Of Many Things

The LaFarge Lounge, named for the late John LaFarge, S.J., onetime America editor in chief and leader of the Catholic Interracial Council, may be the most impressive room at America House. The far wall features a central window with a dozen panes decorated with symbols of institutions associated with Father LaFarge’s life and ministry.

The window includes an image of St. Ansgar, the ninth-century bishop of Hamburg and missionary to northern Germany, Denmark and Sweden, known as the Apostle of the North. The St. Ansgar pane memorializes Father LaFarge’s 35-year-long association with St. Ansgar’s Scandinavian Catholic League.

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To commemorate the centennial of the league’s founding, the bishops of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavik visited New York for a celebratory Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Feb. 6. The previous day they met in the LaFarge Lounge for conversation with America’s current editors. For me, Norwegian on my father’s side, my two days with the league and its guests were the fulfillment of a desire of many years to become involved with this association for Scandinavian-American Catholics. Only as the events approached did I learn this would be the league’s last gathering.

St. Ansgar’s League was founded in 1910 with the encouragement of Archbishop John Farley of New York and Bishop Charles E. McDonnell of Brooklyn. The league’s principal founder, Frode Rambusch, had entered the Catholic Church in 1896 under the guidance of the Paulist Fathers. At its peak in the 1960s, the league had 1,000 members in 10 chapters. It provided fellowship for Scandinavian Catholic converts and those thinking of becoming Catholic.

The St. Ansgar Bulletin, published in English, was “the only journal in a universal language reporting on things Catholic in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland.” Besides meeting on the feast of St. Ansgar, Feb. 3, the league’s members gathered each year to celebrate two Scandinavian festivals of light, Santa Lucia on Dec. 13, and Sankt Hans (John the Baptist) on June 19.

The Second World War and the years immediately afterward were a time of heightened activity, with Bishop Edward F. Swanstrom, a leading member of the league, appealing for aid to the Scandinavian churches. Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Kristin Lavransdatter, who was forced into exile by the Nazi occupation of Norway, lived in Brooklyn Heights and became an active member of the league. To Father LaFarge she was the symbol of the defenseless refugees victimized by the Nazi war machine.

Since World War II, when the U.S. bishops’ war relief effort was headed by Bishop Swanstrom, St. Ansgar’s League has provided support for the churches of Scandinavia. Today the Scandinavian Catholic churches are themselves welcoming refugees from wars in the Balkans and Iraq. When the decision was taken to disband, the league disbursed its remaining funds to the dioceses of the Nordic region: a gift from the children of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States to today’s migrants to Scandinavia.

. . .

This week America bade farewell to Charles M. Whelan, S.J., who died on Feb. 2. For 45 years Charlie served as an associate editor—a record. He also taught law at Fordham University, where he specialized in constitutional law, church-state relations and legal writing. In the 1960s and 70s he was of counsel to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, hands-on legal work of which he was especially proud. May he forever enjoy the company of the saints.

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