Following the publication of "Fidei Donum," Cardinal Cushing felt that the time had come to follow the Holy Father's suggestion to turn his attention to Latin America.
This past Sunday, Oct. 18, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrated Mission Sunday. As we reflect on the Holy Father's chosen theme this year, "Here I am! Send me!" we remember those who have answered the call to missionary work in years past. Today, we offer a brief history of the establishment of the Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle, an organization of diocesan priests that has been serving continuously in Latin America since 1958.
On April 21, 1957, Pope Pius XII published the encyclical "Fidei Donum" ("The Gift of Faith"), which exhorted the priests and laypeople of the first world to share their time and talents with mission countries: "May it come to pass that Our admonitions will arouse a keener interest in the missionary apostolate among your priests and through them set the hearts of the faithful on fire!"
The pontiff's words reverberated around the world and lodged in the mind of Boston's Archbishop, Cardinal Richard J. Cushing. Cardinal Cushing had been interested in expanding the missionary efforts of the archdiocese since the beginning of his prelature. In a speech on World Mission Day in 1945, he called upon the faithful to consider missionary work. "Give cheerfully, then, your sons and daughters if God calls them," the cardinal wrote. "Give yourself, if the call comes to you ... If no call comes, then know that your special vocation is to pray that those others may serve; those others who have dared to leave all things to follow Christ, knowing that it is in losing their life that they will find it."
Cardinal Cushing encouraged priests, as well as laypeople, to devote themselves to missionary work. By 1948, he had established a "Lend-lease program for priests," which sent volunteer archdiocesan priests to missionary dioceses to ease the need for spiritual assistance in those areas. On his first official visit to the Vatican as Archbishop of Boston, he informed the Holy Father about the program. According to Cardinal Cushing, "The Holy Father was greatly interested and suggested the possibilities of assisting Catholics in Latin America who had no priests."
Following the publication of "Fidei Donum," Cardinal Cushing felt that the time had come to follow the Holy Father's suggestion to turn his attention to Latin America. On the feast day of St. James, 1958, he announced the establishment of the Pious Missionary Society of St. James the Apostle. The society aimed to "preserve and win back the Faith in Latin America, where there is now only one priest for every 5,000 Catholics." Its priests would dedicate at least five years of priestly service to missionary work in South America.
The inaugural departure ceremony of the Missionary Society of St. James took place at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Feb. 22, 1959. Fifteen priests had volunteered to serve in Peru and Bolivia, including several newly ordained priests to whom Cardinal Cushing had appealed directly. In the first week of March 1959, these first missionaries traveled to Lima, Peru, where they established a Center House for their society. They went on to Cochabamba, Bolivia, where they studied Spanish under the instruction of the Maryknoll Fathers. By July, the missionaries were serving in parishes. Three of these parishes were high in the Andes in the Diocese of Abancay, one was in the city of Lima, Peru, and one was in Santa Cruz, Bolivia.
It did not take long for the membership body of the Missionary Society of St. James to extend to priests from beyond the Archdiocese of Boston. Within three years, 70 diocesan priests from across the United States and around the English-speaking world served with the society in 19 parishes in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. By its 10th anniversary, the society staffed 30 parishes and 263 chapels, as well as 24 clinics, four parish schools, two hospitals, one nursing home, and various social agencies designed to meet the material as well as spiritual needs of the people. It founded two major seminaries and a minor seminary in order to foster South American vocations to the priesthood.
Today, the Missionary Society of St. James continues to serve the people of Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru. In more than 60 years of service, the society has welcomed members from Canada, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, Ghana and the Philippines. Its president remains the Archbishop of Boston and is now Cardinal Seán O'Malley.
"Richard Cardinal Cushing sent priests to this part of the world, not as foreigners but as would-be neighbors, brothers, and shepherds." Cardinal O'Malley said of the society in 2018, "They have become neighbors, they have become friends, and pastors to the people that they serve."
VIOLET HURST IS AN ARCHIVIST FOR THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON.