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