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The Right Reverend Monsignor Peter Leo Johnson

DESPITE THE DANGER OF LOSING FACE AS A SCRIBE of local history, the writer relies on it to neutralize the deadening effects of contemporary Communism. He thinks that local history, including biography, by its stress on persons, is the best way to meet the challenge of a depersonalized society. Carrying motivation further, he feels that neglect in studying the history of the Church, which is Christ by extension, results in ignorance of Him. A phone call to the writer recently inquired whether church history were taught at the seminary. He answered: "Yes, madam." She asked: "Why?" He responded: "Because the Church is really Christ, and ignorance of the former includes the latter." The lady exclaimed: "Oh!" The writer's attitude reached a decisive mold fifty years ago when he listened to the sermons of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson on the body of Christ. Dedication to church history became fixed for the author by meeting research workers like Louis Duchesne and Francis Gasquet, who served as pathfinders in the wreckage of Catholic science which had been planned and effected by the French Revolution.

Born in 1888 on a Wisconsin farm, near Holy Hill in Erin township, Washington county, the writer never lost sight of the beauty and mystery of nature in the country; nor the mysticism, religious sentiment and legends associated with the Marian shrine on the Hill; nor least of all, the pious and genial Hiberno-American neighbors, all of whom were Democrats, except one, who voted Republican.

The parents, Theodore and Theresa (Collins) Johnson, both Wisconsinites, soon moved to Oconomowoc, where eventually five sisters and two brothers were added to the group. Elementary schooling there was notable for its teaching and discipline. A wise and good mother abetted excursions into a region dotted with lakes, streams, and woods, which invited adventure and daydreaming. Incentives for cultivating literature and promoting a creative urge were furnished at home on winter evenings when she read novels like Bulwer- Lytton' s Rienzi and The Last Days of Pompei to rapt youngsters. Boyhood memories include a zealous pastor who opened the door to dramatic and musical exercises.

High school and college courses were made at St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee, where branches of learning were really disciplines. There languages, particularly Latin, monopolized a student's attention and time. The writer read a good deal of sea tales and poetry on the side in order to satisfy literary appetite and curiosity. For him poetry ever has been a source of energy for thought and vigor for style. Expression had an outlet through letter writing, which began a life-long practice.

Theological studies at Rome featured traditional doctrine and practice in lectures by professors who added the salt of wisdom to their store of knowledge. Students sensed the importance of the living voice in relaying truth. Unforgettable is the booming tone of Professor Lauri, later a cardinal, who lectured on the sacraments. In a course of ten semester hours his instructions on the Eucharist were drawn from first-rate texts and delivered with such gusto and conviction, that his hearers became spellbound for life. An eloquent demonstration of the unity and universality of the Church was derived from the presence of students from around the globe. Because of some Scandinavian ancestry the author delighted in listening to Danes reciting in Latin with a Nordic brogue.

Walks in Rome, with or without a guide, are a sure schooling. The writer never tired of visiting churches, particularly St. Peter's, museums, and galleries, wherein sacred and secular history passed in review. His letters from Rome exhibit a marked attention for style, simplicity, and accuracy. They bear a literary seal of his enthusiasm for the majestic ceremonies of Rome, its passing cavalcade of humanity, and ageless monuments of civilization. His description of things, events, and people, tried to follow Balzac's recipe which required a scribe to make a single birch tree discernible among a hundred other birches.

After ordination in 1912, while serving as an assistant pastor at St. John's cathedral in Milwaukee, the author edited its monthly Calendar, and thereby was introduced to the ways of writing for publication and to the business of printing. That task led him to borrow books from the Milwaukee public library. Note-taking always went handin-hand with reading.

After being commissioned an army chaplain in 1918, he served one year in France with the A.E.F. Gaining military experience, reaping a harvest from sightseeing, and learning French became permanent benefits. The latter eventually formed the greatest prize of all, because to it may be credited the start of a fine library of French books. Long winter evenings after the Armistice were spent in letter writing, reading books furnished by the American Library Association, and directing a night school for illiterate soldiers. Because the chief of chapplains, Bishop Brent, an Episcopalian, thought the writer was the son of an Episcopalian minister, he was assigned as chief chaplain of an Army Base in France. He continued in the military service with the Wisconsin National Guard and Army Reserve until 1949, when he was transferred to the retired Reserve list with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In 1919-20, he undertook graduate work in medieval history at the University of Wisconsin. Going to school again proved stimulating and rewarding. Besides contact with its library and a group of exceptional teachers, the practical lessons in methodology were decisive in shaping his future ventures in writing. Once after making a report on a source, a professor said: "I see that you are a beginner!' The student had selected an ornate binding rather than a dull one, though the latter contained a more critical edition of the source. The comment did not dampen the spirit of the student, but served as a challenge to him. Another professor, noted for studies in liturgy and medieval drama, asked him what he knew about the history of the canonical hours. The student confessed that he knew very little. The professor offered the excuse that the administrative tasks of priests prevented such study. The incident acted as an incentive for study rather than a setback. Teachers, method, and books combined to promote investigation of liturgy, medieval literature, and personalities. Professor Sellery, now retired, remarked in class one day that there was nothing in English on Peter the Venerable. After leaving the university, Peter became the subject of the student's initial lengthy research and writing.

Since 1920, he has been teaching church history and early Christian texts at St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee. His leading experience has been the direction of 240 master of arts theses in church history. Its characteristics are related to a good library, close supervision, and teamwork. On account of the contact with early Christianity, teaching the writings of the Fathers has been a rare blessing. No class in patrology hasbeen mediocre because the students prepared and read papers from texts, rather than commentaries. This feature of the classroom may be considered the high light of a career as a teacher.

He served an apprenticeship in literary style in the early 1930's, when he wrote editorials for the weekly Catholic Citizen of Milwaukee. After the publisher apologized for paying a hack rate, the writer declared that he himself should remunerate the former for a chance to gain a style. In 1933, he was elected editor of the Sales ianum, quarterly bulletin of the seminary alumni. Besides editorials and articles, he is responsible for the selection of documents, mainly manuscript German letters about the Church in Wisconsin. When men discuss languages, he testifies that German is the most difficult for him, and, particularly, German script of a hundred years ago. The puzzles in Bishop Henni's writing provide a test for any hardened paleographist. In one of his letters occurs the word aboreados. Following the usual way, the writer broke it up backwards and forwards, and discovered four Latin words, ab ore ad os, meaning an interview.

Some by-products of teaching are beyond price. Memberships in historical societies and attendance at conventions present opportunities to keep in touch with the work being done in various fields and with publications. The most lasting inspiration owes its vigor to meeting leading historians and often forming friendships with them. For example, there is no satisfaction quite like that of dealing with friends of the calibre of Thomas Shahan, James J. Walsh, Peter Guilday, Gilbert Garraghan, and Robert Lord, all now gone to their reward up above. It is pleasant to recall the memory of Herbert E. Bolton, a Wisconsinite, who left an indelible mark by his dedication, energy, and majestic personality on Spanish-American history. His address on this subject before the American Historical Association in Toronto rates number one to the writer among all its presidential speeches. The late Professor Rand of Harvard stated in a lecture that Montalembert was more trustworthy than G. G. Coulton on the subject of medieval monks. On another occasion, the professor repeated the judgment to the writer, who had decided that Montalembert was too confirmed a romantic to compete with the scientolism of Coulton.

The historian of the Church in the United States is practically forced to write on local themes because of the wide dispersion of sources at home and abroad. Auxiliary sources like newspapers are nearly fallow ground. To the writer, the Wahrheitsfreund of Cincinnati (1837-1907) carries most weight for both local and national church history. It was accepted as a fact that archives in Munich and Vienna, headquarters for two missionary aid societies, housed no more papers on American church history. Lately, the seminary library here received 1500 photostats of letters about the Church in Wisconsin that had lain unknown to the archivists in Munich and Vienna.

Lack of languages is a severe handicap. For the writer, the sole barricade has been time. He has had the advantages of language, excellent sources, and the co-operation of his pupils and superiors.

The foregoing sketch stresses the literary career of the writer. Cardinal Newman observed that the Humanities made a dangerous occupation. The author agrees, but has ever had the aid of his priesthood and its ministry to offset the hazard.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As a student in Rome, Msgr. Johnson received his S.T.D. from Propaganda University in 1912. His books include Golden Jubilee Book of Msgr. Edward J. Blackwell (Milwaukee, 1927), Stuffed Saddlebags: Life of Martin Kundig (Bruce, 1942), Centennial Essays for the Milwaukee Diocese (Milwaukee, 1943), Daughters of Charity in Milwaukee (Milwaukee, 1946), Halcyon Days: History of St. Francis Seminary (Bruce, 1956), and Crosier on the Frontier: John Martin Hennii of Milwaukee (Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, 1959).

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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