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The Narrow Gate Pass:

Chautauqua and the Catholic Church in America

Jon Schmitz

Chautauqua Institution Archives

Talk Given at the Hall of Philosophy on July 31, 2011

Bishop Kmeic, if you can hear me, Monsignor Li Puma, Fathers, Deacons and fellow believers, whatever your faith, today we are all Chautauquans, and we have gathered here to celebrate the first 25 years of the Chautauqua Catholic Community.


It was 25 years ago that a group assembled, with the encouragement of the Department of Religion, the Board and President of the Institution, Dan Bratton, and many, many other Chautauquans, to establish a formal Catholic presence here.   Like everything at Chautauqua, this was a group effort. I should like to mention those Catholics whose work and wisdom have guided the Community to this day, but I am afraid I would need to go over my allotted time to do so.


I do wish, however, to thank a few of our Protestant friends, especially the Directors of the Department of Religion – William Jackson, Ross Mackenzie and Joan Brown Campbell, for their unreserved support from the start to the present. And, most of all, the Lenna family, whose understanding of what Chautauqua needed to become made it possible for us to have a Catholic House – first by purchasing the house, and later by generously supporting its renovation. I wish to ensure the Lenna family that we at the Catholic Community remain grateful, and only wish that Reg – and Betty, who as you know, was taken from us this year, could be here with us today in body as well as spirit.


Anniversaries are a time of celebration, but they should also be a time of reflection – a time to consider where we are going in light of where we have been.  For the last 25 years, the primary function of the Catholic Community has been to arrange for Mass on the grounds. Our Catholic identity is not to be found so much in our intellectual heritage, our theology, our art, literature or even our history.  Our identity is found in the Eucharist. So long as we take our identity from the Eucharist, we receive it not from what we make of ourselves, but from Jesus, Himself. The Real Presence is more important to us than a mere Catholic presence.


Of course, 25 years is really not a very long time. We are, in fact, the latest religious arrival, the denominational new kid on the block. The Hebrew Congregation had already celebrated its 25th anniversary before the Catholic Community even existed.


Why did it take so long?  Let us be clear, it was not that we were deliberately excluded. It was not the result of bigotry or religious hatred. Chautauquans then, like now, are generally very well mannered – and we must never under-appreciate the value of good manners. More error and more evil have been avoided by good manners than by any ideology.


Besides this, from the start the Assembly made clear its policy not to exclude any Christian denomination:


No denomination that names the name of Christ will be rejected….all that is great, venerable, and precious in the liturgies of the ages shall be connected with the liberty of extemporaneous service.  However diverse the denominational relations of Chautauquans, believing souls shall be one….Their motto shall be: In the freedom of truth and the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we unite for the worship of God and the service of men.


This left the door open to Catholics; and as early as 1878, the Assembly’s newspaper reported: if any Roman Catholic sincerely desires to hold a prayer meeting here, the catholic spirit of this institution will gladly assign to him tent or temple in which to hold it.


But there were no Catholics at Chautauqua, or only a very few, who were very quiet, and the reason for this was that Catholics simply didn’t fit in.  Chautauqua, they say, is a community built around a program, and the program, unlike many of the people, was not very friendly towards Catholics.  At the first Assembly, the only speaker close to being Catholic was a Priest who had converted to Protestantism and now spoke out against the errors of popery.

And it didn’t change. There were, of course, the repeated assurances that not all Catholics were bad, and that there were even “good Catholics.” This phrase would be used over the years with a variety of meanings, but at this point it generally meant Catholics who were temperance supporters – and there weren’t too many of us.

There were no Hotel Dieu stories, but there were the regular accusations made that the Roman Church in this country was working to extirpate both Holy Scripture and representational government.  Speaking in the Amphitheater, the Reverend McGerald, a former Catholic, described America as the “graveyard for popery,” and was praised by the Assembly Herald for “watching the plans and schemes of Romanism.” The paper went on to say that “it would serve Protestantism and the truth to have this denunciation of Roman Catholicism repeated in every church in America.” 

This rhetoric was common at the time, and could be heard in many places; but it was still enough to make a Catholic feel uncomfortable, and certainly unwilling to spend the price of a gate pass for the privilege to listen to it. And to make Chautauqua even less inviting, anti-Catholic remarks were generally met with warm applause.  These speakers did not really intend to offend Catholics. From the transcripts and newspaper reports it evident that they simply assumed that there were no Catholics present to offend.

And Catholics did not need to come to Chautauqua to know what was being said.  Many of these talks were published. The Church, moreover, warned against Catholic attendance. The Catholic World, for example, told its readers that the CLCS readings were essentially “Protestant Primers,” and that Bishop Vincent had a machine of great power, which week by week, put the knowledge of the Catholic Church further and further from the American People.

But the real issue at the bottom of the chasm that divided Chautauqua from the Church was not historical hatred, or fear of Catholic conspiracy, or any theological difference – it was the School Question.   It had been largely due to the complaints of Catholics that schools had been secularized, something very unpopular with Chautauqua and the Sunday-school Movement. Later, Catholics demanded their own schools, arguing that education was the responsibility of the Church, and then went on to ask for public funding or at least an exemption from the public school tax. Chautauquans, on the other hand, supported the idea of one, public school for all, seeing this as essential to democracy.  It was with regard to this issue that the tired and generally mistaken accusations against the Church were raised, rather than any serious concern about Catholicism itself.

It may be hard for us to believe that something like the School Question could raise such emotions and be so divisive, but consider this speech.  The Rev Luther T. Townsend of Boston University, a very popular speaker here at Chautauqua from the start, delivered a talk in the Amphitheater on Jesuit treachery. He started off by explaining the Catholic Church was not all bad, but then argued that it was currently being run by the Jesuit order. “What they think, the Pope must think, and what the Pope thinks all American Catholics must think,” he asserted.

He estimated that, counting lay workers and spies, there were already 100,000 Jesuits operating in the United States. So powerful was their influence that not even the President dared to defy them.  At their direction, Roman Catholic schools were being built across the country, “designed,” he explained, “to make scholars loyal Papists, therefore disloyal citizens,” and concluded that a parochial school, therefore, “must be looked upon as an enemy to civil freedom.”  What was more, he continued, Protestants had every right to defend their country from being destroyed by a foreign power.  But they would need to fight alone, as no Catholic could be trusted to help. “The sword has been drawn,” he shouted, “and the scabbard thrown to the winds….the bridges have been torn down and the fight is to continue until the treason shall be silenced.” America would find a way to do this, no matter what laws might stand in the way. Jesuits were to be expelled and Catholics banned from holding public office. “There must be a battle, and the sooner it comes the better…since we are better prepared for the final settlement of these matters to-day than we shall be in ten years.”  But he warned that this war would be difficult and bloody since there were already Catholics in the military, in the police departments, on every street corner and even in their own homes.”


His talk was interrupted throughout by spontaneous applause. No newspaper in Boston would print his lecture, but it was well received here at Chautauqua, since passions were so high regarding the School Question; and because, unlike Boston, there were no Catholics present to worry about.

Matters did not change. Later, Rev Cook, praised by one Chautauqua woman as “a staunch soul and a hard hitter,” was invited to deliver the Recognition Day address; but he did not leave before speaking on the School Question and the recent report of the Baltimore Conference.  He argued that American prosperity rested on the tripod of Free State, Free Church and Free School. To take away one would lead to the collapse of the other two, so Americans should follow the lead of Latin American Countries, close parochial schools and expel every Jesuit. He held up the Report from Baltimore and asked the audience, “What shall we do with such an assertion? How shall we treat it? Thus – and thus – and thus! [Tearing the report.] And may God be with us as he was with our fathers!”  And the Amphitheater erupted in applause. 

[Tearing up notes gag.]

These are just two examples.  But no matter how strongly Chautauquans felt about Catholic schools, the truth was that, as the Chautauqua Movement reached its zenith and its greatest number of followers towards the end of the 19th century, its demographic profile was actually shrinking. A person who attended the first Assembly in 1874 was far more typical of the American population as a whole than a person attending in the 1890s.  Roman Catholicism was already becoming the largest faith group in the country in 1874, and, by the beginning of the 20th century there were, in fact, almost twice as many Roman Catholic Americans as there were Methodist Americans.  If Chautauqua were to represent what it is to be American, it first needed to include more Americans.

This was not lost on the administration and Vincent began to forge connections with Reform Judaism, while Flood reached out to Roman Catholics.  He arranged to have Fr Edward McGlynn come to Chautauqua in 1891, the first Catholic Priest to speak here – except, I should explain, he was at this point defrocked and excommunicated.    [I wish I had time to tell the story.]  Moreover, McGlynn was a supporter of the public schools and he wasn’t speaking on religion at all, rather he was speaking about the Single Tax, a theory developed by Henry George. The Single Tax was discussed repeatedly at Chautauqua, and there was no one better to speak about it than it most passionate supporter, Edward McGlynn.  Surely, he would be accepted by the Chautauqua audience – but he was not, at least not by many, and Anthony Flood, and this was one of the very few times he ever did this, strongly chastised the Chautauqua audience afterwards accusing them of ignorant prejudice.

[ By the way, the excommunication and suspension were lifted the next year by Monsignor Satoli, the first Papal Ablegate to the United States, and Fr McGlynn served as a parish Priest and remained a supporter of the Single Tax until the end of his life.]

In another attempt to open the gate to Catholics, John Vincent wrote to Bishop Ryan of Buffalo in 1895, asking that a priest be provided to say Mass.  Bishop Ryan agreed.  Catholics were invited to attend an organizational meeting at the Methodist House.  There were 37 people present, many more than Flood thought would attend.  

The first Catholic Mass was held on August 4, 1895 in the College Building.  There were no more than 50 people in attendance, many of whom were Protestant.  Masses continued the next summer, and the number of Catholics grew to almost 100. That was a very small percentage of the over-all population of the grounds, but, still, it appeared as though the gate was now opening. 

Then, in 1897, the new Bishop of Buffalo, Bishop James Edward Quigley, informed Vincent that no Priest would be available.  Bishop Quigley had other plans. He appears to have been concerned about the influence attending Chautauqua might have on Catholics, and decided it would be better to open a Catholic Chautauqua.  He purchased land for this purpose just a few miles south of here. Those of you familiar with the area may have noticed Quigley Park near Cheney’s Road – that was the land the Bishop purchased. The camp never materialized- probably a very good thing, but a house was constructed with a chapel, which for years was incorrectly called the “Bishop’s House,” sometimes even the “Bishop’s Palace.”  When Bishop Quigley left Buffalo to become the Archbishop of Chicago, the property was used as a vacation and retreat cottage for priests, and later was parceled and sold for development as a like-side property.

Well, Quigley had thought his plan for Catholic Chautauqua was an excellent idea, but the Chautauqua Administration did not; and this was the beginning of a new period of cool relations between Chautauqua and the Chancery. The cancelation of Mass was a terrible set back. It must be remembered that, at this time, the gates were closed tight on Sunday, and no one was allowed on or off the grounds.  This made it impossible for Catholics to attend Mass unless they left the day before and only returned after Sunday. So the administration issued special passes to Catholics on the grounds that allowed them to travel to Jamestown.

Then, in 1899, came Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae. This was a letter from Pope Leo XIII to Archbishop Gibbons of Baltimore, in which he condemned what was unfortunately called “Americanism.” This was the belief that American culture was exceptional, and that the Church in America needed to adapt to American culture and political institutions.

The letter had been prompted not by what was going on here in American so much as by a translation of a biography of Fr Isaac Hecker, a convert form Methodism and founder of the Paulist Priests, which was being used by radical Priests in France. It is interesting to note, that the American Bishops unanimously defended Fr Hecker, who was deceased by this time, as having been misunderstood.  Nevertheless, the letter put a damper on efforts by the Catholic clergy to engage Protestants, and put a new tarnish on Protestant perceptions of the Church; and so, relations between Chautauqua and the Church chilled further as opportunities for accommodation were lost.

But in 1904, thirty years after the founding of the Institution, and a decade and a half after the first Rabbi had spoken here, the first Catholic Priest in good standing stood on the stage of the Amphitheater.  The priest was Fr Alexander Doyle, a Paulist, who came to defend Catholic education in America. It was as ‘red, white and blue’ a talk as one would ever hear – chalk-full of quotes from Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

His talk was short, polite and to the point, arguing that, while Catholic Schools were once poor, they had vastly improved. That they posed no threat to the public school system and, in fact, lessened the burden on them by freeing up taxes. From the Daily it would appear that the talk was politely received. Fr Doyle would return ten years later to repeat much the same message.

Eventually, the fight over schools dissipated into an unhappy, but not temporary, truce, when the matter was finally decided by a Supreme Court in the 1920s.  But well before that, Protestants realized parochial schools were here to stay, and Catholics realized they would probably never have public funding.

And matters improved for Catholics in 1912, when Fr Harrigan from Sacred Heart in Lakeside, began to travel each Sunday to say Mass in Mayville, first in a private home, and later in the Mayville Opera House – a trip that was made much easier for both Priest and laymen with the introduction of the trolley.

In 1926, despite the efforts of the local Klan, the Mission of Our Lady of Victory, later known as St Mary’s opened in Mayville, having been dedicated by Fr Baker. [The story I have heard is that a cross was burned on the lawn of the church when after it was consecrated.  I have not been able to confirm that, but would point out, regardless, that much of the money to build the church had been raised through Protestant churches.]  Still, there were still only a few Catholics from Chautauqua attending services. In fact, a bus service was introduced in 1929, but had to be cancelled due to the lack of use.

The emergence of modernism introduced another obstacle.  In an attempt to reconcile religion with science, Chautauqua had drifted closer to modernism which believed that religion should be reconsidered in the light of scientific knowledge – an idea completely rejected by the Catholic Church.  The Institution continued to move closer to modernism after Dr Shailer Matthews was appointed Director of the newly created Department of Religious Work in 1912.  Fundamentalism rose up in opposition, insisting that there were five essential points of faith, and was embraced by the circuit chautauquas and many of the daughter assemblies.  The original formulation of the fundamentals was designed to include the Roman Catholic faith.  But the nativism and xenophobia of the circuits excluded Catholics as a rule, leaving Catholics outside of both camps.

Of course, there were new efforts towards ecumenism, but even these resulted in a further alienation. Many liberal Protestants saw both Catholicism and Protestantism as being spent. They felt that each denomination had a part of the truth, but only a part that needed to be completed by being joined together in a new Church that included all and was dominated by none. A little like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Catholicism was welcome – but the invitation only turned to frustration as Catholics refused to cooperate, finding this idea abhorrent.

In 1928, Pope Pius XI restated the Church’s opposition to efforts to unite denominations for the purpose of creating a new Church. [Mortalium Animos] Instead, interfaith dialogue was to be carried out not by means of a collective view of truth, or the search for a common denominator, but by understanding doctrinal differences. To do otherwise would ultimately collapse into indifferentism.

Shailer Matthews retired in 1933, and his duties, if not his title, were assumed by Herbert Blashfield from Milwaukee. The situation changed immediately.  There were now far more favorable comments towards Catholics expressed on the platform. The Chaplain of the week, Dr John Ray Ewers from the Eastside Disciples of Christ Church in Pittsburgh said: “When we go to Church as Catholics do, when we care for the aged, build beautiful Churches, train our children, reverence our priests, care for our sick and stand as united as they do, then I may attack them, but not before.”  Many praised the beauty of Catholic Churches and services. Bishop Leonard praised the Catholic Church for cleaning up the movies. Others praised the international awareness of the Catholic Church and its understanding of labor and the poor.  The era of the intolerance of intolerance was fading, at least for a while.

The coming of war brought also both sides closer; and, in the early 1940s, Blashfield began regularly including Catholic Priests, particularly Franciscans from St Bonaventure, in the program – not as solo speakers, but on panels along with a Protestant Minister and Jewish Rabbi.  These panels were, of course chaired, by the Minister; and, in general, their function was not to express different points of view, but consensus, and thereby gain credibility.

What was more, starting in 1942, Fr David Roche from St Mary’s in Mayville began saying Mass regularly on the Chautauqua grounds.  Blashfield was replaced by Alfred Randell in 1944. Randell was originally from Great Britain, and although in no way anti-Catholic, he restored a greater Protestant hegemony on the platform.  Henry Leiper would continue in much the same vein.  Leiper was a strong supporter of ecumenism and was desirous of incorporating Roman Catholics; but he was frustrated by Rome’s attitude and particularly by her refusal to participate in the World Council of Churches. What is more, he was more concerned with the growing divisions among Protestants.

At the same time, there was a resurgence of anti-Catholic suspicion after the war and through the 1950s. In 1949, Paul Blanchard’s American Freedom and Catholic Power was published. Although saying little that had not been said before, the book was the most successful anti-Catholic book published in America. Among various recommendations, it called for all priests to be registered a foreign agents, but most of, concludes with chilling suggestion that violence may not avoidable. Like Townsend’s speech in the 1880s, the book was so controversial that many leading newspapers, such as the New York Times, refused to touch it, but Carl Winters selected it for the recommended CLSC summer reading list. In addition, circulars and open letters were handed out on the grounds warning of a conspiracy to put the Pope in charge of the country. 

But, as before, the world changed regardless of fears. As a result of the GI bill, and the hard work of earlier generations, Catholics were moving upscale into schools and careers inaccessible in the past. In fact, this upward mobility led many Catholics to Chautauqua. And the numbers were increasing. There are many small indications that a change in the demographics of Chautauqua was underway, such Bigelow’s beginning to sell bracelets with the Ten Commandments offering the choice of either the King James version or the Catholic version.

But what really brought about the change was Vatican II. It changed how the Church was perceived by Protestants and by Catholics as well.  For the Catholic clergy, it signaled a new license to experiment and to engage the world outside the Church. For the laity it gave a new importance to personal faith.

In the years following Vatican II many left the Church. But among those who remained, if polls are to be believed, there was a new fervor.  There was, for example, a significant increase in the number of Catholics who now prayed every day, in the number who read scripture on their own, and in the number who began to study the teaching and history of the Church.  And this Pilgrim spirit brought many Catholics – good Catholics, to Chautauqua.

Vatican II sparked great interest among Protestants at Chautauqua. Films of the Council Session were shown in Smith-Wilkes Hall, while issues relating to the Council were explored on the platform.  Fr Sheerin, who had been sent to the World Council of Churches as an observer came for a week.  Protestants welcomed the new tone, and believed that the era of non-cooperation from Rome had ended. They were so optimistic that they were now much more prepared to put aside other criticism or objections.  The opportunity was seized by the Director of Religion, Herbert Gezork, who, in 1968, invited a Roman Catholic priest to be the first Catholic Priest to serve as Sunday Chaplain. The Chaplain they invited was Fr David Bowman, ironically a Jesuit.  He had been the first Roman Catholic appointed to the staff of the World Council of Churches.  

Then Ralph Loew became Director of Religion, and the gate began to swing open. Loew had worked with the Catholic Diocese in Buffalo for years. He was comfortable with Catholics, and was well connected in the diocese.  Together with the Institution’s President, Oscar Remick, Loew worked to have a Catholic Pastor as chaplain for a week. The idea was run by the board in 1974, but put on hold.

In 1979 Loew raised the idea in a public meeting. It would take another three years, but in 1984, the President of the American College of Bishops, Bishop James Malone, agreed to come and serve as the week’s chaplain. So impressed was Bishop Malone that his name can be found on the list of donors to the Chautauqua fund for that year.  He was happy to return five years later by which point a Catholic Community had been established.

Well, today, Catholics are the largest denomination on the grounds and regular participants on the platform and at the pulpit. The President of the Institution, Tom Becker, is a baptized Catholic, as was his predecessor, Scott McVay. The Vice President and Treasurer, Sebby Baggiano is Catholic, as was his predecessor, Joe Johnson. The director of marketing, George Murphy, is Catholic, as was his predecessor, Mike Sullivan – you Protestants might wish to notice that once we get a position, we like to hold on to it.  And the controller, the head of IT, the head of operations, the manager of the bookstore and the assistant Director of the Department of Religion, and, of course the Archivist, are all Catholic – indeed Catholics are largest denomination in the administration. 

Was this the result of a new tolerance, or simply an indifference, brought on by the decline of religion in general? Obviously, it is both, and probably more the latter than the former – but we, Catholics, Jews and Protestants, must make sure that this growing diversity does not simply melt into a common denominator, but proves to be meaningful in diversity.

To do this we must understand why it was not easy for us to come here, not easy for Catholics and not easy for Protestants.  Truly, we entered by the narrow gate.  And how much better for us and for Chautauqua that we did.  Chautauqua has been a place where people have taken values and faith seriously. If accepting us and others now means that this no longer true, I should prefer that we had no presence here at all.  As it happened, we can say that we entered without compromise by us or by those already here, and for this reason we know that we really do belong.

And does this struggle sound familiar? Are there not parallels to be drawn with working to achieve an Islamic presence? I am not saying that it is the same – there are many, enough differences to take up another lecture; but I believe we can at least learn that to accommodate new groups does require us to open the gate just a little wider. 

In the beginning, Chautauqua was built on shared values. But to grow and remain relevant, it had to find a way to build a community on difference. After all, without difference there can be no community at all. It is more by our differences that we contribute and belong than through our being the same.  Pretending that this is easy to do, that we simply need to wish it to happen does not help. We must have confidence that Chautauqua is big enough and that new members have something to contribute.  There is an old Indian saying – it takes more courage to live with a bear than to kill one; and it takes more courage to hold to what one believes to be true in the midst of diversity than it does to create a new universal common belief that appears to be true only because everyone can accept it. 

There has been a Catholic presence of sorts from the very first Assembly – a presence found the hearts of those protestants wishing to welcome us.  Community can be built even when differences are extreme.  Think back to those people who were at that first Mass in 1895. Remember that many of them were Protestants. Why were they there?  Perhaps they were just curious, perhaps they came to support our being here, perhaps they thought they could learn something from us – not to change their faith, but to improve the faith they already had. And do not the 30 or 35 Catholics who were present at that first Mass represent that same desire.  Those present, both Catholic and Protestant, still remind us what the Catholic Community must be at Chautauqua – an assembly, as the Jesuits would say, gathered by the love of truth and guided by the truth of love.   

Thank you.

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