Back to the Roots: Examining Maryknoll's Heroic Beginnings
The Evangelical Vision of Father Thomas Fredrick Price
The saintly co-founder of Maryknoll, Father Thomas Fredrick Price, was an apostolic priest, faithful to Catholic orthodoxy, totally consecrated to the Immaculate Virgin, and zealous for the conversion of America and the pagan Orient to the true Church.
News of leftist-communist political activism and open dissent from binding Church teaching among Maryknoll missionaries has overshadowed the great beginnings of the first foreign missionary institute in the U.S. But if we look not too far back - through the "smoke of Satan" that Pope Paul VI said had entered the sanctuary of God - we will see Maryknoll's early history as one of great heroism, beginning with its two venerable founders.
Known as "Walsh and Price" - people said they sounded like a business firm - Fathers James A. Walsh and Thomas F. Price were a wonderfully complementary pair. They were two very distinctively American types: Father (later Bishop) Walsh was a city slicker from Boston with a head for organizing things on a grand scale; Father Price, a "Tar Heel" from North Carolina, was a country boy, homespun and personable - and very saintly. It is the latter half of this diverse duo that I would like to feature.
We begin with a brief sketch: Thomas Fredrick Price (August 19, 1860 - September 12, 1919) was the son of two converts of Wilmington, North Carolina. Learning to serve Mass as a young man, he occasionally accompanied Bishop (later Cardinal) Gibbons on his rounds among the few Catholics of the region. The tender piety of the boy's mother and his close relationship to his parish priests awoke in young "Freddie" the idea of a priestly vocation. He went to Saint Charles Seminary in Catonsville, Maryland, followed by Saint Mary's in Baltimore.
In 1886, he became the first North Carolinian ordained to the priesthood. Initially a parish priest, he became a missionary to non-Catholics in his home state. Included in his apostolic undertakings were the foundation of a boys' orphanage and, later, of a seminary to train young men to be priests in the North Carolina mission. In 1910, he became acquainted with Father James Walsh at a Eucharistic Congress in Montreal. The two nurtured the same zealous aspirations, and, eventually, founded the first foreign missionary institute in the U.S.: The Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Commonly known as Maryknoll, the institution was approved by the U.S. hierarchy and blessed by Pope Saint Pius X, who personally encouraged the founders.
Father Price performed many functions in the Society's early days: He was their advocate among the bishops, a fund raiser, recruiter, seminary instructor, and spiritual director of seminarians and brothers - a position which allowed him to put the stamp of his deep piety on the fledgling institution. When the new Society's first three priests were ready to depart for China on September 7, 1918, Father Price went with them. Just over a year later, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Mary, September 12, 1919, he died in Hong Kong of a burst appendix.
Father Price was considered a saint by many who knew him, but of all this testimony, we will give only one instance: At the end of his life, the Chinese faithful of the Yeungkong mission called him simply, "The Holy Priest."
The secret of his sanctity lay in living the Marian Consecration promoted by Saint Louis de Montfort. He wore chains on his arms and legs - padlocked ones! - symbolizing his slavery to the Blessed Virgin. He first consecrated himself in Lourdes, France, where he became deeply impressed with the message of Our Lady and the virtues of Saint Bernadette. He became a pioneer in promoting the apparition in this country, translating one volume on the little visionary, and authoring another.
The Mother Superior at Nevers, France, gave him the unique privilege of saying Mass at the tomb of Bernadette, who had not yet been declared "venerable." More strikingly, the sisters allowed his heart to be buried near Saint Bernadette's remains. A plaque on the wall marks the spot of its repose. The message of Lourdes - "I am the Immaculate Conception" - was something he thought particularly relevant to the U.S., given the fact that our nation was consecrated to Our Lady under that title.
But if this Marian missionary was so desirous of the conversion of his homeland - as a lad of seven, he said he wanted "Every Tar Heel a Catholic!" - why is he the cofounder of a foreign missionary society? The answer to this question only confirms the Tar Heel's supernatural wisdom. Back when Cardinal Manning began the English congregation known as the Mill Hill Fathers, critics asked why English Catholics would go abroad as missionaries when Albion was not yet reclaimed from Henry VIII's treachery. The Cardinal's reply was that God would reward the generous spirit of England's Catholics in evangelizing the heathen: "If we desire to find the surest way to multiply immensely our own material means for works at home, it is by not limiting the expansion of charity and by not paralyzing the zeal of self-denial."
Manning's ideas had impressed Father Walsh, and he, in turn, convinced Father Price of their merit. Father Price's beloved "North Carolina Apostolate" - he had built a seminary for it, and another when the first burned down - was turned over to another priest. Just as Mother Cabrini, Father Kino, and others were supposed to go to China and ended up here in America, our American apostle ended up in China.
To Father Price, the home and foreign missions were of a piece, and he was indignant that neither was sufficiently supported by American Catholics. Accusing them of "apathy" and "indifference," he thundered: "If the Catholics in this country but did their duty to both home and foreign missions a mighty change would take place both in ourselves and in the whole foreign-mission world. The matter of missions will not down. It lies in the very essence of Catholicity, and it is shameful that at present we do so little."
But what did the Church think of Maryknoll's roundabout way of converting America?
In the person of Pope Saint Pius X, she heartily approved! Father Price related the saint's reaction: "He said, when he read the schema prepared for him of the work - and he read every word of it - that he granted it, and us, all benedictions. As he was reading, he said twice that we had in America enough outside the Church - millions - who needed to be converted, but he thought this work would stimulate that, besides bringing about its own good." [Emphasis mine.]
If today's Maryknoll has abandoned the founders' vision, it is no doubt due to the fact that, unlike Saint Pius X, they do not believe that those "outside the Church. needed to be converted." And would they say, as Father Price did, "Pray and work for the conversion of countless millions now perishing"? Their interest having shifted from the supernatural to the natural, from Christian salvation to Marxist "liberation," it seems that prominent Maryknollers would have other interests.
Through the intercession of the Immaculate One of Lourdes, of Saint Bernadette and - I shall include him "privately" - of Father Thomas Price, may there arise many true sons and daughters of "Walsh and Price" to make America what they wanted it to become, the world's great missionary superpower.
An online journal edited by the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Saint Benedict Center, New Hampshire.
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