a congratulatory letter: “Your letter thrills me… I will at least list you tentatively as the first priest to be identified with the Society of St. James the Apostle.” On May 11, 1958, at a communion breakfast marking the 50th anniversary of Rose Croix Council, Knights of Columbus, Archbishop Cushing publicly announced his founding of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle.

Father Edward Sweeney, director of the Propagation of Faith at the time, wrote in The Pilot: “What could be done to give thanks to God for the Graces and Blessings bestowed upon the archdiocese over the past 150 years? The archbishop’s announcement this past week of the formation of a new society of priests for work in South America, to be called the Society of St. James the Apostle, was the answer. When God wished to show His love for us He gave us His own Divine Son—His most precious possession. What better way for the Archdiocese of Boston to express its thanks to God than to give of its most precious possession—its priests.”

Events quickly moved forward. The Pilot reported on June 7, 1958, that Cardinal Giuseppe Pizzardo, Prefect of the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities, had sent a special benediction for the Society of St. James the Apostle. The benediction read in part: “The project of Your Excellency helps to meet the great concern of Holy Mother the Church for the future welfare of the Republics of Central and Southern America. We are pleased that Boston, so abundantly blessed by God with vocations, will help less fortunate areas. It is, therefore, for me a great joy to learn that which Your Excellency has done and proposes to do, particularly with the erection of the Pious Society of St. James the Apostle, and I beseech the Lord to bless your noble and holy intentions.”

On the feast of the St. James the Apostle, July 25, 1958, Archbishop Cushing formally founded the Society of St. James the Apostle by a decree: “We, Richard J. Cushing, by the Grace of God and the favor of the Apostolic See, Archbishop of Boston, do by this decree erect and constitute a pious society in aid of the Church in Latin America. We place this society under the patronage of St. James the Apostle, and to it we give the name “The Pious Society of St. James the Apostle.”

The Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle celebrates its 45th anniversary on July 25, 2003. The “great idea” first reported by The Pilot set in motion a series of events that has enhanced the ministry of more than 300 diocesan priests from 108 dioceses all over the world; the laity who continue to support them with prayers and alms, and the millions of the “poorest of the poor” to whom they continue to minister in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador.

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