Sage, Father Carleton Francis Michael

1991, January 18

Date of Birth: 1904, March 9

January 18, 1994

On a Columbia University letterhead, dated October 5, 1931, the Advisor to Catholic Students and chaplain of the Newman Club at that historic institution, the Reverend George B. Ford, writes:

This is to certify that Carleton Francis Sage received the Sacrament of Baptism, condition­ally conferred, at Notre Dame Church, New York City, on March 7, 1931.

This formal statement evidences Carleton Sage’s birth into the faith which he was to serve and promote for more than half a century. It also brought down the curtain on a period of his life which he would continue to cherish to the end of his days. For it was a period in which he dwelt within a close-knit and loving family.

He was born into that family on March 9, 1904, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father was a Professor of Law at Michigan University. Four years after his birth the family moved to South Orange, New Jersey, and after another four years to Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Carl received his elementary and high school education in Sewickley’s public schools. He was baptized in the Sewickley Presbyterian Church a few months before his graduation from high school. In 1921 he entered Yale University. From it he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925.

That same year, interested in following a religious life, Carl went to England, to Cambridge University, to study Anglican Theology. The next year he pursued his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but returned to Cambridge a year later. At the close of the scholastic year, 1927‑1928, he was ordained a deacon; a year later he became an Anglican (Episcopalian) priest belonging to the Diocese of Long Island. He served as curate (assistant) at St. Paul’s Church in Brooklyn, New York, for the following two years. About those two years Carl’s files tell us nothing. We are thus deprived of being able to learn what agonies of soul this latter-day American Newman must have known, as, Newman‑like, he struggled toward the Light. For in his own brief account of his life, written in June of 1934, he skips over those two intervening years to mention the date of his reception into the Catholic Church and his Confirmation on March 15, 1931, at the hands of Bishop John Dunn, auxiliary to Cardinal Patrick Hayes, Archbishop of New York.

The day of his reception into the Catholic Church was one of anguish for his family. They were unhappy over his ‑ to them ‑ defection. Their love for him (and his for them) never wavered; but relations became somewhat strained. That summer he travelled to Europe with his father and mother and sister. It must have been a difficult journey for them all. While they were abroad, Father Ford was busily at work trying to find a seminary which would accept Carl as a candidate for priesthood. Father Ford appealed to Father Fenlon, head of St. Mary’s Seminary, who ‑ because Carl had no affiliation with any diocese ‑ was reluctant to admit so recent a convert. But Father Ford persuaded Father Fenlon. Carl came to St. Mary’s Seminary at Paca Street in the fall of 1931.

Somewhat awkwardly because of “advanced” age and a background different from that of his fellows, Carl managed to fit himself into the patterns of seminary routine. He advanced with them from Paca Street to Roland Park and became, in 1933, a candidate for the Diocese (later Archdiocese) of Seattle. He had asked Father Fenlon to try to have him adopted by a bishop of some diocese with a cold climate. Father Fenlon found it opportune to ask Bishop Shaughnessy of Seattle to call Carl to orders. But it was only a short time later that the convert seminarian told Father Fenlon of his desire to enter St. Sulpice. Carl’s application was readily approved by the Roland Park faculty.

Already thoroughly grounded in Theology and having received minor orders, Carl was sent in the fall to make his Sulpician novitiate in the Solitude house on the grounds of St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland. Having passed muster with Father Benjamin Marcetteau, Superior of the Solitude, Carl returned to St. Mary’s Seminary on March 25 and 26, 1935, to receive subdiaconate and diaconate. The next day, March 28th, he was ordained to the priesthood in the chapel of St. Charles College by Bishop John McNamara, auxiliary to Archbishop Michael Curley of Baltimore. Present at the ceremony, among others, were Fathers Ford (then only recently pastor of Corpus Christi Church in New York City) and Fenlon, the two priests most instrumental in bringing the new priest to the altar of sacrifice. Father Sage, assisted by Father Paul Dyer, offered his First Mass in the chapel of his ordination the next morning. A month or so later, on Easter Sunday (in 1935 on April 21st) he offered his first Solemn Mass in the same chapel, with Fathers Raymond Meyer and Walter Schmitz as deacon and subdeacon.

In the fall of 1935, Father Sage returned to Roland Park to take up advanced studies for a doctorate in theology. He left those studies in 1937 to go to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. where he became a graduate student in its Department of History. So successful was he that he became a faculty member at the University in 1940 while still working towards his doctorate. He was, in those university years, resident at the Theological College. Its Rector, the revered Sulpician, Father Anthony Viéban, came to have a high regard for him both as a scholar and as a spiritual director. But Father Sage was not completely at ease. From his days as a high school student he had felt drawn to the monastic life. He was feeling a compulsion to pursue that vocation. To the regret of his superiors, but with their blessing, he entered St. Meinrad’s Abbey in Indiana in the fall of 1943. By the Lent of 1944, the Abbot advised Father Sage that St. Meinrad’s cloister was not for him.

In a letter to Father John Lardner, the Sulpician Provincial, (Father Fenlon had died in the summer of 1943), Father Sage, referring to himself as a “prodigal” sought re‑admission to St. Sulpice. Not only was he re‑admitted, but Father Lardner made known to him that the University would welcome him back. Thus, in the fall of 1944, having received his doctorate in June, he returned to the University, took up his teaching career, and resumed the scholarly life with some trepidation; for he feared that scholarship might be maintained only at the risk of dulling his spirituality.

He was unconvinced that he did not belong in a monastery, and, early in 1949, he entered into a long correspondence with Father Lloyd McDonald (who in 1948 had succeeded Father Lardner as Sulpician Provincial) about leaving the Sulpicians. He wrote to the Carthusians in England. They refused his request to enter the Charterhouse in London. In the summer, he spent some time with the Trappists in Utah, and sought his immediate release from Father McDonald in order to remain there. Father Sage was dissuaded from making so rash a move which would embarrass both the Sulpicians and the University.

But in agreement with the University, Father McDonald promised him to release him the next year. At the end of the scholastic year in 1950, on the verge of departing for the Trappists in Georgia, he received word that the Carthusians in Burgos, Spain, would welcome him. Regarding this news as divine intervention and response to his deepest desires, Father Sage went off to Spain with high hopes. But he was back in Baltimore in September. Perhaps the failing health of his father, who died in August, had sparked his rapid return from Spain. With his ties to the University severed, he settled in at Paca Street for a long tenure.

For some years thereafter Father Sage’s life was relatively tranquil. Then in the late fifties, there began in the American Province of St. Sulpice, strongly encouraged by Father McDonald, a stirring for missionary involvement. It had at first an African coloration, then became focused on South America. From the be­ginning, the missionary zeal of Father Sage was sparked; and it grew to a consuming flame. He entered into an extensive correspondence with Father McDonald, making suggestions, offering help, and strongly hinting that he would like to be chosen for the work. In the summer of 1962, he spent some time in Mexico City, testing his fitness for adaptation to a different culture. The next summer, that of 1963, Father Sage made an extensive journey through South America, sending back to Father McDonald frequent and long reports on what he felt about various dioceses and about possible co‑operation with Canadian Sulpicians in their mission seminaries.

Father Sage’s persistence in pleading to be chosen for an American mission in Latin America resulted in his being tentatively appointed to mission work in Columbia. In August 1965, with three other American Sulpicians, he went to Cuernavaca to undergo intensive training in the Spanish language. In Cuernavaca, he was a bit scandalized by the conduct of some of his fellow trainees who were exhibiting some of the excesses that were creeping in to the Church toward the close of (but not because of) Vatican Council II. His innate sense of propriety led him to avoid contact with many of his fellow trainees and prompted him in free periods to seek diversion in travel. It was perhaps this sensitive aloofness that influenced his decision to visit Guatemala where he was favorably impressed by the seminary work being done there by the Canadian Sulpicians. Very shortly after that visit, Father Sage learned that his tentative Colombia appointment had fallen through because of various complications involved with the Canadian confreres there who had some misgivings about losing their effectiveness with a population that might think them “Yankees.” (Anti‑Americanism was rife in South America.) In November it became definite that Father Sage would be going to Guatemala to help in the minor seminary staffed by the Canadian Sulpicians.

He settled in happily in Guatemala. For the next few years he taught in the minor seminary in Guatemala City with success, albeit in Spanish. He was in regular communication with a succession of Provincial Superiors (Fathers McDonald, Purta, and Frazer) through whom he was kept aware of what was happening to St. Sulpice in the United States. The Guatemalan missioner wanted an expansion of the American Province’s mission work but came to terms with the fact of the Province’s loss of seminaries and shrinkage of personnel. Meanwhile, he made a few visits to the United States, including one for medical treatment and a surgical operation. He was manifestly happy in Guatemala, and his superiors knew that his greatest concern was fear of being changed from there.

In 1970 the Canadian Sulpicians withdrew from their work in Guatemala City, leaving Father Sage without an official appointment. He arranged to leave Guatemala City and its archdiocese to take up work in Solalá in a major seminary being conducted by four American Benedictines. They were delighted to have his help. He fitted in snugly in his new community, regarding himself as semi-retired but not acting that role. Padre Carlos, as he came to be called, along with his work in the seminary, engaged in pastoral work, offering Mass, hearing confessions, and preaching in various parishes in the diocese. He was happy in all this activity, and his fellow priests were more than happy to have him with them. But age was telling on him, and his thoughts were turning to full retirement at the recently opened St. Charles Villa, the Sulpician retirement home in Catonsville. With real reluctance and heartfelt regret, he left Guatemala in 1978 and became a resident in the Villa that August.

In spite of his innate shyness, Father Sage adapted well to a life of full retirement. He became a familiar figure to the residents of St. Martin’s Home, whose administrators, the Little Sisters of the Poor, provided for him and his fellow Sulpicians at St. Charles Villa. As he walked about the spacious grounds of the Home, he would stop and chat with the St. Martin’s folks. He was equally affable with his confreres. He enjoyed conversation with them and delighted in the brief bridge games that were a staple of the post-dinner hour. He never lost his love of books and study. He listened to classical music with appreciation; he played the piano for pleasure for a brief period every day. Every day he spent at least an hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. His was a serene life at St. Charles Villa.

Father Sage had also a hidden life—one of generosity. Of his own resources he gave bountifully to the Society of St. Sulpice. But he also donated to various charities and to students both here and in Guatemala. He never lost his interest in the missions and aided them financially. His love for the people of Guatemala brought him back there several times. Family ties drew him to Arizona where his closest relatives lived even after the death of his dear sister in 1979. His love of travel brought him not only to fields afar but to vistas nearer to home. It was his wont to take short trips into the Maryland countryside; invariably, he invited one or two of his confreres to go with him. His retirement years were tranquil ones and, with no stressful alarums, eased him into a tranquil death.

Father Sage was his usual serene self – up to a few days before his death. Taken to St, Agnes Hospital with no expectation that he would not return to St. Charles Villa, he died peacefully on January 18, 1991. His fondest wish, evidenced many times over the years, was to be buried from the chapel of his ordination and first Masses, and to lie in the cemetery on the grounds of St. Charles College.

St. Augustine speaks of a heart that is restless until it rests in God. Father Sage had such a heart; Father Sage knew that restlessness. That restlessness called him to a pious boyhood, called him to God’s service at Cambridge, called him to the Catholic faith, called him to priesthood, called him to St. Sulpice, called him to the cloister, called him to the missions, and, at the last, called him to God.

Vincent M. Eaton, S.S.

St. Charles Villa