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On the Road: The History of Paulist Missions


by Father John E. Lynch, C.S.P.

On January 16, 1875, the first Paulist missionaries to California set sail from New York, traveling around the horn of South America. They were Father Adrian Rosecrans, Father Joshua Bodfish, Father George Deshon, Father Walter Elliott, Father William Dwyer and Father Edward Brady.

Other missions followed in rapid succession. Within the first year, missionaries had traveled to New York City, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Michigan, and even Quebec. The New York newspapers took note of the quality of preaching that drew overflow congregations: "As early as four o'clock every morning the streets in the vicinity of St. Mary's were literally alive with crowds of men and women advancing towards the church."

On a mission, over the course of one or two weeks, an instruction was given every morning at 5:30 and a formal sermon preached at 7:30 in the evening. The sick were visited; school children encouraged; confessions heard. The mission journals note that sinners repented, rum sellers reformed, children were baptized. The community grew in numbers, and by 1875 they were preaching missions in California and Nevada.

In San Francisco, a record 9,000 people received communion during a mission. Father Alexander Doyle, the first native Californian to be ordained a Paulist, founded the Apostolic Mission House on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1904 to train diocesan priests in the art of preaching.
With the advent of radio, the Paulists established Station WLWL in New York City in 1925. A decade later they outfitted three motor trailers as chapels, with generators to provide light and power for public address systems. The trailer missions brought Catholicism to the rural areas of South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah.

When television became available after World War II, the Paulists sought opportunities to proclaim the Gospel in that medium. A popular attention-grabber, both on the screen and in an auditorium or church, was the pulpit dialogue, a quasi-debate, in which one priest would present the Catholic position and another assume the persona of a learned objector.