The Memoirs of Fr. Richard Gleeson, SJ

As mentioned in the previous section, Varsi returned to the states with far more than permission to relocate the college. He brought with him 13 Jesuit novices, much needed recruits for the school in a time of dwindling vocations. Among those young men was Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, an enthusiastic 15-year-old. The following accounts of Gleeson’s meeting with Varsi and of his journey west are taken from A Memoir: Richard A. Gleeson, SJ, by Alexander J. Cody, SJ, and fromMy Golden Jubilee Thoughts, by Richard Gleeson, SJ. These accounts offer a glimpse of what life was like for Jesuits in the 1870s, especially as they traveled across a burgeoning America.

“Father Ferrari, one of Richard’s teachers, was expecting a distinguished visitor in the person of a fellow Jesuit priest, Aloysius Varsi, just returned from Rome, then in New York and on his way back to California. He had been looking through Europe for recruits to serve on the Jesuit Mission in California and had some 12 young men awaiting him in New York. He was to come to Philadelphia in search of possible others.”34

Gleeson was called out of a Latin class and taken to a parlor in the rectory of the Gesu in Philadelphia to meet Varsi. There, Gleeson’s teacher said, “Father Varsi, this is Richard Gleeson. He may go with you to California.” Gleeson felt that “the piercing eyes of the stranger-priest read me through. He arose, approached, his face lighted with his inexpressible smile, took my hands into his large warm hands, and sat me beside him on an old-fashioned sofa. Before he said a word I was captivated. I was ready to go with him to California, China, Africa, anywhere in the wide world. In a few minutes he was satisfied that I had a vocation to the Society of Jesus. Within two hours I had returned joyfully with the permission and the blessing of my truly Christian Father and Mother and the next day, the Feast of St. Matthew Apostle the Evangelist, I was on my way to California with 13 others, who formed the band gathered in Europe by Father Varsi, for the Jesuit Mission by the Golden Gate. From my first meeting with Father Varsi until this hour he has been an inspiration and an ideal.”35

Gleeson’s fellow novices on the trip came from England, Ireland, Belgium, Poland, Holland, Germany and Italy, and eight of the group barely spoke English. The group boarded a train in New York for the weeklong journey to California, with Gleeson, the youngest member, spending much of the time teaching English to his fellow novices.

“Generally the days were dull and uneventful; and as far as the classes in pronunciation went, to the embryo teachers, most disappointing. The evenings were better, when the rosary was said in common; afterwards, everyone joined in a sacred concert of Latin hymns and of a Latin version of the Litany of Loretto. Fellow travelers who had sedulously avoided the coach through morning and afternoon hours then cautiously peeked in and invariably stayed to listen. They could not really be blamed for their suspicion and their caution. It was indeed, a motley group, each member tailored to his own national costume, which, in turn, was not too new, and, sometimes, not too well-fitted. Besides, each member spoke some foreign language, and for a long period in American history foreign languages were anathema to native American ears. The group, also, were an odd lot. They served themselves two meals a day out of their own capacious hamper baskets. They ate the third in the dining car. Invariably they walked in, following the same leader, who, the more boldly curious learned, answered to the name of Allen; and the more boldly curious learned, too, just the exact bill of fare. On a particular morning the leader ordered spring chicken; the group ordered thirteen more; the leader followed with a second order for lamb chops; the thirteen solemnly repeated “lamb chops.” Foreigners, evidently, ate as heavily as Americans. On leaving the diner when Father Varsi answered the steward’s casual query, ‘Were the boys satisfied?’ with the off-hand reply that he had heard no complaint, the dining-car manager burst out with ‘Complaint! I never met such a crowd! It will take a couple of trips to Omaha to make up for it.’

“It was different, though, the natives reasoned, when it came to singing. The group, really, could be an opera company. When the train reached the North Platte River country in the midst of an electric storm it was delayed for a day at North Platte. The bridge behind collapsed just after the train’s crossing and the rails to the westward were partly washed out and needing immediate repair. One of the passengers mustered up courage to speak to Richard Gleeson, for his language, it was noticed, was just as theirs. Richard Gleeson at that moment was in sore need of merriment. A twenty-four hour wait to a 16-year-old boy can be unbearably long, even with the adjuncts of lightning and cloudburst and flood and buckled railroad tracks. Confidentially, the passenger asked, was it a theatrical troupe? ‘Yes! Yes!’ There were eager possibilities. ‘Would you boys put on a show for us tonight at the theatre in town?’

‘Quite willingly!’ The words held every enthusiasm and consideration that a young, and an obliging, and a hoping actor could put into the phrase, but they were bolstered conditionally with an appealing glance towards the riverbank and the intimated submission to official management.

“Now Richard Gleeson knew Father Varsi as a nobleman of Cagliari. He knew, too, that while at Georgetown, Father Varsi had served as a model for the Cardinal, St. Charles Borromeo…. But his questioners knew none of this and saw neither the blue Mediterranean nor the robe of cardinal red; they beheld merely a silent, elderly Italian, presumably a temperamental impresario, studying the river’s flood in the whipping wind and rain. One look was enough. They made no appeal.

“The train at length got started. At Cheyenne the night grew bitterly cold. Father Varsi wrapped his great overcoat as a blanket over the sleeping Richard and sat motionless in the freezing dark until the dawn. The lengthening miles clicked along to the far West. The snow-clad Sierras swept down into sunny valleys and to marsh lands and to the margin of San Francisco Bay.”36