Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP: Open to God, part I

October 20, 2012

Bernard of Chartres, according to John of Salisbury, described his theological work by saying: “We are like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants…carried high and raised up by their giant size.” Sir Isaac Newton said the same in describing his achievements in natural philosophy: “If I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Even today the two pound coin in England carries this quote around its edge.

Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP

I would hazard to say that if we of the Province of St. Joseph are enjoying recent success in vocations and in the ministry of the Province in general it is no less because we too stand on the shoulders of giants. The “giant of giants,” gigantissimus, of the Province is, of course, Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP. Although there are many reasons for this ascription to him I will focus on what is the most important in my mind: openness to God.

Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP, was born in 1768 in southern Maryland. At the age of 16 he set out for Belgium for his studies and entered the Order of Preachers in 1790, entering the word “Americanus” after his name in his profession. Fenwick desired eagerly to return to the United States to be a missionary; specifically he intended to found a college, an institution of higher learning modeled after Bornhem College in Belgium. Writing to Fr. Luke Concanen, OP, assistant to the Master of the Order, Fenwick made his intentions clear: “My design is to begin with a little school by way of a nursery to raise young plants in for the vineyard of the Lord. This has always been my intention, to begin with a school or to execute the plan of Bornhem College and Convent in miniature.” Fr. Fenwick’s plan for a missionary Province in America was to be centered around a Dominican College, complete with scholars and preachers to continue the great Dominican intellectual charism. None of this is surprising or shocking; that part would be left to what happened upon his arrival in America.

Fr. Fenwick had alerted Bishop John Carroll of his intentions to “execute in miniture the plan of Bornhem College and Convent,” hopefully in the capital itself. Apparently this message was not as clearly stated as Fenwick had hoped, for he writes to Bishop Carroll after their first meeting in December, 1804:

“I must observe for the present that it is totally owning to my inaccuracy and inattention, which I am sorry for, if Your Lordship did not clearly understand from my letters the chief and primary object of my coming over to be that of establishing the Order of St. Dominic by any possible means which might hereafter afford assistance to the mission in my native country at large, and that I conceived the only way establishing it would be in a college or convent. For this purpose alone, My Lord, I applied and with great difficulty obtained permission of my Superiors.” 

Bornhem College, Belgium

It appears that while Fr. Fenwick desired to found a College in Washington, Bishop Carroll had other ideas for his new Catholic help in his country: to go out West and work the missionary territories of Kentucky and Ohio. Here was the first great challenge of the Province: what would Fr. Fenwick do? Would he set in his heels and demand a College in Maryland as he had raised money and support for? Or would he go out West and become a missionary to the natives, a task he was wholly unprepared for and undesirous of? What was to be the fate of Fr. Fenwick’s vision for the Dominicans in America?

Part II of this post CLICK HERE

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