Fr. Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP: Open to God, part II

October 22, 2012

Last time we left off with Fr. Fenwick in a bind: would he stick to his plan of founding a college in Washington or follow Bishop Carroll’s advice and become a missionary in Kentucky? Apparently Fr. Fenwick was open to God’s plans beyond his own; for in August 1805 we find Fr. Fenwick writing to Fr. Concanen about his work in the West:

“I have mentioned twice to you the advice and encouragement Bishop Carroll gives me — to fix our establishment in the Provience of Kentucky where every generous offer and solicitation is made to me by the Catholics of that extensive country — which I have accepted… I am labouring on the mission, raw and inexperienced as I am, charged with a numerous congregation, who had been fifteen months without a pastor till I came among them.” 

Bishop Edward Dominic Fenwick, OP

On Bishop Carroll’s request, Fr. Fenwick had visited Kentucky “to inform myself of its climate, situation and resources, as likewise to know the real distress and dispositions of the Catholics there.” And what he found was agreeable to him, he was open and ready for whatever God had in store for his new Province: “My curiosity is perfectly satisfied and much pleased with the country and inhabitants, particularly with the fervor, zeal and liberality of the Catholics who made me every generous offer and even importunity to fix among them.”

Why had Fr. Fenwick changed his mind about founding a College? For although he still writes of the prospects of opening a school in Kentucky, he no longer speaks of a institution or seminary modeled after Bornhem College. Was he just being a realist? Had he given up on his dream and mission? I think not. Rather, Fr. Fenwick saw the need of the Catholic people in Kentucky and heard God’s call, not his own. He says in his letter to Fr. Concanen: “In Kentucky there is but one priest, Reverend Mr. Stephen Badin, and about 10,000 Catholics. That good and zealous man has been there near twelve years, the two or three last of which he has been the only pastor for those numerous congregations.” As the Lord had said: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out larbourers into his harvest.”

Fr. Fenwick saw the spiritual needs of God’s people and realized that he was being called to a different task than what he initially thought. He had sailed across the Atlantic to found a Dominican seminary and college; instead he was founding parishes in rural Kentucky and preaching missions non-stop to the Catholics under his care. This became so important to Fr. Fenwick that by July 1808 his prime source of boasting was not the small school he had begun but the expansion of his congregations and of the first Church in Ohio, St. Joseph’s in Somerset. In his letter to Fr. Conanaen he writes:

“We count 2,300 souls in our congregation. The chapel of the congregation is under the patronage of St. Ann, about two miles from us, where one of us serves every Sunday and Holyday… When our new church is finished we shall divide the congregation between St. Ann and St. Rose, and I hope later to have another chapel under the protection of St. Joseph. Thus you see, Revered and dear Father, we have a fair prospect before us. We only want money and members to make us more respectable in the country and to ensure the predominance of our holy Religion and even of our holy Order. Our church … will be the first in the State and I hope equal to any in America, except the Cathedral of Baltimore, now building under the inspection of Bishop Carroll.”

St. Joseph’s in Somerset, Ohio

Now Fr. Fenwick’s sons did make it to Washington, DC, and founded a theological college grander than he imagined. The Province fulfilled the initial will of its founder and father. But who is to say that this would have happened if Fr. Fenwick had not been open to changing directions and plans in order to serve God in the vineyard of His own choosing? Where would the Province of St. Joseph be if Fr. Fenwick had refused to be open to God’s Will, even if that Will seemed opposed to all that Fr. Fenwick had previously discerned? We stand on the shoulders of a giant in Fr. Fenwick, a giant because he was humble enough to submit his will and plans to God and follow the Holy Spirit, breathing where He wills, even over the rural frontiers of Kentucky and Ohio.

Part I of this post CLICK HERE

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