PITTSBURGH, PA — July 31, 2017
Claude Poullart des Places of Rennes, France, founded the Spiritans, formally known as the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, on Pentecost in 1703. He felt called to start a community for poor, young men wanting to become priests. It was his hope that these young priests would serve France’s rural poor and its missions overseas.
They have. Since 1703, the Spiritans have dedicated themselves to the underserved around the globe. Today, nearly 3,000 Spiritans labor in more than 60 countries. Their work included the founding of Duquesne University — the only Spiritan university in North America — in 1878.
Over many decades as global missionaries, the Spiritans have acquired countless stories that have gone unrecorded and unwritten — until now. In an effort to document their accomplishments and to provide a spiritual legacy for future Spiritans, Duquesne began to record some of these stories.
Oral historians so far have interviewed a half dozen priests, some of whom came to Duquesne to work or study.
“The mission of the project is to record the history of the Spiritans in their own words,” said Megan DeFries, oral historian at Duquesne. “This includes biographical sketches about their development as Spiritans and the work they’ve done, how they’ve lived the mission as Spiritans.”
Even though these missionaries have worked in many different countries, doing diverse work, Ms. DeFries recognized a common thread as she interviewed them. “You find common themes in their faith and their service because the way they develop as Spiritans is very similar around the world, and the way they’re all unified in their mission. Their stories show the human side of being a priest, of someone that leads a religious life.”
The breadth and impact of the congregation’s global reach can be seen in the experiences of the Rev. Sean Hogan, a fourth-generation Spiritan and president of the Duquesne Scholarship Association. Father Hogan was 28 when he left Ireland for Kenya in 1968.
“I was a pastor of a parish that included a maternity hospital, and I paid the bills. I was also the headmaster of a high school in Thika, a large industrial town near Nairobi, Kenya,” he said.
Father Hogan built several churches, developed credit unions and built Kenya’s first youth center. “We had a lot of schools, but we didn’t have a library or recreation facilities for the kids. So we built the Thika Youth Center in cooperation with Thika Lions Club. The nearly two-year project was a great development because we could have a nursery school, a library, soccer fields and basketball courts. We also had a big hall where we could have dances or show movies,” he recalled.
The people were grateful, he said. “You bring Christ to them, but you also try and raise the standards of the people.You bring education. You bring medical facilities, and then you try and develop a middle class.”
Father Hogan offers this perspective to young Spiritans or men aspiring to join them. “Look at what we’re doing throughout the world. We have various options … education, development, running parishes and running schools. And it’s a great life. No one’s life is perfect, but it’s a very fulfilling one.”
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The Rev. Bill Christy, whose work with Spiritan Campus Ministry at Duquesne focuses on counseling and spiritual direction, was a missionary in Tanzania for 15 years and served in the Department of Aboriginal Affairs in Western Australia for six.
Unlike the warmth that Father Hogan received from the people in Kenya, the Aborigines initially were not welcoming to Father Christy. The wariness stemmed from years of mistreatment at the hands of the Australian government.
“The Aborigines didn’t have rights until the mid-60’s. They didn’t have the vote, they had no right to own property, and every Aborigine was considered a child and the government was considered their parent. An aboriginal Australian had no right to a passport because one would not give a passport to a child.
“And then I show up, and there’s all this baggage there. And that’s something you have to overcome.”
At times, “you realize your limitedness,” Father Christy said. “When we adopt somebody else’s worldview, we realize that we don’t have all the answers to their world. A profound importance to the Maasai [an aboriginal group in Tanzania] and to all Africans is fertility. The sense of family, the sense of generations, and ancestors. How do we address infertility? For people who don’t have good medical care and are prone to infections and other things, fertility is the question. We didn’t have a ritual to bless them for fertility. … Christianity doesn’t have an easy answer for them.”
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The Rev. Raymond French was 19 when he fell in love with the Spiritans. It happened three decades ago through a chance meeting with the Rev. Jim Brown, a Spiritan who was conducting a 100-mile walk in Scotland for vocations.
The congregation’s inclusiveness impressed Father French, now Duquesne’s vice president for mission and identity. “It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from; they accepted you.”
He entered the Spiritans with men from Nigeria, Madagascar, Mauritius, Ireland, England and a few, like himself, from Scotland. “At a very early age, I got a sense of the world and that diversity is a beautiful thing,” he said.
For almost three years, Father French lived with three groups in Tanzania — the mountain people, the “fishers” and the warriors. He was, he said, “a Scots guy from a small town who finds himself in the middle of a village by the lake in Tanzania, struggling to learn a language, and feeling more at home than any place I’ve ever been, apart from Duquesne.”
The people readily welcomed Father French. “Hospitality is in their DNA,” he said.
But the different ethnic groups didn’t get along, and Father French wondered what he could do to bring them together. “I went back to my old passion for soccer and I thought, that’s the way I can do it,” he said.
He organized a soccer match and asked the villagers and their families to bring food to the big event. “It was magnificent. It was great fun, and I think it did show that difference can be a cause for celebration.”
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The stories of Father French, Father Hogan, Father Christy and other Spiritans offer powerful insights into the human condition across the globe. The oral history project is ongoing. Recordings and transcripts of the interviews are available by appointment at the Duquesne library.
The Spiritans’ work requires an “openness to the Spirit, authentic relationships and walking on the margins,” Father French explains. “Know that when you’re with the underserved, they become your teacher. It was the most powerful experience of my life.”
Mary Lynn Davidek Alpino (email@example.com ) is a freelance writer from Plum.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette May 2016