SEVENTH IN A SERIES
Dr. Henry van Dusen, president of Union Theological Seminary, one of America’s premier Protestant seminaries, said on one occasion in the late 1940s that, if the Catholic Church had a more persuasive representative than Father George Barry Ford, he had yet to meet that person.
Ordained in 1918, Ford became the chaplain to the Newman Club and advisor to Catholic students at Columbia University in 1929 while assigned to St. Aloysius Church on West 132nd Street in Harlem. When the pastorate of Corpus Christi Church on West 121st Street in Morningside Heights fell vacant in 1935, Ford was appointed pastor. Although the nation was in the depths of the Great Depression, Ford promptly asked Cardinal Patrick Hayes for permission to build a new church and school on the existing site.
He explained to the cardinal his reasons for what may have seemed to be a foolhardy request. “This is not just another parish,” he said, “but a strategically situated one where the best that the Church can do ought to be done.” He mentioned that there were eight world-famous institutions located within the boundaries of the parish:, including Columbia University, Barnard College, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Teachers College, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, St. Luke’s Hospital and Riverside Church.
The new Corpus Christi Church was completed within 18 months and was dedicated by Cardinal Hayes in October 1936. It was a combination church-and-school, but unlike so many utilitarian structures of that type erected in the Archdiocese of New York during the 1920s and 1930s, Corpus Christi Church really looked and felt like a church both from the outside and from within, with splendid stained-glass windows and tasteful interior decorations.
The highest pastoral priority for Father Ford was the solemn celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy in all its splendor. For that reason, he encouraged the development of a choir, which established a reputation for its professionalism and extensive repertoire of sacred music that endures to this day and attracts Catholics from across the city.
During Ford’s initial years at Corpus Christi, Mass was still celebrated in Latin. Ford attempted to overcome the language barrier and facilitate the active participation of the laity in the Mass in a unique way. He posted a priest in the pulpit that provided a simultaneous translation into English of the words of the celebrant at the altar (except for the Eucharistic Prayer). The faithful loved it, but alarmed diocesan authorities outlawed the practice for arcane reasons that they took with them to the grave.
Ford made other practical pastoral innovations at Corpus Christi. He was one of the first pastors in the archdiocese to eliminate tedious pulpit announcements by publishing a weekly bulletin. He also inaugurated a monthly newsletter, the Corpus Christi Chronicle, which made available to his parishioners short essays by some of the best contemporary American and European Catholic writers.
Many Catholic educators regarded Teachers College (located a stone’s throw from Corpus Christi Church) with fear and loathing because they considered it to be the citadel of the “progressive education” they associated with John Dewey. Father Ford adopted a more nuanced position.
When he noticed women religious in full pre-Vatican II religious habits studying for graduate degrees at Teachers College, he inquired about the identity of a religious congregation of women that had the temerity to send their young sisters to Teachers College. When he discovered they were Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, Wis., he quickly obtained their services for his own school, where they soon set new standards of academic excellence in the elementary schools of the Archdiocese of New York.
Father Leo J. O’Donovan, the distinguished Jesuit theologian and president emeritus of Georgetown University, who grew up in Corpus Christi parish in the 1940s, was a witness to the transformation of the parish under Father Ford. He described Ford “as one of the heroes of my life” and said that “it would take another lifetime for me to express even somewhat adequately my gratitude to Corpus Christi.”
As for the Sinsinawa Dominicans in Corpus Christi School, Father O’Donovan said that they “changed my life forever...In effect they took the best of John Dewey and blessed us children with it.”
Father Ford had more than one dust-up with diocesan officials, but he managed to combine respect for ecclesiastical authority with resistance to bullies. He assured one vicar general that he had “instant respect for the historic and important office you hold,” but he added, “when it becomes a police station where suspects report, it no longer enjoys esteem.”
In an article on Father Ford that John Cogley published in Commonweal in 1958, he said, “Of course, Father Ford has not always escaped criticism. A man of his temper would not want to; a man of his accomplishment could not hope to. He has always been just a step ahead of the crowd—a little more tolerant, a little more daring, a little less given to cant. It is even possible that from time to time he moved too fast—a happy enough fault in a society of people who move too slowly.”
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