1952 –The American College Comes Alive Again
Reflections from Dick Cross
AC Class of 1958
Renaissance and Growing Pains: The American College Comes Alive Again – 1952
by Richard Cross ‘58
“This place is wonderful and the old spirit of Louvain walks again about our gardens. Things are alive again. It is a real resurrection.” (a letter home, October 5, 1952)
The University Town of Louvain
Part 1. First impressions
In late September of 1952 Pete Riga, Bob Harris and myself sat bewildered on our luggage in the Brussels train station. We were surrounded by crowds of French and Flemish-speaking Belgians. We felt somewhat like our forefathers who were deposited on Ellis Island.
When Father Jim Hickey (now Cardinal-Archbishop of Washington) told Harry Sikorski and myself that the bishop was sending us to the American College of Louvain that was going to reopen after many years of war and reconstruction we hardly knew where Belgium was let alone an American College. Harry was to go for four years of theology and I was to go for six years of philosophy and theology. The diocese of Saginaw wanted to be a part of this pioneering effort.
After one of us, because he couldn’t read the signs, had been dutifully kicked out of the ladies room in the train station by a Brünnhilde-like attendant, we managed to get on the right train for Louvain with the help of an English-speaking Belgian lady. Once arrived at our destination we experienced a wild taxi ride through dark and rain-soaked streets that landed us in front of a huge double door on the rue de Namur. Having tugged on the big bell for a good while we were let into a dark courtyard only to be greeted warmly by the new rector, Father Thomas Maloney.
I must confess that having come from a very strict minor seminary with a rather austere and authoritarian administration I was deeply impressed by the solicitude and fatherly demeanor of the man who greeted us. This was not the kind of seminary rector I was used to. As we soon learned, this rather lonely and isolated man was totally in love with the American College and dedicated to its history and spirit as well as the student body. He was a seminary faculty of one from the outset and extended himself so much for the students in those early days that I wrote home in early October, “If he doesn’t stop killing himself for us we won’t have any faculty at all.” Soon Father Maloney would get some help from Father Ed Gannon, SJ, who served us devotedly as spiritual director in those early years while working on his doctorate in philosophy.
The rector told us there would be an early rising! I would hear the bell in the morning. From my room on the third floor, however, I heard no bell. By the time I got downstairs the boys who had arrived had already been to mass and were now having breakfast. It was Sunday. Father Maloney gave me communion and reminded me I had to go to mass. So a bunch of us trekked through town and up to the monastery of Mont Cesar.
As a musician I was elated by the chanting of the monks and soon learned that their choirmaster, Dom Suitbert Caron, would be our chant teacher. For the next six years this sweet, elderly Dutch priest would grace us with his presence at chant rehearsals each week and his frequent renditions of Irish ballads on college feast days.
My first impressions of the physical aspects of the college are vivid in my memory as well as in my letters home. There had been some damage to the structure of the college during the war. One damaged wall revealed to the outside world (and to our chagrin) the outline of the urinals that had once stood there in a row. The lower garden had once been a beauty spot but was now overgrown and needed serious work. There was a little neglected chapel by the back wall. Yet at this time of year beautiful ivy, now rust- colored, graced the high wall that separated the students’ side of the property from the rector’s garden. There were pear trees planted in such a way that they could benefit from the not-too-generous Belgian sun. By contrast, on the other side of the back wall there hung a rather filthy pissoir that I think remained there during most of my entire six-year stay. If there was any means of venting hostility towards American by the local Communist groups in those days or during the uproar over the Loi Collard controversy and ensuing riots, this was surely the way to go.
The student rooms had a high door and even higher ceiling. In each room there was a huge desk, a single bed that by day could be folded up into the wall and covered by a curtain. There were two large windows that were generous with sunlight but overly generous with the cold air from outside. At the outset of our stay there was no heat at all and really never much later on. There was a sink with one faucet. There was no hot water. If we wanted hot water we had to bring it to our room in a pitcher. There was one light bulb above the sink that had to suffice for the entire room until we eventually got a lamp. When we did get a lamp the following month we were limited to a 40-watt bulb. The lamp and light over the sink were not to be on at the same time, however. There was also a glass shelf above the sink for toiletries. Toilet paper itself was rationed by the rector and had to be kept in our room. One would have to carry his own roll down the hall when he wished to visit the john as there was no toilet paper kept there. There was also a large cabinet in the room, one half of which had shelves. The other side opened full length. I noted the fine wood and craftsmanship of the cabinet, joined by pegs rather than nails.
We came to learn how much the spirit of the great Jules De Becker hovered over Father Maloney. A high portrait of him hung in the refectory. Father Maloney tried to replicate the days of his own student life under the Monsignor and quoted him often as an icon of how the American College should be run. Once two of my devilish classmates hung a cut-out face from an Aunt Jemima pancake box over the face in the portrait of that distinguished and revered former rector. The lads in the refectory burst out laughing but Father Maloney was not pleased to see his hero thus portrayed.
Rising was at 5:25 am with breakfast held at 7:15. An innovation for us Americans was the afternoon “goûter.” Between 12 o’clock lunch at which we always had soup and 7 o’clock supper we experienced something new, the goûter, a 4 o’clock snack of coffee, bread and butter. Michel was the man in charge of things around the college and supervised the meals. He was assisted by two, strange little fellows, Franz and René. They amused the student body mightily with their antics and caused the poor and exasperated Michel to huff and puff frantically in Flemish. We eagerly awaited three Italian sisters whom would be preparing our meals and whom we rarely saw.
Breakfast was always interesting and could be a cause of consternation and groaning among the troops. One morning there would be a kind of oatmeal that we called “gruel.” Another day there was sliced cheese. Some mornings we had some kind of strange baked good that was referred to as “kilo cake” or “ton bun.” At other times there was this mysterious sliced, deep-red horsemeat, referred to euphemistically as “reindeer meat.” Later corn flakes were sometimes served- a touch of home.
The clerical dress required by Cardinal Van Roey was clearly defined and adhered to by the American College: the soutane was to be worn at all times. A sash was required as well. So too was the Belgian chapeau that had a large flat brim. This hat, even if not worn, had to be carried at all times when venturing out to class or on a walk. There was also a long black overcoat worn by the clergy. But our rector did not insist on it as long as we had some kind of black overcoat. Some of the fellows had brought over cassocks from the States, Jesuit-style, which were tolerated. But most of us hastened to Vandeven’s on Herbert Hoover Place for a fitting and ended up looking almost Belgian when we finished. One thing that set us apart, however, was that we wore pants. This was a great source of amusement to the Belgian population who were used to seeing their own clergy walking about with two bony legs in long black stockings protruding from below the cassock. There was speculation among us as to what was beneath the cassock, shorts or knickers. The Jesuits, on the other hand, and we Americans took pride in our exposed pant legs, a cause of much admiratio populi among the local populace. I still have a record of my purchase so long ago:
- One black serge soutane $ 45.00
- One black sash $2.00
- One Belgian-style chapeau $4.50
Fifty-three young Americans were ready to undertake the adventure of their life.
Part 2 Student Life
“For seven years (1851-1858) Newman was involved in a n attempt to found a Catholic university in Ireland … on the pattern of Louvain.” (The Idea of a University, introduction)
Americans were once more about to enter into the life of this great university.
It was a lovely walk through the park to the Institut Supérieur de Philosphie where we philosophers would be taking most of our classes. Each day we would pass the bust of the great Cardinal Mercier as we entered. We would soon learn that it was he who had been the impetus of the revival of Catholic philosophy and a fresh look at the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
With six years of Latin in the minor seminary under my belt I feel prepared for any lecture they can throw at me. To my dismay I discover that all our classes will be in French. Me miserum!
We soon learn that, but for Gus Delvaux’s daily notes, we will all shortly be dead in the water. Professor Fauville’s French (psychology) and that of Debaisieux (biology) is the clearest but the content is overwhelming for me: the behavior of the amoeba and digestive system of the frog – in French! Mon Dieu! Sitting at the feet of the great Jacques Leclercq is a great honor, but he is old and stammers to boot. I am scandalized when students set off firecrackers in his class.
We have luminaries for professors: Van Steenberghen, Van Riet, Dondeyne, Ladrière. But we have to learn French first. To the rescue come the American Jesuits from Miderbroedestraat and Egenhoven. Fathers Tony McHale and Tim Healy, for example. Tim (who would go on to fame as a University president and head of the New York Public Library before his untimely death), Tony and others give us precious time as they drill us in our Assimile: “French without Toil.” Whoever said that?
There are weekend reprieves from academic with chant classes with Dom Suitbert Carron and visits to Mont Cesar to hear his monks chant Vespers. There are long Sunday walks with an occasional Belgian cigar. There are treks to the villa out of town where we first view the damage to our tennis courts caused (we are told) by British tanks rolling over them.
Among our numbers that first year were mostly boys from Manchester and Providence, along with fellows from Covington, Rockford and Saint Paul. A finer group I never knew. They were quickly making friends and catching the Louvain spirit.
It was the midst of the Cold War and there were constant demonstrations: “Commies, Socialists, liberals and anti-clericals,” as I wrote home in the spirit of the times. Tom Monaghan and I wandered one Sunday into a Communist quarter inadvertently and were promptly put to flight, cassocks flowing, by rock-throwing kids. Yet the townspeople were very friendly even as they thought us rather odd. Our behavior certainly did not match that of the local clergy of the day who walked quickly through the streets, eyes downcast. Besides we wore pants that showed! Mirabile dictu!
Night prayers at 8:00 PM and lights out at 9:45 help get us ready for a 5:25 rising and another day of classes. (It is already October (1952) and we still have no hot water or heat in the chapel.) Here is our program of studies for the first year of philosophy:
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Political Economy
- History of Philosophy of the Middle Ages
- Social Philosophy
- History of Social Theories
For those of us who came from minor seminaries university classes were quite a cultural shock: In our classes were “laymen, men and women (with whom we never spoke), priests, nuns, monks with shaven heads, in sandals, long black beards, bright red beards, black students from the Belgian Congo.” It’s hard to get used to being a foreigner. We must learn French!
We sit as close to the front as we can in the lecture halls to hang on every word as the French flows. We try to look intelligent at the same time. Gus takes his notes furiously and we can’t wait to learn what went over our heads in class. I write home that some of the Belgian lay students, the guys, are a “rather rowdy bunch and very poorly mannered.” They laugh at us in our silly hats and sometimes even grab them and sail them across the hall. This comes to a quick end as the American seminarians show they are not so meek as their Belgian counterparts and are quite capable of becoming physical when necessary.
One day in October we arrive at Psychology class late and have to stand at the rear of the large lecture hall filled with a couple hundred students for the whole lecture. The next day we hasten to be there early and promptly take our place in the front rows. We did not know that those seats were always reserved for the girls. Just as the students had shown disrespect for Canon Leclercq so here too in Psychology one character had already ridden his bicycle in one door, crossed in front of the rostrum during Professor Fauville’s lecture and out another door to the great amusement of the audience.
Five minutes into the lecture a couple of girls arrive late and proceed to the front of the hall where our boys are sitting. Without hesitation two American College lads stand up and give up their seats. There is a roar of laughter from the lay students and several minutes of hundreds of feet stomping at the sight of two American abbés giving their seats to Belgian girls.
When the bedlam finally ceased Professor Fauville launched into a tirade at the against the students, the meaning of which we were later thrilled to learn: Chivalry was born in Europe and Europeans should think twice before they mock Americans. It was too bad that foreigners had to teach a lesson in civility to Belgians.
That day the lads from the American College went home with their heads held higher than usual. University life had only just begun.
Part 3 – November 1952
This week our rector, Father Thomas Maloney, told us that during the month of October the 53 of us here at the American College had consumed 521 loaves of bread. He also says the College is in a real financial bind these days. Of course our minds are on food a good deal of the time. We do get lots of bread. But one thing we never get is milk; just a little for our coffee. When we do get it for our occasional cereal it’s been boiled ahead of time and is rather lumpy. The lumps float in our coffee. Something else we don’t see much of is green vegetables or citrus fruit. We have lots of potatoes, however, and good soup at noon every day religiously. This month three Italian Sisters are supposed to arrive to cook for us. We are looking forward to that. As a topic of conversation food is right up there with philosophy and theology.
One Sunday last month the rector took us out to our “villa” which is still occupied by some university big wig. Uncle Tom hopes to be able to dislodge him soon. There is a nice house there, some fine pear trees with delicious fruit, and a damaged tennis court.
The rector seems to have somewhat of a siege mentality since he has had to fight every inch of the way to recover the college property and villa from the Belgians. He has an ally in the rector magnificus, Monsignor Honorius Van Waeyenbergh. His living quarters are right next to the college and he says mass every morning in our chapel. I had the chance to serve for his mass once. He is very pious, dignified and humble at the same time. We were told that he is a national hero for having stood up to the Nazis during the war. He drives a Buick that looks huge here in the narrow streets of Louvain.
We are supposed to take a walk outside the College twice a week besides Sundays. We have to always carry our clerical chapeau even if we don’t wear it.
We can’t smoke within the city limits, although I have to confess that Tom Monaghan and I had a Belgian cigar a few times on the outskirts of town. In town we have visited a Jesuit church where we saw the heart of Saint John Berchmans in a rather grotesque reliquary. The Irish Franciscans are always very hospitable to a visitor. Just down the street is a little church of the Picpus Fathers where Father Damien the leper of Molokai is buried. I learned that as a young Flemish country boy he first approached our American College in Louvain to be accepted for studies to become a missionary in America. The rector took one look at him and decided he was too much of a country rube to study for the church in America. Dejected he went down the street and presented himself to the Picpus Fathers who accepted him. Our loss. Hawaii’s gain.
As a mid-Westerner I had never encountered a New Englander like Father Maloney. He’s tall and lanky, wears thick glasses and talks like a Yankee. He has been very solicitous to all of his students’ needs. Sort of like a mother hen. He’s a bit moody but of course he is all alone and overwhelmed by his responsibility. The other day I went to talk with him about our music program. I’ve been playing the large harmonium in our chapel. It requires lots of exercise for the legs as I have to pump it constantly. George Cora, a theologian whom I have known since minor seminary days, is helping us by organizing and directing our choir.
Father Maloney told me to sit down and asked how I was doing. Then he shared with me his apprehension about the financial status of the college. He also said he was “green” at being a rector and hoped no one would take advantage of him because of this. While I was in his quarters Michel arrived with a package for him from the States. He opened it and offered me a box of cookies to take to my room. He told me about how he had succeeded in getting some of the American Jesuits to come to the College to teach us French. That is most welcome as right now we are dying in class. Professor Debaisieux lectures us in French about how the amoeba moves and the sex life of the frog while Professor De Bie goes on and on about the law of supply and demand. It’s also hard to understand poor Canon Jacques Leclercq who has a speech impediment and stammers in French. This kindly old white-haired man is a world-renowned moralist and yet the Belgian students make fun of him and stomp their feet in derision when he stumbles in his speech. We really need help in French.
Right now we’d all be dead were it not for Gus Delvaux from Providence. He not only takes copious notes but he also helps the rector in many ways. He’s a genius with electricity and all kinds of technical stuff. He is of Belgian ancestry and has relatives in the French –speaking part of the country. The rector appreciates him as much as we do because he is his acting “maintenance man.”
Once when I was sick the rector made me go to bed and then he brought me fruitcake and linden tea. He is a great believer in linden tea as a remedy and makes it all the time for my sick classmates. Another example of what he’s like was when my two walking partners and I got home late for the 4 o’clock goûter. When we apologized he said, “Well, we all make mistakes.” Then he sat us down and proceeded to go down to the kitchen and reappeared with bread and coffee cups and practically waited on us himself.
Cardinal van Roey of Malines has some other rules for the clergy besides their dress code. For instance they are forbidden under pain of excommunication from going to theaters. I don’t know if this applies to American priests. One American father told me that he and some priest friends tried to go to movies. They were not only refused admission but they got an insulting lecture as well. We have a few rules of our own here at the College. We are forbidden to go to Paris during our stay at the College (the rector later gave in to us on this.) Scandinavia was entirely off limits (this was never changed).
We could never stay overnight in Brussels. Christmas vacation must be taken in Belgium. (We managed to talk the rector out of this by Christmas.)
Although we’re not supposed to associate with lay people there is one British lad in philosophy class who is very friendly. He’s a convert and is very funny. The other day he said to me: “These bloomin’ Belgians. They don’t know what a bathtub is and the only decent toilets they have were made in England.” A bit exaggerated. But I myself can’t get over the open public toilets for men. Not only do we have a very open one on our back wall behind our little chapel in the lower garden but there are also eight large ones on the very side wall of St. Peter’s Collegiate church in the center of town.
But the Belgians are wonderful people and very friendly. The only unfriendly Belgians I’ve encountered are the customs officials and people in the post office. We have to go to three different places to get a package from home and you’d think we were bringing in contraband or bombs the way they treat us over a package of mother’s cookies. I know the people in town would rather speak English with us than French. Right now that’s ok with me as I am just leaning some basic vocabulary. One Belgian seminarian in class with us, Charles Stévigny, amazes me with his knowledge of American movies and literature. He quotes Shakespeare to me all the time and I am embarrassed when he asks me what I think of Hemmingway’s latest novel.
The army is everywhere. There is a barracks across the street and it is fun to see and hear them march through the streets over the cobblestones and barking out their commands in Flemish. (It is also a wonderful sound to hear the hoof beats in the street as the beer wagons go by). The army goes right into the church too. We went to a big mass on Armistice Day and the soldiers with their guns and shiny bayonets lined the main aisle. I had to walk between these columns and it was a weird feeling. At the consecration of the mass an officer shouted out a command and all the soldiers came to attention and raised their guns and buglers went crazy. Wow, all this in the middle of mass! And the sound of the trackers clicking away on these ancient pipe organs while playing the Belgian National Anthem give one the impression that there is a percussion section in the loft adding to the drama of the moment.
Next time I write I think I’ll have to tell you about some of my classmates- the formidable post-war pioneer class. O Sodales!
Part 4 – December 1952 - Settling In
We philosophers at the College get great exercise going around town to our classes. Canon Van Riet teaches at the Superior Institute of Philosophy. Professor Rousseau teaches Political Economy at the Leo XIII College. Professor Fauville’s Psychology class is at the Pope Adrian VI College. Professor Debaisieux’s Biology class is taught at the Zoological Institute while Professors Ladrière and De Bie teach Social Philosophy at the Spoelbergh Institute. We really have to hustle around. Some of the professors have told us we can take our oral exams in English if we «speak slowly ».
Now as far as the professors in the theology department are concerned they are highly regarded by our confrères. It doesn’t take long, however, for the students to begin to quote them humorously. Here are a few choice quotes gathered over the years :
-Canon Joseph Coppens (Old Testament)
"Gigantes erant temporibus illis" (Genesis)
(Those were the days of the giants)
"Das ist zeitgebunden" (That's outdated)
-Canon Louie Janssens: (Moral theology – sometimes known as “Hairy Dicebamus")
From his familar Latin phrase in class every day: "Uti heri dicebamus" (As we were saying yesterday)
"Illa copula carnalis" (translation not needed)
"...chez Margaret Mead dans 'Vingt-et-un ans chez les Papous'"
(…One reads in Margaret Mead's "Twenty one years among the Papuans")
-Canon Wagnon: (Canon Law)
"C'est dans le Code" (It's in the Code)
"Mettez-vous en règle" (Behave yourself)
"Dans les statuts de Boston..." (As in the regulations of Boston....)
-Canon Eduard Massaux: (New Testament)
"Sanctus Paulus bene scit quod scribit"
(it’s not the translation that mattered here)
"Les évêques américains dans leurs grosses Cadillacs ou dans leurs
(Those American bishops in their big Cadillacs or great easy chairs.)
"Methoda nostra" (our method, i.e. historical, form criticism)
concerning a certain student buddy of mine who shall forever remain anonymous:
"Celui je l'ai busé plusieurs fois"
(I flunked that poor fellow several times)
“C’est l”argent jeté”
(It’s throwing your money away”
-Father/Bishop Thomas Maloney: (Rector)
"Either Punch or Judy will get you"
"This morning we're going to meditate on Death"
To local merchants: "Donnez-moi une rémise pour le Collège`"
(Give me a discount for the College)
-Monseigneur Van Weyenbergh: (Rector Magnificus)
"Tuesday I go to Congo"
Father Victor Hintgen: (Spiritual Director)
"Give a little thought to Dymphna"
"Let me be dunged, O Lord."
“The price of cows went down.”
-Canon Thils (Dogma)
(Old French or a mild : "Damn")
The Belgian WC`s are a constant source of amazement. The urinal on our back wall across from the Black Nuns’ convent now has a companion- a huge Communist poster. What a fitting match!
Sometimes the WC’s can be confusing. When we first arrived my poor traveling companion, Pete Riga, genius from Buffalo that he is, mistakenly walked into the Ladies Room in the Brussels train station. He exited quickly followed by a hefty matron uttering something horrible in Flemish as she pointed out the “Herren” sign next door. Pete soon became famous for his fabulous and coveted class notes as well as for his ability to imitate various profs. He also could distribute a florid papal blessing in the finest Italianized Latin from on high to the teeming masses of humanity in the basketball courtyard below. Another great linguist in our midst is Paul Kenefick from Hartford who can render a perfect and animated Professor Massaux or Janssens in either Latin or French.
We are still trying to recover from the collapse of the wall into our lower garden last a month ago. Five of our fellows went crashing down with the wall and miraculously avoided injury. In spite of this calamity our Master of Games, Connie Doherty, managed to go ahead with plans to rig up a makeshift basketball court. A lot of the fellows are plenty happy about that.
Our spiritual director, Father Ed Gannon, SJ, is a wonderful man. Witty, cultured and utterly human he is in constant demand. The rector depends on him completely and even though he is pursuing his doctorate in Philosophy (on Malraux) he always manages to find time for us. What would have ever done without the Jesuits!
Gus Delvaux, the wunderkind from Providence, can fix anything. He is the rector’s handyman and our salvation with the wonderful class notes he prepares for us. Gus is of Belgian extraction and has relatives here. His uncle in Namur is a pastor and former major general in the Belgian underground. He will make a great priest if he doesn’t burn himself out doing things for others first. Right now he’s making an Advent Wreath for the refectory.
Uncle Tom told us today that the 53 of us had consumed 521 loaves of bread during October. Although Michel, our major domo, and the two houseboys, Franz and René, work hard we have to do a lot of manual labor and cleaning ourselves. We recently had to wash and wax the chapel floor. One complaint I’ve heard is that the Belgian seminarians at the Leo XIII College get to see American movies while we don’t. I hope that will change soon. Another recent happening is that the Italian nuns arrived at the end of November. So far they have burned a lot of things. Perhaps they will get better in time. Meanwhile the famous Jules de Becker looks down upon us severely each day in the refectory. He is Uncle Tom’s hero and I think our rector tries to emulate the good monsignor in every way he can.
Toilet paper is rationed and we each must keep ours in our room. It is bizarre to see a colleague walking down the corridor to the john with a roll under his arm. The johns are in the stairwells between each floor. Some clown put a pair of shoes in each stall and this caused a panic attack for some as the ran up and down the stairs looking for an empty throne.
The America Jesuit scholastics who come up from Minderbroederstraat to tutor us in French are a dynamic bunch and great role models. They are much older than we are but still not ordained. (One of our tutors was Tim Healy, who died not long ago. He went on to become a famous university president and head of the New York Public Library.) My French tutor is Tony McHale who will be ordained next year. We will always be indebted to these wonderful Jesuit friends who came to our rescue in difficult times.
The students at the university can go on a rampage without much provocation. The Flemish and Walloon students go at frequently. It’s easy to tear up cobblestones and bring traffic to a standstill. There is a tram that runs in front of our college. It is known as “the priest killer.” It cannot run, nor can cars or beer wagons, if the cobble stones have been dug up and piled in a barricade. Recently a singer names Tino Rossi, unpopular with the students for some reason, tried to perform in Louvain. They pelted him with fruits and vegetables and tore up the theater. I went over the next day to see all the broken windows and lampposts. The Magnificus was furious.
Another time they stole the academic robes of the faculty right before a big function and flew one robe from a flagpole. They also pulled off an elaborate caper by pretending King Beaudoin was going to visit a girls’ school. They had a lookalike arrive by limousine and it all went well until someone caught on and called the police. A riot ensued. It seems the students have three favorite targets: the cops, the Communists, and the clergy. Anti-clericalism is a new phenomenon for us Americans.
November brings the Feast of All Souls Day and a renewal of the pre-war annual trek to the College cemetery plot out at the Norbetine Parc Abbey. It was a dismal and rainy day and we made the sombre pilgrimage in a sea of black robes, cloaks and chapeaux. We prayed for the dead seminarians who never made it our of Belgium and were glad to leave that unhappy place. The rector is somewhat obsessed with death.
In case not, here they are.
Tom Monaghan from New Hampshire is our resident weatherman. He was quickly renamed “Moon” because he is always searching the skies for signs of change in the weather. His predictions are accurate. Of course in Belgium you can’t be far off if you predict rain. But he also knows a lot about foreign cars, jets, bikes and so on. He can also imitate the sound of helicopters, motor boats and broken down Saabs.
My colleague from Saginaw, Harry Sikorski who is in first theology, has taken on the heavy responsibility of building up our college library together with Pete O’Dea, Ed Boland, Larry Breedlove and Maurice Carroll. This is an enormous task as the war years have taken their toll.
Going to Belgian customs to pick up a package from home is a nightmare. You usually have to go to at least three separate locations. Bob Boisvert from New Hampshire who speaks perfect French (and, new to mid-Western ears, says “aunt” “bath” and “ask” like a New Englander) saved the day for me at the customs office. We had been to the post office to send home a pair of wooden shoes he had bought for his folks. At the customs station I had a package from home waiting for me. Mom had marked the value at $13.00 and the customs officials wanted to charge me 25% duty. Bob argued with them at length in French that the package was overvalued. He managed to get them down to a duty fee of $1.50 and saved the day.
When we go out for a walk in town it must always be two-by-who (bini et bini) and never alone. The other day Tom Monaghan and I wandered into Kesseloo which we soon learned is a Communist area. We were promptly abused verbally and to put to flight out of the neighborhood with stones and cassocks flying.
Some of the theologians, George Behan (Providence), Frank Giudice (Providence), Armand LaVaute (Washington DC), Bill Greytak (Helena) and others are already making plans for Christmas. A couple of my classmates from Providence, Frank Keefe and Jack Greaves, show a lot of aptitude for providing entertainment and skits for the students and we are looking forward to some fun times at Christmas.
If it weren’t for the diocese of Providence and Manchester we would not have so large a student body as we do. Of the 53 of us the largest number are from Providence, Manchester and Saint Paul. Some of the other dioceses represented here are Rockford, Dallas, Hartford, New York, Dubuque, Baltimore, Saginaw, Amarillo, Helena, Washington, Lansing, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, Buffalo, Camden, Worcester, Belleville and Galveston. Someday I hope these dioceses will be remembered for their pioneering efforts in reopening our college.
Part 5: Here to Stay
The first post-war year for the American College was one of renewing old traditions and establishing new ones. Our first Christmas Eve found the schola under the direction of George Cora (’56 Baltimore) roaming the corridors at twenty minutes to midnight singing carols to wake up the boys. Midnight mass was followed by a little goûterand a 2:00 am stroll in the back garden. Early in the morning there was a low mass; then a Solemn High liturgy followed by a big feed. In the evening we had an impressive choral service with narratives. If I have good legs today it’s thanks to six years of pumping the daylights out of the huge harmonium in the choir loft.
A new Christmas tradition for the College was set with the discovery of the St. Joseph House in Engleberg, Switzerland, a Shangrila that has since become legendary among our alumni. One of the discoveries on this trip was a little device for heating a cup of water. By lighting a white tablet one could make a cup of tea or soup. Back in Louvain it would add to the comfort of our room. We were really cold. In fact many of the boys suffered from chilblains. In one of the many skits put on at the college we sang a version of « I Don`t Want to Set the World on Fire », adding « I Just Want a Little Heat in My Room. » The rector was not pleased.
In March the philosophers put on a St. Patty show with Tom Monaghan (’58 Manchester) with an Irish brogue as MC. Whenever we had skits at the college you could count on Frank Keefe and Jack Greaves (’58 Providence), Bob Williams (’58 Rockford), and Bob Boisvert (’58 Manchester) to be the prime movers. Hams each of them and always creative.
One good break with tradition came when the rector told us we no longer had to wear out large chapeau when we went out. We could carry them or suspend them by a cord over the shoulder. Uncle Tom kept us off the streets on May Day, however. All the Communists turned out en masse for a giant parade with red neckties, flags and noisy bands. I had to take some teasing because on the way to Engelberg I kept saying, « I can’t wait to see an Alp. » Now all I wanted to see was « a Communist. » That day looking out the window I saw lots of them.
Over the years the American College received a number of famous visitors. Here are a few whom I recall : Canon Cardijn, founder of the Jocists or Young Christian Workers; Abbé Pierre, ragpicker of Emmaus; Father Pierre Chares, S.J. spiritual writer and missiologist; Cardinal Eugene Tisserant, Dean of the College of Cardinals; Archbishop Fulton Sheen; Yves Congar, famous French theologian. One favorite visitor was Auxiliary Bishop Stephen Leven of San Antonio, an alumnus. His favorite one-liner was « What does one auxiliary bishop say when he meets another? Long time no See.»
Not all our visitors made a great hit, however. The American Ambassador to Belgium came and showed he hadn’t done his homework. « You have come from many places and will be going to many places, » he said profoundly. He didn’t even realize this was a Catholic University and kept referring to the Rector Magnificus as « Sir » and « Mister ». Now our great Monsignor Honorius Van Waeyenbergh was a humble man but also a national hero and the most dignified man I have ever known. This was a great embarrassment for everyone.
A word about our oral exams. It was not easy for us to adjust to the exam procedure at the university. First of all, exams were entirely oral. You got one shot at passing the course, sink or swim. You had no other grades to fall back on like mid-terms
or written work. You had to pay a fee to take the exam and if you failed you had to pay another fee for a retake. The exams were given in French but some of the professors would allow us to speak English. There would be a lot of luck involved : who got the right questions, the order in which you were called for the exam, how well the person before you had done, etc.
After weeks of study, during what the Belgians called «le grand bloc » or the big cram, it was fascinating to see the emergence of a new kind of classsmate. Some of the women students, who until then had been unkempt and unconcerned about their looks, suddenly appeared for their exams fresh from the beauty parlor and reeking of exotic perfumes. Whatever works!
In some ways my six years of minor seminary training were not much of a preparation for what lay ahead in philosophy. Six years of Latin and four years of Greek would serve me well when I got to theology. But right now it meant little. No one was going to ask me to translate Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Homer or the Anabasis of Xenophon. In fact the fellows who had gone to a regular high school and junior college were better prepared in the sciences for what we now faced.
Professor Debaissieux, the biology teacher, was a hard old geezer, a layman who warned us in class that « Americans think they can get away with murder when they study in Europe. » Another professor said, « The Holy Ghost isn’t going to take your exam for you. » Ominous words.
Lucky me. I was one of the first on the list with Debaissieux. He asked me, « What is an egg? Tell me about flat worms. » I knew very little but squeaked by. But the old man got madder and madder as the exams progressed with others. By the time he reached one poor soul further down the alphabet he was furious. When asked how an amoeba moves my colleague stammered : « It sort of wiggles. » He threw the lad out and flunked three others outright.
Professor Van Riet kept me 25 minutes and took me through the entire history of philosophy course. He asked me about Plato, Aristotle and his Arabic translations, Aquinas, Descartes, Marx, Cardinal Mercier. I knew enough to pass. Fortunately he didn’t go into any topic too deeply. I found out he flunked eight of my confreres.
Pure luck. They were far smarter than I.
Most of us had been unable to take notes at this time and had to rely on other sources for study. Professor Jean Ladrière was a young layman, a rather disheveled mystic. But he had a heart when it came to us Americans. He based his entire exam on a book, The Crisis of Our Age by Sorokin. That was a break. For Professor Fauville’s psychology course we had 72 typed pages of French notes; for Canon Leclercq’s Moral Philosophy course we had his 450 page book; for History of Social Theories we had 60 typed pages and we had 50 typed pages for Van Riet’s course.
Professor Rousseaux asked me the right questions: Marx, the iron law of wages, fixed and variable expenses. Professor Fauville was gentle as a lamb in his psychology exam. He asked me about empirical psychology, learning, and the immortality of the soul. I waxed eloquent. Canon Leclercq asked me about the transcendental value of being and I didn’t have a clue. Then he said, “Parlez-moi du bien.” Ah, I was ready! And I began to really BS- a skill one soon develops in the art of oral exams. Professor De Bie asked me about the theories of the French Revolution and Montesquieu and I aced it. The great Canon Van Steenberghen even complimented me on my haircut after my exam! So when Father Gannon, my spiritual director, told me that I had passed all my exams I nearly passed out. I never went through such an ordeal again.
Vacation times were always a cause of great ferment in the college. At Easter I ventured to Bruges en velo (on my new bike) with Dave Rock (’58 Rockford) Bob Farley (’56 Providence) and Frank Keefe (’58).
The question of summer vacation posed problems for all of us. Turned loose bini et bini for 90- days we had to find somewhere to stay part of the time. We couldn’t be on the road for three months. We were issued an ID card by the rector. It was written in Latin and testified that from time immemorial American seminarians were allowed to travel en civile, i.e. in lay clothes. In those days clerics were never seen out of their clerical garb. The card would come in handy when one tried to mooch a free meal or night’s lodging at a monastery or convent.
Finances would be a major problem for many of us. Dioceses had different policies in their support of seminarians. For instance here we were already late in the year and my good friends Bob Boisvert and Paul Charest from Manchester as yet did not yet have a place to go for the summer. The problem for them was that their diocese only allowed them $100 for the entire summer. Not only that. They had had to pay for half their tuition as well as their passage across the ocean. How were they going to manage for three months?
My summer companion, Bob Brown (’58 Providence) would receive $200 from his diocese. At the other end of the country, the diocese of Helena, Montana, would come up with $500 for Bill Greytek (’56). My advice to my eastern friends: “Go west, young man.” My own diocese of Saginaw has always been overly generous to its seminarians. Harry Sikorski (’56) and I will each receive $400 for the summer. Before vacation the bishop’s secretary, Father Jim Hickey (present Cardinal Archbishop of Washington) wrote me, “We do not want you to be living on dry bread and sour wine.” Now that’s the way to treat a seminarian!
Bob Brown and I received word from France today that we will be welcome to live in a rectory at Quiberon on the southern coast of Brittany. The good curé also informed us that we would be renewing an old tradition. Before World War II he had received seminarians from the American College during the summer and was happy to do it once more. “Would $2.00 a day for room and board be too much?” he wrote. So it was that Bob and I were the first in a long line of Americans who lived with and were inspired by the most wonderful priests I have even known. The priest, say the French, ought to be “un homme mangé,” a man devoured. He must be a good bread to feed his flock. This is what we saw in France, what we learned by word and example, a lesson never forgotten.
New traditions established; old traditions renewed. That first year 1952-53 cried out to the world that the American College of Louvain and its men were here to stay.
-Richard Cross ‘58