The Bread of the Strong: Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910-1985

By Jack Lee Downey | Go to book overview

5 John Hugo and the Retreat’s
Southward Migration

Let us take the case of a priest, who is fond of smoking, enjoys a good
meal, likes to go to the ball-game, listen to the radio, etc…. Now, it is
a false application of Catholic principles to say that this priest, in the
indulgence of these pleasures is committing any sin or preparing
the way for a fall from grace. He enjoys these pleasures, it is true,
but his ultimate purpose is to re create himself in body and in soul, so that
he can perform his priestly duties with greater zest and efficacy. It is a
false asceticism that would reprove a priest of this type.

—Francis J. Connell, “Comments on ‘Applied Christianity’ by Fr. Hugo”

By the winter of 1949, the debate over Lacouturisme had become firmly rooted in US soil and had developed a distinct, somewhat more frenzied, tone. The figurehead of the American movement was Pittsburgh diocesan priest John Hugo, who had first stumbled upon the Lacouture retreat eleven years prior. Hugo translated the retreat into American idioms and almost single-handedly reconstituted what had been a primarily clerical, socially withdrawn, insular francophone movement within Québécois Catholicism into a powerful stimulant for Lacouturite spiritual regeneration in the United States. Unlike Lacouture’s original permutation of the retreat, Hugo’s tapped into the laity directly—anticipating the Second Vatican Council’s articulation of “holiness for all.” Under Hugo’s stewardship, the retreat gained a more public, populist slant and also became more organized in its confrontational posture than it ever was in Québec. Hugo was a natural scrapper and was galvanized further by his beloved teacher’s suppression, which he— in good Lacouturite form—interpreted in semi-apocalyptic, highly cinematic terms.

From his first taste of “the retreat,” Hugo’s career might be read as a lifelong homage to his spiritual father. By his own account, he experienced a

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