Fenlon, Father John

1943, July 31

Date of Birth: 1873, June 23

March 18, 1946

Fathers and Dear Confreres:

The death of Father Fenlon, who was the second Provincial Superior of the priests of St. Sulpice in the United States, goes back to 1942 [sic]. The difficulties of the German occupation permitted us to learn of it only much later. In that year, as in the following, it would not have been possible for me to give to that venerable and very eminent confrere the tribute to which he had a right.

The information which has recently come to us from the United States allows me to make up for that delay. I hasten to take advantage of it.

John Francis Fenlon was born in Chicago, Illinois, on June 23, 1873. He belonged to a very religious family. His youth was spent in the midst of his family and in close contact with his parish church and its clergy. The pastor of the parish at the time was Father Edward Joseph Dunne, who was to become, in 1893, the second bishop of Dallas, in Texas. His assistant was an old but extremely brilliant priest, Father Gilfoyle. The pastor has assigned to him specifically the care of the girls and boys. Many of them took the road to religious communities and seminaries.

These two priests followed the progress of little John with attention and admiration. [In his studies] he did well with astonishing ease. In order further to encourage him – and doubtless to keep him from resting on his laurels – they had him leave the All Saints School, where he had begun his education, and before he had finished grade school, they sent him to St. Ignatius College (today called Loyola College). But in that institution as in grade school, he made very rapid progress. One of his fellow-students at All Saints and at St. Ignatius, Father James Hayes, later recounted that in those two institutions John Fenlon carried off all the prizes.

As he had expressed the desire of being a priest, the two clerics and his teachers decided he should skip a class and enter the seminary as soon as possible. So at eighteen, a very young age for American seminarians, he came to St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.

That was in 1891, the very year of the centenary of the coming of our Society to the United States. A photograph from that time shows him in the midst of his fellow-students. He was of average height. His hair was black and wavy. He seemed slight and frail and had the seriousness of a bright boy. Just as he had at school and college, John Fenlon distinguished himself in the seminary by his rare intelligence and his zeal for work, most particularly in Dogmatic Theology and Holy Scripture. To achieve mastery in that subject it is necessary to be well versed in oriental languages. At the seminary he had such a command of Hebrew that his seminary teachers urged him to enroll in the courses at the Institute of Oriental Languages at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. His success there was such that some years later Bishop Conaty, Rector of the university in Washington, thought of him for a Chair of Holy Scripture. Be that as it may, his strength was limited and so was his time. No one would dare to pretend that his attending the [Johns Hopkins] university did not necessitate his lessening his work at the seminary. But to the end, he remained a model seminarian.

Two Sulpicians more especially exercised on John Fenlon their beneficent influence: Father Magnien, who was his Superior, and Father Dyer, who was his director. The first saw in the young seminarian from Chicago the makings of a teacher after his own heart. The second made it his business to form in him the man of prayer and knowledge, the man the perfect priest must be. Neither, as will be seen, was disappointed in his student.

He was ordained priest in June, 1896, with a dispensation for age (too young by a year and four days) by Archbishop Feehan of Chicago. The Archbishop immediately assigned him as assistant in the Cathedral. He was to stay there for two years. Those two years of parish ministry were not forgotten by either the parishioners or the assistant. Father Fenlon loved to recall various incidents which his happy memory never relinquished, and to rejoice in the experiences that were his in those days.

In 1898, with his Archbishop’s consent, he sought admission to the Society of St. Sulpice. On Father Magnien’s recommendation his request was granted. Then he came to France. At once the Superior General, Father Captier, sent him to Rome where he studied for his Doctorate in Theology at the Minerva. He received it in two years. But at the request of Fathers Carrier and Magnien he kept in mind the study of oriental languages begun at Johns Hopkins University, and he pursued this study with zeal and success at the Roman University of the Sapienza under the direction of an eminent scholar, Professor Guidi. In Rome, and particularly in the Procure of St. Sulpice, he formed friendships whose bonds he never loosed, notably with Fathers Henri Garrouteigt, S.S., León Labauche, S.S., and Jérôme Labourt. He would be in the same Solitude with them, that of 1900-1901, in which he met Father Henri Brianceau, S.S., who would be his co-worker at St. Mary’s in Baltimore.

Behold the Sulpician!  He never regretted being one. He always rejoiced in being one. At every opportunity which presented itself, he praised the grandeur and beauty of our vocation. He gave proof of perfect and exact loyalty to the Society to which he belonged. He loved to boast of the charity which prevailed among its members whatever their nationality. One day he would give unequivocal evidence of his attachment to St. Sulpice, evidence all the more striking because in giving it he was to seem lacking in the duty of gratitude. His former pastor, who had known him from his earliest days, Bishop Dunne of Dallas, felt himself growing old. He wanted an Auxiliary Bishop and asked that, for this position, Father Fenlon be proposed to the Holy See. The Bishop’s wish was made known to our confrere by his old director, Father Dyer himself. He showed, it seems, not the slightest interest. The Sovereign Pontiff had not declared either his will or his preference. So Father Fenlon immediately replied that never, under any pretext, for any reason, would he agree to being a bishop. The Bishop, who knew his former parishioner well and who had no doubts about his gratitude, did not insist. So it was that he remained a simple Sulpician to the end of his life – one of whom it has been said and written that “with his talents he would have brought honor to the Episcopate as either a Suffragan or a Metropolitan.”

Father Fenlon’s life was long, for he died at seventy. And it was a very busy life.

Providence permitted that it was almost entirely given over to the teaching of Holy Scripture. It was for that that he was sent to Dunwoodie as teacher. He remained a Scripture professor (to which teaching he added the teaching of Hebrew and Patrology at times) in various seminaries until his nomination as Provincial Superior in 1925.

In 1914, he was sent to Washington as Superior of St. Austin’s College – a house of studies – the purpose of which was to provide intellectual training for young American Sulpicians. From St. Austin’s he went, as Superior, to Caldwell Hall, that is, to the university’s seminary for young priests who are taking courses at the Catholic University in Washington. Again in Washington, in 1924, he succeeded the venerable Father Havey, founder of the Sulpician Seminary in that city and its first Superior. His stay in that house – which has since become the Theological College – lasted only a little longer than a year. After the death of the Provincial Superior, Father Dyer, Father Fenlon succeeded him in that capacity, and took up residence at St. Mary’s Paca Street, Baltimore.

As such he was at the same time local superior of St. Mary’s Seminary, and he remained so up to 1936, when the Chapter decided that no Provincial Superior should any longer be local superior in any house in his own province.

But whether as Provincial or local superior, Father Fenlon applied himself with matchless intelligence and never-ending zeal to the good of his province and in particular to the Baltimore seminary.

Without dwelling on the excellent spirit he imparted by his frequent visitations to the West coast seminaries, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s, in the Diocese of San Francisco, he took the initiative under Bishop O’Dea of founding and constructing St. Edward’s Seminary at Kenmore in the Diocese of Seattle in the Nortwest of the United States. Nevertheless, his principle work will remain the magnificent St. Mary’s Seminary (long called the new St. Mary’s) in Roland Park, a residential area in the most beautiful section of Baltimore. Urged on by the fine Archbishop Curley, who generously identified his diocese and himself with the stately building he dreamt of erecting; helped by the alumni, bishops and priests, by noteworthy benefactors, clerical and lay; he contritbuted vastly to putting up one of the most beautiful and largest seminaries in the United States. It has been justly written of him: “The Roland Park seminary will remain as a memorial of his devotion to the work of St. Sulpice and to his faith in the future.”

This seminary is not complete. Father Fenlon’s dream was to finish it or, at least, to finish the chapel. During the war he had the joy of seeng the [chapel’s] foundation laid. But the American war-effort, along with the scarcity of materials, halted the construction. That was why our confrere had to resign himself to leaving it unfinished. Besides, Father Fenlon had for some time had no illusions about the state of his health. In 1938, when the canonical visitation of the American Sulpician houses was over, he delicately expressed the wish that I would be designated a third time for that same mission. In a low voice he added: “I may no longer be here to welcome you.” So it must not have been too much of a shock to him to see his dearest wish unfulfilled.

On several occasions his heart gave him trouble. For that reason he had to rest and even give up work. But as soon as his health improved, he went back to work with the zeal which underlay his charity. Voluminous correspondence with all sorts of people, known and unknown, who had recourse to him because they knew he was competent and of an untiring willingness to oblige; visits from bishops, from confreres, from former students – all of whom he welcomed with perfect courtesy; long and tiring trips meant to insure regular visitations to our houses on the East and West coasts of the United States; business involving religious and civil authorities, business demanded by the interests of the Society in the United States; good will in collaborating in local or national events, for which more than once his cooperation was invited. He took it all with the best good grace, and he never let anyone down.

“What a great soul he had!  The benevolence of Christ was evident in his words and actions. No one showed more tolerance for human weakness. Incontestably just and honorable in his personal life, he was always the first to lend a helping hand to anyone who fell in the combat amidst which we live. His friendliness attracted to himself people of every class of society. The unbelieving intellectual put himself at Father Fenlon’s disposal to discuss the needs of religion; the scholar came to him to clear up an obscure point of literature, history, or Scripture. His fellow-priests came to him to partake of his strength of soul and the Christian wisdom which was his. Anyone who might have the privilege of running through his vast correspondence would be struck by the number and diversity of his friends. He was always the humblest of priests. He loved all creatures in Christ because in each of them he found the lovable image of God. Above all, he loved his own priesthood. He loved the Church and anything connected with the Church was of interest to him. He loved the young seminarians, and, at seventy, he remained in their eyes, endlessly self-sacrificing and unbelievably young. There was not in all his make-up the least trace of moral weakness or bitterness. He was often in contact with the unbelieving and their works; but he persevered to the end, pure and undefiled, the faith of his childhood.”

Such was Father John Fenlon in the eyes of his confreres and fellow-countrymen. Such was the opinion of those who had the advantage of meeting him, of dealing with him, of living with him. He was a Sulpician of the first order. His vast and deep knowledge – if he had taught in a university – would have made him a scholar with a world-wide reputation. Even outside his professional standing as a Churchman, his artistic and literary expertise showed him to have the widest and most perfect grasp of English literature. About thirty years ago one of the most renowned scholars in Washington wrote of Father Fenlon: “But, Great God, he has read everything!”  His sense of humor, nicely honed, was always pleasant. Attached to God, devoted to the Church, he was much victimized by underhandedness and much wounded by meanness; but he always eschewed bitterness and discouragement. That is why, up to the end, with the same seriousness and the same spirit of faith, he worked for the Society and for the Church in the United States.

At the end of the school year in 1942 [sic], Father Fenlon, as usual, left to take a bit of rest amid his family in Michigan. It was there that he was called to God. As his successor has so delicately noted: “For some years the Angel of Death was near and telling him that his life’s voyage was rapidly nearing its end. More than once he spoke to those around him of this eventuality. Bravely he faced it. So, we firmly believe, God found him ready.”

Long ago the Masses which are customary in the Society have been celebrated for Father Fenlon. Yet I recommend to your prayers the deceased Provincial Superior of the United States whose life and work have brought honor to the Society.

Please accept, Fathers and dear confreres, the expression of my fraternal affection in Our Lord.

P. Boisard

Superior General of the Society of St. Sulpice