Edward Peter Spillane.

Life and letters of Henry Van Rensselaer, priest of the Society of Jesus online

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fervid at times as becomes the Celt, but it is all the better
for that.

"Father Van Rensselaer was a remarkable figure, which
once seen would not easily be forgotten. Standing over six
feet, handsome and broad-shouldered, he was distinguished
looking in any gathering. He was descended from one of
the oldest of the Knickerbocker families of the Empire
State, yet he had a strain of Irish blood of which he was
justly proud. He became converted to the Catholic faith
and joined the Society of Jesus many years ago, and dur-
ing all the time of his ministry he never wearied of doing
the Master's work assisting the needy, lifting up the
fallen, consoling the afflicted and admonishing the wrong-
doers. Those who were in sorrow or distress never
sought his help in vain, and many a man to-day prosperous
and happy owes his present condition to the kindly sympa-
thy and assistance received from this truly humble follower
of Him who hath commanded : 'Do unto others as you
would that they should do unto you.'

"For many years he was an active member of the An-
cient Order of Hibernians, and always took a deep interest
in the welfare of the Order. As chaplain of Division No.
2 of New York, he was unceasing in his efforts to increase
the membership, and it was his greatest delight to say that

303 '


it was the largest and most prosperous Division in New
York County. Although connected with many organiza-
tions, he loved the Hibernians best of all, and never missed
an opportunity of praising the Irish character. While he
had many a kind word or excuse for any little failing we
might possess, he was always happy to be with the boys,
and on last St. Patrick's Day, mounted on a handsome horse,
he rode up Fifth avenue at the head of Division 2, the
proudest man in that great parade, and the only chaplain
who braved the fatigue of that long ride, to show by his
example that we should not be ashamed nor afraid to turn
out on the 17th of March to do honor to the memory of
Ireland's Patron Saint.

"And never was such an ovation accorded to any man
as came from the hundreds of thousands who thronged that
mighty thoroughfare when the word was passed along the
line, 'Here comes Father Van.' Then, as his name was
shouted from lusty throats, the scene beggars description,
but will long live in the memory of those who were present
that day. The true-hearted sons and daughters of Erin
were proud of him, and he was with his own people, for
he was more Irish than the Irish themselves.

"Little did we, who marched with him on that occasion,
imagine that before the year had run its course he would
be called to receive the reward of the just for having
'fought the good fight' and having kept the faith ; he is now
numbered amongst God's chosen ones. With him has passed
away one of the grandest characters of the Catholic priest-
hood in this country. He was the embodiment of all that
was noblest and best, and a living illustration of the sub-
lime maxim of our grand and noble order. 'Friendship,
Unity and Christian Charity,' in its broadest significance."



Few are aware of the veritable army of men required to
police a city like New York. Only on the occasion of the
annual parade, when five thousand of the "finest," about
half the police force of the city, march in serried ranks
through Broadway or Fifth Avenue, does the average New
Yorker realize the legions that day and night patrol the big
metropolis. Seventy-five per cent, of these representatives
of the law are Catholics. Of those on duty in the Borough
of Manhattan there are few who did not know the tall,
handsome priest personally, or by sight, or reputation.

Shortly after his assignment to St. Francis Xavier's,
Father Van Rensselaer saw that the city policemen were
sadly in need of a priest to look after their spiritual inter-
ests, for only after his death came the appointment of a
regular chaplain to the Police Department.

Father Van Rensselaer's methods of looking after the
city's guardians were clever adaptations of the code in use
among the men themselves. The policemen were regularly
"held up" on their beat by this spiritual roundsman. The
sight of the uniform seemed to fire his zeal and to estab-
lish his right to interrogate every bluecoat. What his ques-
tions were may be surmised. If he was a Catholic his
spiritual state was investigated, and his needs attended to
before they parted. If the man was not a Catholic, no
offense was taken, his respect for religion was increased,
perhaps, and there are instances in which a desire to know
more about the Catholic Church was the result. One of
the former Police Commissioners to-day is proud of being
a convert of Father Van Rensselaer.

At some of the station houses, particularly in the lower
city or in the neighborhood of St. Francis Xavier's at
that time a rather unsavory district he was a frequent



visitor. He went there as he went to engine houses, be-
cause it gave him an opportunity to meet many of the
men at once. Though all knew the purpose of his visits,
he was always welcome. The lieutenant at the desk, or the
captain if present, would be the first to greet him, for cap-
tain and lieutenant, besides the respect they had for the
priest personally, found the men more tractable and more
conscientious under "Father Van's" tutelage than they had
ever been before. Church and State, in this department,
worked very harmoniously and beneficially indeed.

After a few minutes of general conversation he would
take the men aside singly and broach the subject dearest to
his heart. There was a graciousness and off-handedness
about the maneuver that relieved the man of any embarrass-
ment. He would take his medicine, if not always with a
smile, at least like a man, and when he went out to his post
his heart was lighter and his sense of responsibility greater
because he had had that talk with "Father Van."

An outsider would hardly credit the genuine affection
that existed for the self-appointed chaplain. Long after
most citizens had retired for the night, this good priest
would meet the policemen on their rounds, usually with a
friendly pat on the shoulder, and they would patrol the beat
together. Some of the men would ask for an assignment
to the district where they felt sure that at some hour during
the night they would meet their devoted friend. It was
thus Father Van Rensselaer often spent the hours which he
might have given to a much needed rest after the fatigues
of the day. Whenever there was a lecture or play or enter-
tainment in the College Theatre, it was customary for the
captain of the precinct to detail for police duty some of the
reserves, two or three, or half a dozen, as the occasion re-



quired. Regularly Father Van Rensselaer would telephone
to the captain to appoint men who needed to be "rounded
up." When the unsuspecting' officers arrived the priest was
at his post to receive them. After the gathering had dis-
persed the men were treated to some modest refreshments,
and when they returned to report they were usually better
men than they had been perhaps for many a day.

A few months after his death an aged woman was run
down by some vehicle and taken in a dying condition to St.
Vincent's Hospital. Her son, a policeman, was hastily sum-
moned to her side. As he entered some friends were kneel-
ing saying the Litanies. The policeman knelt with them,
and folding his hands in prayer said aloud: "Father Van
Rensselaer in heaven, pray for my poor mother," all the
others devoutly joining in the petition. Many a policeman
in Brooklyn or the Bronx who only knew Father Van Rens-
selaer by repute would when ill express the wish to see the
policeman's friend. No matter at what inconvenience to
himself, Father Van Rensselaer was ever prompt to answer
the call. If a patrolman fell into a scrape and how easy it
is for them to get into one the surest friend he had and
the first he thought of was "Father Van." He never failed
them. His letters of appeal for policemen were so frequent
that a distinguished Police Commissioner, who afterwards
rose to the highest office in the land, used to say to his col-
leagues : "If Father Blank of the Paulists sends a letter in
behalf of any of the men, show it every consideration, but
don't take any stock in Father Van Rensselaer's." Experi-
ence had taught him that whether the case was good, bad
or indifferent, the accused would always find in him a ready
champion. Before Father Van Rensselaer's death the ap-
pointment of a regular chaplain for the police was mooted.



It was well known that in a minor way and within a certain
area Father Van Rensselaer was already exercising the
functions. Had he lived a little longer he would have un-
questionably received the honor of a formal appointment
as Chaplain of the Police Department of New York.

In the pursuit of souls, though he was already connected
with other associations, Father Van Rensselaer accepted the
office of Chaplain to the Knights of Columbus. We have
no means of knowing much of his relations with them,
though we find in his papers sketches of some of the dis-
courses he delivered at their meetings in his capacity of
spiritual guide. There is, for instance, a very elaborate
study of the great Centre Party of Germany, that lifted
Catholicity in. the Empire out of the "slough of despond,"
and made it a pillar of strength for law and order. There
is one on King David and another on the Crusaders, and
another which is an affectionate and minute study of the
great Catholic leader, Windthorst, and so on. Such models
held up to the Knights must have been potent influences in
helping them to realize their ideals.

In the Resolution of the New York Chapter of the
Knights of Columbus on the occasion of his death they
speak of him as "this noble man, this good, sincere friend,
this enthusiastic worker, this pious and loving priest whose
memory we revere." They express their "sincere sorrow
for the death of this worthy priest whose sole aim in life
was to carry on the work of Our Lord and Saviour. His
life was an exemplification of true Christian manhood, and
the highest type of membership in our honored Order."



IN the popular mind Father Van Rensselaer is especially
associated with the firemen of New York. He was
never chaplain, though he would have been delighted to
receive that distinction, but he performed as a free lance
the work of many regular officials. He pursued the "smoke-
eaters" continually; in the street, in their homes, and in the
engine houses. The work was an extensive one, for there
are many Catholics in the Department; but the Protestants
appear to have always accorded him a ready welcome. It
was all done in such a light-hearted manner that the
straightening-out of consciences lost its terrors. The "boys"
all liked him and were not averse to playing many a prank
at his expense, knowing perfectly well he would not take it
amiss. Thus on one occasion, we are told, when Father
Van Rensselaer was climbing the stairs to catch the men in
their beds, the officer below touched the electric button and
the whole company slid down the pole to the ground floor,
so that when his reverence reached the top floor he found
himself solitary and alone. He enjoyed the joke as much
as the perpetrators did. He had to continue the hunt, of
course, and he descended, but not by the pole.

The object of his visit was so well known to the men
that the one in charge would immediately vacate the little
office where the books are kept and turn the room over to
the priest to be used as a confessional. One man who sadly
needed his spiritual ministrations for months eluded him.



Having ascertained the hours when this man could be found
on duty, he went one day to the house and asked for him.
The man was upstairs and "Father Van" started up to find
him. When he saw the head appearing at the top of the
stairs, the fireman promptly slid down the brass pole, as the
only means of escape. Father Van Rensselaer, standing on
the narrow stairway, said, with a smile: "You slid down,
but you cannot slide up." The man, caught fairly, suc-
cumbed and became a devoted penitent of the fisher of men,
and often told the story with a laugh.

Every priest engaged in the ministry has his consolations
in the visible workings of divine grace as well as in the
striking examples that follow what may be termed the
neglect of Divine calls and warnings. Among the firemen
whom Father Van Rensselaer attended was one who had
been careless for many years. The zealous chaplain tried
repeatedly to reach him, but never could find him in. At
last he went one day to the engine-house, waited until he
captured his man and persuaded him to make his confession.
That night there was a big fire, the fire laddie went out
with his company, and was brought home dead.

Another fireman resisted all the advances and entreaties
of the priest and at length, to escape further importunity,
put him off with the promise that he would go to confession
when he became foreman of his company. The coveted
honor came after a year or two, but on the very day of his
appointment he met the fate which his priestly monitor had
so often pictured to him; he, too, was instantly killed in
answering a fire-call, but his promise to make his confession
had not been fulfilled.

A story told by the members of Company No. is the
following : One day Father Van Rensselaer met a fireman



on his way to the fire-house and learned that the laddie had
not gone to church or confession for a long time. So he
proposed to hear his confession as he accompanied him to
his quarters. The fireman assented and told his story as
they walked on. A few minutes later the hook and ladder
truck with its double line of firemen swung down Sixth
Avenue in answer to an alarm. There was a collision with
a pillar of the elevated road ; all of the firemen escaped with
slight injuries except one man, who was killed outright. It
was the fireman whom Father Van Rensselaer had shriven
on his way to the fire-house.

Instances like these were of great service in bringing
home to the men the necessity of being always ready. The
fireman, he used to say to them, was ever on the alert to
answer the alarm bell in order to save the property and life
of his neighbor; why should he be less prepared to answer
the summons of his Maker and to save his own immortal

If he heard of a hard case, he followed it up until he
settled it. Once he pursued a sinner who, trying to escape
from him, climbed up on a heap of coal. Father Van Rens-
selaer went after him and "straightened him out," figura-
tively, then and there. Chief of Battalion X. evaded him
for months, but finally ran into him by accident near the
College door. Of course Father Van Rensselaer hailed him
at once and put him through the usual process. But the
chief afterwards said that he was the happiest man on
earth. He had dreaded the ordeal and was so relieved to
have it over.

One precious souvenir left among his papers is a little
note-book in which he kept a list of the fire engine and
hook and ladder companies of Manhattan visited by him



once a month. Tt was manifestly impossible for the men to
come to him, so he went to them. The book itself tells an
interesting story and the temptation to give at least the
numbers of the companies is irresistible.


No. 1 West 29th Street. No. 23 West 58th Street.

2 West 43rd Street. 24 Morton Street.

3 West 17th Street. 25 Fifth Street.

5 East 14th Street. 26 West 37th Street.

8 East 51st Street. 34 West 33rd Street.

14 East 18th Street. 39 East 67th Street.

18 West 10th Street. 44 East 75th Street.

19 West 25th Street. 47 West 113th Street,

21 West 25th Street. Amsterdam Ave.
No. 54 West 47th Street.


No. 2 East 50th Street. No. 11 Fifth Street.

3 East 13th Street. 12 West 20th Street.

4 48th St. & 8th Ave. 16 East 167th Street.

5 Charles Street. 18 Attorney Street.

8 N. Moore Street. 20 Mercer Street.

No. 21 West 36th Street.

This list covers about one-third the number of fire com-
panies in the Borough of Manhattan and zig-zags from
east to west and north to south in a way that must have
often exercised the priest's ingenuity to reach the fire-
houses with as little loss of time as possible. Then follow-
ing the number of the company and its address are the full



names of all the members, beginning always with the cap-
tain or foreman and lieutenant or assistant. Ninety-five
per cent, are apparently Catholic, for the letter P. after a
fireman's name is of rare occurrence. The R. I. P. after a
man's name is frequent. Would that we could give the full
story that lies hidden under the simple initials. Was the
man killed at a fire or did he die peacefully, attended by his
priestly mentor? Father Van Rensselaer knew, and the
little R. I. P. shows that his love for the men followed them
to the grave and beyond. Two men in one company are
marked "not confirmed," and then their home address is
bracketed. So he was not content with a mere visit to the
engine house. When they needed further instruction he
was careful to give it, and he saw that they received all the
sacramental helps which the Church had the power to be-
stow. If these companies on his list represent the firemen
he visited regularly, there were many others which were
visited off and on. Whenever his ministry summoned him
to a distant point he never passed an engine house or a
police station without paying his respects. Indeed, it is well
known that there were fire companies in Jersey City and
Newark that he looked after as regularly as he did those
in New York.

His foible for the Fire Department pursued him when
away from New York, and we find him in Boston making
his way around to the engine houses to see "the boys." He
evidently caught them, for we find affectionate letters from
them among his papers. They even went to the Fire Com-
missioner and asked for some testimonial to show what they
thought of him. The commissioner gave him a badge,
which, one of the firemen said, "The commissioner would
not have given to his own son."



We append an account of this incident taken from one of
the Boston papers :

"The Rev. Henry Van Rensselaer, S.J., of New York,
made a brief visit to Boston recently. During his stay,
Father Van Rensselaer, who is the Chaplain of the Fire
Department of New York, visited a large number of fire-
men and heard their confessions. Some of the men had not
been to confession previously for years, their neglect being
partially due to their long hours of service.

"Father Van Rensselaer won a warm place in the hearts
of the firemen of Boston because of his kind labors for their
spiritual good. Wishing to give him a testimonial of their
regard, they chose one of their number to wait on Fire
Commissioner Russell to get his permission to present the
reverend gentleman with a fireman's badge, as it was inti-
mated that such a gift would please him better than money
or anything else. Mr. Russell did a very courteous and
kindly act in answer to the request, not only readily giving
his consent that Father Van Rensselaer should be thus hon-
ored, but he would also have presented him a solid gold
badge, at his own expense, had not the rules of the Jesuits
forbidden its acceptance. The good priest was given a reg-
ulation fireman's badge, with his name and the date of its
presentation inscribed on its back. Father Van Rensselaer
is the only man outside the members of the Department to
be honored with the regulation badge."

The following is the letter of the Fire Commissioner,
which seems to be an answer to one of Father Van Rens-
selaer, acknowledging the receipt of the badge :




"I am very glad to get your thoughtful note. It is need-
less to say that my remembrance of my uncle, Father
Coolidge Shaw, draws me tenderly towards those of his
Order. Certainly Father Finnegan is a trump.

"That simple badge, not of silver, is a slight recognition
of the feeling you have inspired among the men who know
you. "Very truly yours,

(Signed) "H. S. RUSSELL.
"May 14, 1898."

Father Van Rensselaer's interest in the Boston firemen
lasted as long as he lived. One of the letters he received at
Auriesville a few weeks before his death was from one of
the men he had met there nearly ten years before. A few
letters from one of these men fortunately escaped the whole-
sale destruction of his correspondence and serve admirably
to complete the record of his doings in Boston.

"BOSTON, April 5th, 1898.

"Well, I have actually been born over again ; it is as you
say, so very easy when you once break the ice. I went to
Communion on Sunday, and Joe Webber said that when I
was walking towards the altar the organ began to play
'When Johnnie Comes Marching Home,' and if it didn't, it
ought to; every one seems to know about my going to
church on Sunday. It has spread through the Department,
and if you were here for a month you could bring them all
to their milk, for no one can do it like 'Father Van,' as the
boys call you here.



"I wish you would write to Me . I enclose an envel-

oi>e with his address. Just lay it to him strong and make
him go to confession. So now, my dear friend, I know you
must be busy, and I will close by asking our good God to
ever watch over and guard you and give you strength to
convert more like

"Your friend forever,

"BOSTON, May 5th, 1898.

"I have just got back from my vacation and I thought I
would drop you a line. I suppose by this time you have
the Department badge which Father Finnegan sent you
from the boys in the Department and the commissioner.
And by the way, the commissioner wanted it made of gold,
but I told him that Father Finnegan instructed me to have
it made of metal just like our own badges. I did not think
that the commissioner would give the seal of Boston, for I
knew a great many influential and leading men in Boston
have tried to get one and were unable to do so. When he
consented to give us anything we wanted for you, you may
be sure that I felt good about it, and when the boys in the
Department got hold of it, regardless of their religious be-
lief, they were all glad. Father Finnegan said he was
going to see the commissioner and thank him, but I think a
line from you would just make him feel good.
"Respectfully yours,

'Engine No.

"All the fellows send their best respects to you."



"BOSTON, May 27th, 1898.

"Pardon me for not writing- l>efore, but you know,
Father, that laziness will overcome the lazy sometimes, and
I have no other excuse to offer. I can't lie to you, for you
would know it the moment you read it. Father, my scapu-
lars broke and fell off; I have them in a drawer in my desk
now. I have not had them on for two days, and I confess
to you that I feel queer, something- I never thought of be-
fore. I think you must have forgotten me in your prayers,
for temptation has come my way strongly. I tried to hold
out, but succumbed only once, and that was since the scapu-
lars have been off.

"Jim buried his mother this morning; he has been

away for three days.

"Everyone else seems to be enjoying life. 'Goggie Mac'
has not been to Communion yet, and I wish you would
write to him.

"Now, Father, don't forget me again. I feel to-night as
if I had lost everything- I gained from you, and when I
started to write to you I had the same old voice tell me:
'What does he care for you; why, he will only read that
and laugh and say, what is the matter with him.' But I
write anyhow.

"I drew a very good time for my vacation this year. I
have from July r>th to li)th. I have not as yet selected a
place to go.

"Where would you gr>? You name me a place and I will
po if it is within my means. You have done so much for
me, I will do whatever you say on my vacation. Do yon
know that T have never met a priest that had so much con-
trol over one as you have? It seems as if I were writing

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Online LibraryEdward Peter SpillaneLife and letters of Henry Van Rensselaer, priest of the Society of Jesus → online text (page 22 of 23)