Words of Past Experience

The House on Humility Street: An Excerpt (1943)

By Fr. Martin W. Doherty (1899-1973) - Chicago, Illinois, and Gervais, Oregon, USA


The following text is excerpted from Chapter Five of The House on Humility Street: Memories of the North American College in Rome (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1943). The author, whose grave is in Mount Calvary Cemetery in Portland, Oregon, was, prior to his entry into the priesthood, a newsman who reported on crimes and police activities in early Prohibition-era Chicago.




The great door opened slowly. The porter -- in a sober uniform except for his many brass buttons -- bowed to us as if we were nobility. With a few words in Italian that sounded like an aria from a Verdi opera, he welcomed us to the college. Then quietly but firmly he closed the door behind us!


We stared ahead incredulously. Certainly we had come through a door to the interior of a house, and yet we found ourselves standing in a garden. I may as well admit, though I was heavy and awkward and a male of the species, I felt like Alice of Wonderland stepping through the looking glass. What a lovely world there was there on the other side of that door!


The courtyard was filled with palm trees, flowers, shrubs and grasses. It was surrounded by an open cloister. The arches of the cloister were covered with wisteria and climbing roses. In the center of the garden was a pool of water with a marble column growing out of it like a great, white lily, holding on high a statue of the Madonna. Four little streams of water poured languidly against the pillar. Through the arches of the cloister on the left we could see another garden, larger by far than this one.


"It must be the wrong place," John whispered.


I saw two men in civilian clothes sitting in a far corner of the cloister. "I'll bet we just go through this place to get to the college," I whispered back.


Leopoldo, the portiere, assured us that this itself was the North American College. And still we doubted.


Then my roving eye caught sight of a stately, startling figure approaching from the left, a tall, straight figure clothed entirely in brilliant purple. He was coming directly towards us. I wondered if we ought to fall upon our knees when he approached us. No one else did, so I didn't, but I was sure I should.


"You are the students from America?" he asked.


I happened to be the nearest. He addressed the question to me. I had no idea what title to use in answering, nor what ceremonies, if any, Roman etiquette demanded of a neophyte addressing one who walked in purple. I told him we were the students from America -- and I still thought seriously of throwing myself on the pavement.


"What is your name, sir?" That question, too, was aimed at me. "Ah, yes," he went on when I had told my name, "What diocese?" The same questions were put to my uneasy companions.


A long line of students, all dressed in cassocks, was passing by that time through the farther sections of the cloister. The gentleman in purple called to one of them, "Mr. McNelis, will you show these gentlemen to their rooms on the mezzanino?" And then he left us. When he was out of sight, we began to breathe again.


Our guide told us the gentleman was Monsignor Charles O'Hern, the rector of the college. He explained that they were coming from the chapel where the Mass of All Saints' Day had just been sung. The monsignor, he explained, was wearing his choir robes which he did not wear ordinarily about the college. It was just our rare and good misfortune to have met him first when he was clothed in majesty."


McNelis escorted us to our rooms. When we left the cloister we started down a long and darksome corridor that seemed more like a subway than a hallway. Such an approach was suggestive of nothing on or above the surface of the earth, so I suspected we were going to dwell beneath it, perhaps within the catacombs.


The gardens had cheered me somewhat even as I froze interiorly in the presence of the monsignor. I had taken on new confidence, but it was ebbing swiftly as we made our way in darkness to the mezzanino. When I looked into the room McNelis pointed out as mine, my fears rose up revivified, intensified almost to the point of terror.


"Are you going to bury yourself alive in this Italian monastery?"


It looked as if I were. That room had every aspect of a sepulchre, none whatever of a dwelling place. The ceiling was vaulted. I could bump my head against it where it started upward from the walls. The floor was paved with large, dull red concrete tiles. The walls were painted a glossy, funereal, battleship-gray. Now I had been planning on a figurative burial, but it was going to be more realistic than anything I had expected. This was a real tomb, a tomb unmistakably, a tomb most unalterably -- the very tomb I'd been sighing for so publicly back in Chicago.


In one corner was my bed, a small iron cot of the folding variety. It looked a bit flimsy. Beside it there was a wash-stand consisting of three iron legs with a ring at the top. A pitcher stood in a basin. The basin sat in the ring. Next to it was a green tin tub, a receptacle for waste water. You could use it for bathing if you could fit into it and if you could bathe yourself in a pitcher of water; it was called a bagnarola.


There was a plain, unvarnished table in the center of the room. A cane-bottomed chair stood beside it. And these were the entire furnishings of the room.


Via dell'Umiltà -- Humility Street, indeed.


I took possession of my quarters by walking in and sitting down on the cane-bottom chair and resting my arms on the plain, little table. At last I was a student in the North American College.




It was the feast of All Saints, a holy day on which we must go to Mass. The college Mass was over, so McNelis took us back into the city to find a church where Mass was just beginning. We raced from one church to another, in and out and on our way again. At the Gesù, half a mile away, we found an altar where a priest was starting a Mass.


I promised the Lord that I would go back to my cell in the North American College and try with all my might to make a go of this new life to which, I felt certain, He Himself had led me. If all those other chaps could manage it, so, too, I said, could I. At least I was ready and willing to pour into it everything I had in me.


When the Mass was ended, we returned to the college. "This," I said, "is home and I'm going to like it even if it kills me."




There was some sort of a racket going on outside my door. It sounded like a hungry mouse trying to make a meal of that bit of wood that shut me off from the rest of the institution. Then the door swung inward on its lazy, complaining hinges. Company!


A group of students poured into the room. They sat on the bed, the window sill, the table, the green tin tub. I was completely dejected, but they looked happy as if they were citizens of heaven. they were all smiling and shaking hands with me. They looked at my woebegone face and laughed.


"He looks like one of the souls from purgatory prowling around here a day too early," said one of them.


"Better cheer up there, fellow," said another, "this is All Saints' Day. Tomorrow is All Souls'."


"Well, this is not my feast day," I replied. "Tomorrow will be more to my liking. I feel as if I were in purgatory now."


They laughed more than ever at that. "It's going to be a tough job making a saint of him," one said to another. "We'll have to melt him down first."


I was looking from face to face as they chatted with me. I liked those faces. They were good faces, clean faces, intelligent faces, happy faces. They didn't look exactly like the faces on the statues of the saints one sees in all our churches or the faces that our honey-souled artists put on so-called holy pictures. These faces were real, some of them homely, all of them likable. Just a crowd of decent, manly, cheerful looking mugs, honest-to-God faces and honest to their fellow men.


They introduced themselves. They had come from every section of the United States: New Englanders, New Yorkers, Westerners and Southerners, corn-fed representatives of all the vast interior. Several of them were from my home town, Chicago, and they were wanting news of the cherished city.


I produced a package of American cigarettes. What happened then is difficult to describe. It seemed to me that I had started a revolution. At any rate, I found myself at the bottom of the pile. To wave a package of American cigarettes before a group that had long been forced by cruel necessity to use the Italian brands was as foolhardy and as dangerous as to wave a red flag in the face of an Andalusian bull.


More visitors arrived from time to time -- and before long it was a positively cheerful little cell. What made it so now, when it had not been so before? The congeniality of my visitors, no doubt. There was a spirit of comradery among them that you could feel somehow even though it was but a spirit. It glowed and sparkled in the air as they exchanged views and counter-views, repartee and reminiscences. You would know for certain that these young men would stand by one another to the very jaws of hell.


You would, just as likely I did, expect to find a touch of somberness about a group of young men who would be attracted to a strict monastic form of life in a far-off foreign land. Heaven knows that I felt that very same attraction and did not feel the least bit somber concerning it. I was not sure, however, that these others would feel exactly as I did about such a life.


I could see that they were not discontented or unhappy. In fact, they seemed to be enjoying to the utmost this extrinsically drab existence. So far as I could judge, they were all quite normal young men, in no way different from hundreds of others I had known in other places.


The one difference that I did detect was that they seemed to be completely satisfied. Had they been disgruntled or inclined to melancholy, they would not have found much welcome in the North American College. They did not want you there unless, above all things else, you in your own heart of hearts wanted to be there.


Not to have liked such men as these would have been inhuman. You could look from face to face and you'd like every single one of them. I wondered for a time what made me like them so, handsome, plain or homely, all nationalities, all of them strangers. It occurred to me that it was not the faces alone that attracted me. It was really in their eyes that the secret lay. Deep in their eyes you could read the story of purity of mind and heart.


The variety of their names, too, delighted me. It was typically American of this institution that these chaps should have Polish, Irish, German, Italian, Hungarian, English, Spanish, Bohemian, Swedish and Slovak names. It was all the more delightful, then, to find such comradery and such a loyalty among them. The real Yankee spirit.


I must confess, also, that I expected to find them rather simple. I was satisfied that my associates would be mere boys who knew nothing they had not learned from books. That was a very sad mistake. I found out soon that many of them had also careers before they heard the mysterious summons from the Master.


There were philosophers, scientists, artists and tradesmen among these students for the priesthood. Some had had fairly brilliant prospects and some had left brilliant histories after them.


I remembered that Doctor Hartigan had asked me several times what type of man studied for the priesthood. I was unable to answer his question then because I knew but very few priests -- no one of them quite like the others. I could have told him now that all types -- and, no type -- studied for the priesthood. I found here in the college about every kind of manhood I had ever known. It was evident from their differences in temperament and talent, their mental and physical characteristics, that the priesthood did not belong exclusively to any type or group of mankind. It took in, I realized now, the whole, world-wide range of checkered and motley humanity.


You would, naturally enough, expect to find a certain uniformity in such a group as this. And you would be mistaken if you did. With the one exception of their adherence to the common faith, they were more individualistic than any other group I had known elsewhere. There were no arguments about the Nicene Creed or the papal encyclicals, but there were arguments galore about everything else outside of heaven.


I began to realize that I would not have to conform to some stock pattern, however admirable. I could go on being myself, such as I was, and no superior would try to make me over into something that I was not. If, being myself, I were found to be undesirable, I would be advised to betake myself to some other sphere of activity.


Without a doubt they would try to improve me, to remove my more outrageous faults, to train me, polish me, inspire me with the will to perfection -- but they would not throw me into a crucible to bring me forth again as like to all the other products as the output of a factory. I was not to be only a sausage -- even if a little more bulky than the rest -- in a string of identical, clerical sausages.


John, for instance, was a graduate of Cornell. He had been a music teacher. He had also dabbled in engineering. He had worked on a western cattle ranch where he had known the hardships of the roughest kind of labor. Hollywood -- of all places -- was his home. I do not believe he accepted any kind of remuneration for his efforts to whitewash Hollywood. Nobody believed him anyhow when he tried to prove that the place was not what we thought it was.


Mike had been in the diplomatic service. He had been a member of the ambassadorial staff in this very city of Rome. In those days he used to come in full dress to sit with the great ones at table. Now he wore a cassock and sat near the end of the very last table. He was a clever entertainer, a masterly imitator of noted personages.


Charley from up-state New York was a hard one. He had been a prize fighter in his earliest days and he had managed a baseball team somewhere north of Poughkeepsie. His efforts to live up to his reputation fooled none of us. We knew that he loved architecture with a flaming passion, even thought he had been an athletic impresario in the old days. His preference for the Gothic was the subject of endless debates with the classicists. They outnumbered him but never squelched him. A study in amazing contrasts, this Charley.


Frank was another athlete. He had a "letter" from a college somewhere in Pennsylvania. I believe it was in the neighborhood of Altoona. The letter was fastened to a sweater as brilliant as the rector's purple. It was a pity that the only opportunity he had now of wearing the sweater was in the capacity of a supplement to his pajamas. It was his pet theory that most people dissipated their energy when they attempted study because they did not know how to go about it. he would argue that point indefinitely if you gave him even the vaguest hint that you did not agree with him.


Pat was the philosopher's philosopher. We were all supposed to be philosophers since we had been subjected to such studies, but Pat began where we were forced to cry for help. As soon as a question or a proposition was put to him he began to dissolve a thing into its component elements. "I distinguish," he invariably began. Then you had better sit back and listen for you were not apt to hear the like again till Pat began another discourse. His one philosophic sin was the use of the word "infinite" in connection with whipped cream. he declared over and over that nothing but "infinite whipped cream" could ever satisfy his hunger for the stuff. I used to wonder if, in spit of his profundity and his logic, he thought of heaven as an endless soda fountain.


Ray was the saint in our midst. We all had aspirations toward sanctity bit we all thought Ray had already achieved it. He seemed most honestly to believe himself inferior to is associates. To his own evident surprise and, one might say, his dismay, he won several academic honors at the university. Before he left New York for Rome he had toured New England lecturing on social problems.


"Jit" was known by that name because he had -- in the earlier days of California -- worn a suit that reminded someone of a "jitney bus" driver's uniform. He was himself a mountain of commonsense from the heart of the High Sierras, as old fashioned as Queen Victoria's grandfather. Slow of speech and ponderous, never unduly enthusiastic, never addicted to nor influenced by extravagances of rhetoric or oratory, he held us always very close to reality.


Jimmy was a small lad, an intensely Irish lad, who hailed from no less a town than Dublin. He was studying for a diocese in America. His closest friends were allowed to call him "Mouse" but others had better beware. Unless he were sure how you meant it, he would be apt to think you really meant it. He could read, write, speak and jig the best of classic Gaelic. A charming chap he was, filled to the brim with personality and learning, a small but powerful human dynamo.


George had been a butcher's apprentice back home in West Virginia. He loved his native state with surprising though understandable devotion, but he had acquired a fondness for Italy that was going to make life back in West Virginia something like an exile. Hebrew and Sanskrit were his specialties, and walking -- alas! -- his favorite diversion. He led us in our walks. And how merrily, speedily and tirelessly that man could lead us! When, now and then, he realized how swiftly he was flying, he would slow up and try to accommodate himself to the pace of the least athletic of us all, myself.


Carlo was the scion of a distinguished New Orleans family. There was nothing haughty about him however, nothing whatsoever, nothing of the snob in all his makeup. It just happened that he was aristocratic by birth. his manners were ante-bellum perfect. A gentleman of the South, always courteous, always thoughtful.


There were others -- one hundred and eighty-five of them -- each one as unlike all the rest as men can differ from their fellow men. The boys from Kentucky and South Dakota were as distinguishable as Kentuckians and South Dakotans usually are. They were all Catholics, all students for the priesthood, but they were not, in any other sense, counterparts of one another.


The poets -- and there are "poets" in every group -- spent their spare time at versifying. The philosophers philosophized. The athletes strengthened their muscles as well as their mental processes. The sociologists declaimed about the woes of mankind and argued endlessly about the cures to be prescribed. The archaeologists and historians explored, deciphered, dogmatized. The linguists added language after language to their accomplishments. The musicians sang polyphony and plain chant, played instruments of all kinds from organ to ocarina, refused to be dismayed by the difficulties of original composition. The lawyers grew wiser and wiser about rights and duties, about the right ways and the wrong ways of blundering mankind. An ex-reporter of Chicago police activities was going to find it difficult to stick to his specialty in this institution. What a predicament!


As theologians, however, we were all on common ground. Here our real differences ended. We championed our specialties against all others' specialties and against all fellow specialists, but we all admitted that our specialties were of far less importance than the study of theology -- as much so as earth is less than heaven.




When my company left me, my cell grew funereal again. It was cold, severe, disheartening. I doubted that I could stand it the remainder of the day. If I had only a butcher's tinseled calendar or a picture in colors of Custer's Last Stand, anything to make the room more homelike! I was still a weakling dependent upon material fripperies for contentment, or satisfaction.


My window opened on the Piazza della Pilotta, a hideous little square with nothing in it. It looked more hopeless than Sahara. From building to building stretched a solid pavement of lava blocks. They looked like grayish-black biscuits. Not a tree, not a shrub, not a blade of grass, not a thing to relieve that ashy monotony. Directly opposite was the Biblical Institute, another yellow, box-like building.


From the dreary lava pavement to the yellow walls my tired and despairing eyes wandered, then to the gray walls of my cell and back again to the bleakness out yonder. What desolate sights! They augured a forlorn existence in Rome, where I had expected only happiness.


How, I wondered, did these other chaps manage to be so cheerful in such a cheerless place? I would have to learn their secret or go mad if I remained much longer in this room of living death.


My eyes came to rest at last on the bed. I was weary. I had not had much rest the night before.... The bed suggested rest and respite from gloomy forebodings. I decided to make use of it, though I must say I didn't like the looks of it.


That bed was a cowardly looking contraption. Its makers had not wasted a single ounce of metal in its structure. I had scarcely laid my head upon my stony pillow when the head and the foot of the thing both began to act frisky. I did not dare to move. After a dreadful second or two the whole thing came at me. The entire mess -- metal, myself and the bedding -- dropped to the concrete floor with a crash like the end of the world.


Company again! Everybody in that wing of the building poured in. I was still trying vainly to extricate myself when my guests arrived, but, having never had any experience along these lines, I was only making matters worse. In my struggles I had become so involved in the bed and the bedding that it was difficult to ascertain which part of me was where.


No more rest that day.


My underworld friends in Chicago had never attempted to "frame" me as I was now framed by this crazy, little, folding bed. It did not seem possible that such innocent looking chaps as my fellow students would fix a trap like this for me. But I did make a mental note to be on my guard from then on, to trust no one -- not even the rector.


It was just as well that I had not fallen asleep for the luncheon hour was near and it would have been highly imprudent to have been late or absent for my first meal in a Roman seminary. All thought of food -- and all desire for it -- had left me. Nevertheless I walked with the other students through the cloisters to the refectory when the bells rang out for lunch. I knew I would be unable to eat because of the sadness that had come over me, but I knew also that I must obey the rules of the institution. When that bell rang for lunch, it meant lunch -- however little appetite you might have for it at the moment.


The refectory was a thoroughly Roman bit of architecture, a long and narrow hall with a vaulted ceiling that seemed to be suspended from the clouds. The walls and ceilings were covered with painted arabesques of floral garlands held in place by homely little cherubs. There were peacocks, marble urns, precious jewels and geometric patterns worked into these decorations.


In the center of the front wall hung in a life-sized painting of Pope Pius IX, the founder of the college. He had visited the college and had dined in this hall in the days before the Garibaldian invasion.


Below the papal portrait was the faculty table. The rector, the vice-rector and the spiritual director dined at that table, and there, too, they entertained many an illustrious guest. The students' tables were three in number, but they extended the full length of that lengthy hall. They could lift their eyes as they were eating and see the portraits of the more illustrious alumni.


The entrance of the refectory was open the entire year round. There was nothing one could do about it because the room didn't have any doors. It opened into a vestibule that was also open to the cloisters. There was a green marble fountain in the vestibule that brought us water of an unusually ancient vintage. That water was the same that flowed into the nearby Trevi fountain. It was brought to us by an Aqueduct built by Agrippa in the days of Roman Rome.


Because of the cold air that flowed through the open arches during the winter season the students found it more comfortable to wear birettas on their heads and capes over their shoulders as they sat at table. It didn't seem quite Christian to wear head coverings at table, but it was being done there so it must have been all right.


We dined in the Italian. There were great platters of fragrant garlic permeated with some kind of meat, more platters of garlic disguised as mounds of spaghetti. There were ample quantities of olive oil with endive or lettuce to sustain it, piles and piles of grated cheese with asparagus hidden underneath it. There were bottles of wine, slightly tart and, I suspected, greatly weakened. there were long loaves of crusty bread inflated beyond American-bread consistency. There were dishes of fruit too beautiful to think of joining the other foods in this masquerade.


In Paris I had eaten and even enjoyed victuals that I had till then thought inedible or fit for none but savages. So I nibbled at this and that as if these foods had been my normal nourishment. Trifles such as garlic or pungent cheese could not daunt me any more. I had not felt the slightest touch of hunger, but I ended up by eating -- with disgraceful gusto -- everything they put before me. Maybe I was hungry without knowing it.


One of my fellow novices had never in his life, he said, defiled his palate with spaghetti. Perhaps there was no Citro's Royal Neapolitan Café in his town, or, if there were, he had never patronized it. He was induced to try a single strand of it. He looked as if he had consumed a worm. No more of it for that day -- but he promised to eat a second, and, perhaps, a third one when next he should find himself caught betwixt hunger and spaghetti. Brave lad! He had decided to do in Rome as the Romans do even if it choked him.


After lunch we sauntered into the larger courtyard, a garden which the Italian calls a cortile. It was filled with orange, lemon and magnolia trees. Many lovely flowers, too, grew there and splashed the place with colors not to be found outside the tropic regions. There was a fountain there almost hidden beneath and accumulation of moss and maidenhair fern. In the basin beneath it a tribe of gold fish lived, I presume, in perfect peace.


The students walked back and forth on the graveled walks of the garden or sat on the stone benches that lined the shadowy retreats. There was an air of tranquility about the place that would surely soothe the most turbulent soul in Christendom. even the gold fish seemed to enjoy it in their lazy, heedless fashion.


I looked at the trees overhead. Their branches were scarcely moving. The sun shone brightly in a bluer than blue Italian sky. A slit of fleecy cloud moved slowly across the heavens. The red tile roofs of the surrounding buildings looked happy in the sunlight. the yellow walls of the buildings had turned to Roman gold.


What a difference there was between the inside and the outside of this college! Who would ever think when looking at the outside of this place that the inside could be so lovely? As seen from this vantage point the very irregularity of this curious pile of buildings had a charm that could never have come from regular lines or regular grouping.


The first prefect appeared in the cloister. There was a rush to surround him. His popularity amazed me till I realized he had mail to distribute. Letters from America! It was a mad scramble of students that rushed to greet him. He stood on a bench and called out the names of the fortunate ones.


I was expecting no mail that day so I watched the spectacle instead of taking part in it. I noticed the looks of anxiety in their faces, the expectancy in their eyes. These boys were even standing on tiptoe while the names were called -- as if the news they were expecting would be made known by sight instead of sound. After each name called there was sure to be a war whoop. Delight and disappointment, jubilant happiness and repressed misery! But they all walked off smiling gaily.


This was the recreation period. It really did re-create me. A dim realization of the true nature of things at last was taking possession of my addled brain.


When I returned to my cell, I carried a bit of the spirit of that cortile with me. It made the room look different. I noticed first of all that a few stray sunbeams had fallen on my floor. When I looked out the window again I noticed vines and flowers growing on the roofs of nearby buildings. In the adjoining Archetto someone was singing. The music was not so very good, but distance lent enchantment. When I heard from sufficient distance even the poorest music can sound as romantic as if it were pouring from the ramparts of highest heaven.


And now I was beginning to be glad I was in Rome. I was where I wanted to be. I had wanted only to study for the priesthood. I had not asked for luxuries or even ordinary comforts. I must have known all along that these would not be provided. I must have known, perhaps without full realization, that a candidate for the priesthood must accept poverty and humility and sacrifice. I must or should have known that life would be like this on Humility Street.


Since I now had the one thing I had desired above all things else, there was really nothing more that I could reasonably demand. I knew it would take me a while to learn to appreciate the bareness and the grayness of my cell, but I was willing now to give whatever time and effort might be needed to the unwavering pursuit of such a quest. I knew I could never hope for happiness until I had learned the bitter lessons, learned to prefer the cross to the crown, learn to yearn for nothing beyond these things which were provided for me.


Since I had never known the feel of wealth, it was not going to be so difficult to give it up. I had really given up nothing and I had really obtained everything in exchange for it.