In the Beginning, It Was Good

Catherine Clarke was a woman of strong faith, and possessed with a mission to foster the spirit of Catholicism, in particular among the students attending Harvard and Radcliffe. 

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In 1940, she took the first step toward achieving that goal. Together with Avery Dulles (who would one day be named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II) and Chris Huntington, both recent graduates of Harvard College and converts to the Catholic faith, she established Saint Benedict Center, a place for young Catholic students to meet, study, and engage intellectually on matters of religion, ethics, philosophy, and theology. In addition to spearheading religious classes at the Center, Catherine brought her own natural charm, hosting daily afternoon teas, which became immensely popular with the students. 

Within a few years, the visitors to the Center had become so numerous that Catherine Clarke petitioned Archbishop Richard Cushing, the popular Irish American bishop of the diocese of Boston, to appoint the renowned Jesuit writer Leonard Feeney, then forty-seven, as the spiritual director of the Center. She had been impressed with the brilliance of his intellect and his immense appeal to young people on the occasions he had been a visiting speaker there. 

Catherine’s decision was instrumental to the burgeoning success of the Center. Leonard Feeney’s popularity was enormous—his Thursday-evening lectures on theology were standing-room-only events, where hundreds of young people, Catholic and non-Catholic, crowded in to hear him, often spilling onto the sidewalk outside. Over the course of the next several years, Feeney was credited with bringing hundreds of young men and women into the Catholic Church. 

In 1946, Catherine Clarke and Leonard Feeney encouraged students at the Center to start a quarterly publication, From the Housetops, which in short order attracted high profile contributors such as bishops, theologians and professors from area colleges. It enjoyed worldwide subscribership and was noticed and praised by no less an authority than Pope Pius XII, who sent his handwritten blessing as the footer to a life-sized photograph, which hung prominently on the long gray wall on the ground floor of the Center. John F. Kennedy visited the Center more than once, most memorably in 1946, shortly after having been elected U.S. congressman from Massachusetts. 

On that occasion, Leonard Feeney retrieved one of his treasured possessions, the brown derby, which had been made famous by New York Governor Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for president of the United States. Smith had given the hat to Feeney following his crushing defeat by Herbert Hoover, in appreciation of an open letter entitled “The Brown Derby,” which Feeney had written and which was published in America, the Jesuit weekly magazine. In essence, the letter credited Smith with remaining staunchly Catholic, even though it cost him the election. Some eighteen years later, Leonard Feeney placed the famous derby on Kennedy’s head and pronounced, “One day, you will be President.” 

The Center had quickly become a seat of intellectual discourse, and at the end of World War II, it also served as a welcome home-away-from-home for many war-weary veterans (both men and women) attending college on the G.I. Bill. The Center itself was accredited through the G.I. Bill to offer college courses, including Greek, Latin, logic, and philosophy. Numerous students participated in the program. For nearly seven years, from its inception in 1940, the story of Saint Benedict Center was one of resounding success.