J. Elliot Ross, C.S.P., Ph.D. 1884-1946

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by Father Paul G. Robichaud, C.S.P.

“My earliest recollection are gustatory, not religious,” wrote John Elliot Ross. “I was sitting at a second story window of our house in Baltimore, eating a roast potato while I watched snowflakes against the portico of the First Methodist Church opposite. I would have been three years old.”

John Elliot Ross was born on March 14, 1884. His lineage was directly traceable to William the Conqueror and included such American notables as George Ross, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and his seamstress daughter-in-law Betsy. He wrote, “Some of my ancestors had kept the faith in England all through the troublous times of Henry and Elizabeth until they came to Maryland with Lord Baltimore. I had many Protestant relatives. I was American through and through.”

J. Elliot’s grandfather, John Henry Ross, was the leading whiskey distributor in the city of Baltimore. His father, John Roach Ross, was a successful lawyer. Following the death of his wife Cecilia Elliot Ross in 1887, John R. Ross moved his family to Washington. There he hired a nurse to care for John and his sister Clara. J. Elliot grew up in a rather comfortable house on 19th Street, not very far from the White House. Trained by the Jesuits at Gonzaga High School, he returned to Baltimore in 1898 to continue his Jesuit education by attending Loyola College.

Ross was first attracted to the priesthood during this period. Eight years of Jesuit training, however, had ended any aspirations he possessed toward the Society of Jesus. The Paulists, whose seminary sat in the northeast section of Washington, appeared interesting to Ross but he did not fell ready to make a commitment. For the next six years he worked in the Engineering Department for the District of Columbia, uncertain of the next step in his vocation.

“J. Elliot,” as he preferred to be called, was a bright and precocious child. Years later he wrote, “one day when my father was discussing some matter with another lawyer, I gravely remarked, ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ I was in a high chair, and where I got this phrase, I have no idea.” Such critical judgments became a fixture of his personality.

As J. Elliot grew into manhood, his critical judgment and his personal self-discipline developed. For Ross, appointments and commitments were meant to be kept. He was always prepared and he arrived early for any event. People who were late, unprepared, or reneged on a contract would send Ross into a fit of anger. As he continued to sit on the fence in regard to the priesthood, an unidentified Paulist friend wrote:

“You are too serious, too pessimistic and to just. You lack the saving humor that allows a man to get along with his brethren of different temperaments and opinions. You see only the weak side and pass over the good, the positive. You judge people by a hard and fast rule without tempering your decisions with a little mercy born of experience and practical wisdom, and your speech follows, being at times offensively plain.”

Perhaps for these very reasons, J. Elliot continued to vacillate over the Paulists, preferring to pursue a master’s degree at George Washington University in 1908. Finally, on September 4, 1909, at the age of 25, he arrived on the doorstep of St. Thomas College on the grounds of Catholic University to begin the school year. Joseph McSorley conducted the opening retreat. The rector, James Martin Gillis, arrived a few days later to join John B. Harney and Thomas Verner Moore as the seminary staff. The grand event of the fall season occurred in November at College Park, Maryland, when the entire house witnessed an airship demonstration by Orville and Wilbur Wright.

Most notable during Ross’s student days was the near fatal accident that occurred at Rehoboth Beach in August, 1910. While wading in the water, J. Elliot was swept out by the undertow. In an attempt to save him, students Arthur Miller, John Sullivan and Frank Lyons were also swept out into the ocean. John Harney, the acting superior of the summer house, was sitting on the porch at the time. After watching what had occurred, he raced down the steps to the remaining students who were running about in a panic on the beach and organized a rescue effort. Tying a rope around himself, Harney swam out to the four in distress and created a human lifeline to help bring each of the students safely back to shore. Ross was to owe his life to John Harney’s intervention.

While a student at St. Thomas, Ross began work on his doctorate at the Catholic University of America. A brilliant student, Ross came under the tutelage of the famous sociologist and ethicist Rev. William J. Kerby. Here Ross probed the moral implications of capitalism. Inspired by the consumer activism of Kerby’s most famous student, Rev. John A. Ryan, Ross published his first article in the March, 1911 issue of The Month. Titled “The Consumer’s Opportunity,” Ross postulated, “If demand can dictate what is to be produced, it can command how it is produced. By banding together, all those interested in bettering conditions can effectively insist that what they purchase shall be made under fair and satisfactory conditions.” He then went on to explore how the Consumer’s League (which John A. Ryan had helped to create) could establish criterion for manufacturers that would be fair to workers.

On December 20, 1911, J. Elliot Ross made his life profession as a Paulist in the presence of John Hughes, the Superior General. He spent his final year of seminary finishing his studies on economics and morality at Catholic University under the direction of William Kerby. On May 24, 1912, Ross was ordained a priest at St. Paul the Apostle Church in New York together with classmates Theodore Peterson, Francis Lyons, Hugh Swift and Henry Riley. Seminary rector William “Pappy” Cartwright commented, “no class has given greater promise of doing zealous work for souls then the class of 1912.”

Two weeks later, at the commencement ceremony for the Catholic University, Ross, together with his classmates, received his S.T.B. He then was awarded a Ph.D. from the rector of the university, Monsignor Thomas Shahan. His dissertation was published later that year as his first book, Consumers and Wage Earners: The Ethics of Buying Cheap. Central to his thesis were the social obligations of consumers to care about the rights of the laborer who produced the product purchased. “Have the men through whose labor this consumer is benefiting been unjustly treated by their employers, and can this consumer, without a disproportionately grave inconvenience, do anything to help them,” Ross asked. He went on to postulate that consumers should pay a fair price so that workers do not suffer.

The Paulists staffed their own seminary faculty, only sending students to the university for the completion of their studies before ordination. This meant that some young priests were set on for higher studies to create a pool for Paulist faculty. Ordination classmate Teddy Peterson returned to Catholic University to study Scripture. J. Elliot Ross was sent to Rome to study Moral Theology. Unhappy with his studies after several months, Ross wrote to Superior General John Hughes requesting a transfer. For Ross, Oxford University was the more appropriate forum for his scholarship on economics and morality that the Latin world of papal Rome. Hughes told him to come home.

Ross served for one year at Old Saint Mary’s parish in Chicago, and was then assigned as chaplain to the students at the University of Texas at Austin, beginning in the fall of 1915. For the next nine years Ross flourished in Austin. With a Ph.D. in hand, Ross was welcomed by the university faculty as a peer, and served on a variety of city wide boards and charities. Ross’s approach to campus ministry was primarily didactic. Campus chaplains were teachers; they served students by bringing the Catholic tradition and its insights as a supplement to the university’s curriculum. During this period, two students arrived at Newman Hall and fell under Father Ross’s scholarly spell: the distinguished Mexican historian Carlos Castaneda and a young Texan named Edward Peters, who later joined the Paulist Fathers.

Ross considered himself the professor who was not formally on the faculty. He inspired students and engaged university professors in academic dialogue. When Paulist superior general Thomas Burke attempted to replace Ross in 1923, almost the entire faculty, together with the Governor of Texas signed a petition of protest. As the petition read: “His scholarship, his acquaintance with problems – both internal and external – of the university, and his interest in its welfare have brought those of us whom have known him best to consider him a member of the faculty. He has the confidence and esteem of the university community.” A highly productive scholar, Ross authored four books during his tenure in Austin, The Right to Work (1917), Christian Ethics (1919), Sanctity and Social Service (1921), and Indulgences as A Social Factor in the Middle Ages (1922).

In 1924, Burke again asked Ross to accept a transfer. Reluctantly he accepted a new assignment as professor of moral theology at the recently completed Paulist seminary St. Paul’s College in Washington. He had hardly unpacked his bags when he was elected a General Consultor to the new superior general, Joseph McSorley. McSorley – who was by his nature attracted to intelligence and productivity – admired Ross’s energy, discipline and intellectual brilliance. The two men had become close friends over the years, and McSorley was delighted to have Ross as his junior consultor.

Mc Sorley’s new council quickly approved a request from Cardinal Hayes to staff the chaplaincy at Columbia University. J. Elliot Ross was McSorley’s choice. Ross moved into the Newman House on 115th Street, commuting to the motherhouse at 59th Street for council meetings. Over the next five years, Ross offered various sermon series at Barnard, Teacher’s College and the Graduate Division of Columbia. He also taught regular courses in religion at Teacher’s College.

A sign of Ross’s popularity with the students was attendance at the Sunday night conferences he organized. The basement chapel at Newman House could hold only 100 students. Ross’s Sunday night conferences were packed up the stairs. One student reported that he took both a subway and street car from the end of the Bronx to be there on Sunday evenings. On several occasions Ross invited faculty from the various departments of the university to come and debate with him. The discussions ran just over an hour but were often continued upstairs over coffee in the library or on the walks home along the Palisades. From these Sunday night lectures came Ross’s sixth book, Truths to Live By (1929).

In 1928 Ross drafted a “Survey on the Religious Conditions of Catholic Students in State Universities and Non Sectarian Colleges” for the National Catholic Welfare Conference. In this study, he explained to the bishops of the great need for Catholic chaplaincies at the great universities of America.

“The church has a mission not only to protect the faith of those who already have it but also to let her light shine before all men. It is not going to shine by putting under the bushel of segregation in tiny inferior colleges. We must have confidence in the reasonableness of our faith to believe that it can withstand the adverse influences of a secular university. We must get out into the current of life around us if we are to influence that life. St. Paul never converted the pagan world by being afraid to mingle with it.”

In late 1928, J. Elliot received at long last, the invitation he had always wanted. The newly created department of religion at Iowa State University invited Ross to become faculty and help integrate religious studies within the curriculum of the university. This was the kind of program that Ross had always sought from his days in Austin to his tenure at Columbia. Ross discussed the idea with Joseph McSorley, who in turn consulted Bishop Rohlman of Davenport, in whose diocese the university was located. Rohlman was enthusiastic. With the completion of the school year at Columbia, Ross would be granted a leave of absence to go to Iowa in the summer of 1929. There was one problem. The Paulists were about to hold a General Chapter in the spring and McSorley’s re-election as general was far from certain. Would a different general allow Ross the same opportunity?

On June 24, 1929, John B. Harney, Ross’s former mentor and rescuer, was elected the eighth Superior General of the Paulist Fathers. In early July, Harney discussed Ross’s request with his new consultors whose number no longer included Ross. Harney wanted to find some way to accommodate Ross’s scholarship but was opposed in principle to Paulists living outside Paulist foundations. Harney decided to overrule McSorley’s leave of absence. Harney offered Ross a counter-proposal. Ross could select any house in the community and live there without pastoral responsibilities, in order to further his writing and scholarship in any manner he devised. If after one year, nothing had come of the experiment, Ross could select another house for the same purpose. If Ross devised a program of study and ministry that worked, Harney would be open to a long-term appointment.

J. Elliot was furious. He had an offer that would allow him to integrate the Catholic intellectual tradition within a secular university setting – the culmination of some 15 years of campus ministry – and Harney now blocked his path. Freedom to write was not the issue. Ross did not want to create something new from scratch, he wanted to work within the structures of the university. Despite McSorley’s advice, Ross resigned from the Paulists in order to incardinate into the Diocese of Davenport. Harney accepted. This decision would eventually prove problematic both for Ross and the Paulist Fathers.

J. Elliot’s one year in Iowa was bittersweet. His work at the university was well received, and his new colleagues were delighted to have him there. The problem was Bishop Rohlman. After only a few months, his attitude toward the whole experiment had soured. From the bishop’s perspective, there were just too few Catholics in the program to justify continuing the experiment. Rohlman then refused to incardinate Ross. The bishop argued that because Harney had not supplied a Letter of Indult – a letter which Harney said he lacked the faculties to write – he could not accept Ross.

To whom did J. Elliot now belong? Rohlman said that Ross was not his priest. Harney had accepted Ross’s resignation.

The year 1930 was difficult for J. Elliot Ross. Uncertain of his status, Ross spent the academic year at the Newman Center of the University of Illinois. Due to his doctorate, the university gave credit for Ross’s courses offered through the center.

When apostolic delegate Archbishop Fumasoni-Biondi intervened in 1930, he required John Harney to supervise the process of placing Ross in a diocese until the matter was settled. Paulists who had left the society prior to 1929 simply reverted to the bishop from whose dioceses they had come. As Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore had tonsured Ross and as the Ross family resided in Washington, J. Elliot was finally incardinated into Baltimore in November 1931. Archbishop Michael J. Curley was delighted to acquire Ross and gave him permission to live on his own and pursue his scholarly interests.

In December 1932, with the permission of Archbishop Curley and Bishop Brennan of Richmond, Ross finally settled at a local parish in Charlottesville which served the students at the University of Virginia. He would remain in Charlottesville until 1943.

While a chaplain at Columbia University, J. Elliot had become active in the National Conference of Jews and Christians. In January 1929, Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler sponsored a seminar on the relationship between Catholics, Jews and Protestants where Ross delivered one of the keynote addresses. Here Ross met and worked closely with the Dr. Everett Clinch, a Protestant minister and chair of the National Conference; a collaboration that established a life-long friendship. In early 1933 Ross joined Clinchy and Rabbi Morris Lazaron of Baltimore, one of the leaders of the anti-Zionist movement in America, on a national tour to better the understanding between Catholics, Protestants and Jews. The trio travelled to more than half the states in the Union, speaking in more than 60 meetings and over three national radio hook-ups.

Ross offered various series of sermons at Sacred Heart Parish in Pittsburgh during the seasons of Advent and Lent. On Easter Tuesday 1936, as he prepared to leave Pittsburgh, he had his first stroke. A second stroke followed two years later. The second stroke had a deep effect on Ross. His ability to write with any length or breadth now came to an end. The stroke also caused Ross to re-examine his relationship with the Paulists. Ross wrote:

“My mother had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Her father had been similarly stricken in his 50s. In January 1941, my only sister was stricken. She was the 14 of our grandfather Elliot’s family to die of a cerebral hemorrhage, and as I have had two, I feel that soon I shall have a third and fatal one… When my sister died, the desire came over me to die a Paulist.”

Ross wrote to the John Harney’s successor, Henry Stark who paid a call on Ross in Charlottesville in June 1942. Ross was living in the home of friends since his second stroke, as he now required some nursing care. Stark then initiated the process of bringing J. Elliot back into the Paulist fold. The presenting question was Ross’s current status. Would he have to be readmitted? Would he have to go through the Novitiate again? All were concerns that his physical condition seemed to make impossible.

Paulist canon lawyer James McVann came to the rescue. Ross would not need to be readmitted; for in point of fact he had never left. McVann discovered, and the apostolic delegate Archbishop Cicognani verified, that the procedures for excardination/incardination in Ross’s case were improperly followed. Ross had resigned on July 18, 1929, but Rome had approved the community’s constitution one week earlier. This meant that the Paulists were now a Roman congregation and that Superior General John Harney would have needed to obtain a Letter if Indult from Rome for Ross to depart from the Paulists. Ross could now resume his place and seniority within the Paulists. He eventually moved to the Paulist house at 59th Street in 1943. In those last years at 59th Street, Ross wrote:

“During my incapacity, I have had plenty of time to think. As Newman said, ‘Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.’ I can see the difficulty but that does not lead me to doubt. On the contrary, I am certain that facing the truth is the best way to protect one’s faith. This is the mental attitude of a boy from a Reader in my grade school days. One winter morning pressing through a dark stretch of woods on his way to school, he saw a bear on the path in front of him. Conquering his impulse to take to his heels, he stood still and looked steadily in the eye of what he thought was the bear. Then as it go lighter, he saw that what frightened him was not a bear at all, but the stump of a tree. Similarly, most difficulties I have found to be dead stumps instead of man-eating bears.”

J. Elliot Ross died in New York of a third and final stroke on September 18, 1946, at the age of 62. As he said in his memoirs, on the occasion of his near fatal accident at Rehoboth Beach many years earlier, ‘Now I shall know what eternity means.’”