One day some 60 years ago, seminarian Paul LaForge was exploring the upper levels of St. Mary’s, the SVD major seminary at that time, at Techny, Illinois. There, below the exposed rafters and lying on the attic floor, was a box of books, all in German, ready to be thrown out. On top was a small, 3-inch-by-4-inch volume with the image of the Holy Spirit on the cover. Inside was a handwritten note signed by Arnold Janssen, the founder of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD). Sensing significance, the young priesthood student slipped the small book into his pocket. Later ordained in 1958, Fr. Paul kept it as a prized possession during more than 40 years on mission in Japan and brought it with him when he retired to DWC in 2001.
Fr. Paul’s instinct to save the book proved to be inspired. He was the right man in the right place. A life-long student and educator of languages, his singular action to save the book would lead him to translate it into English—something that will benefit SVDs around the world.
In 2003, the book’s author—the founder of what would become the largest Catholic missionary order in the world—was canonized Saint Arnold Janssen. The book, all in German and in the founder’s words, was an original copy of the 1891 SVD constitutions. That particular edition was a landmark in the history of the SVD. It achieved a necessary step for the budding congregation to be recognized as a religious order.
“Constitutions were fluid. The first was written by Saint Arnold in 1885,” said Fr. Paul, who continues to actively write and translate spiritual works. “This was the first to
|In this famous portrait of Saint Arnold Janssen, founder of the SVD, note the small book inches from his left hand. It is a copy of the SVD Constitutions
be approved by the local bishop, on October 16, 1891. The definitive permission for approval came in 1905 from Rome. The final approval came under Fr. Blum, the successor to the founder.”
Beginning in early 2011, Fr. Paul began the scrupulous work of translating the tiny volume. The German language is not foreign to him. It was a staple of his early education during his seminary years. He later spent a three-month, language-emersion in Germany, doing graduate work. But even with that background, interpreting the text was laborious.
“This took an awful long time, up until last summer,” Fr. Paul said. “A visiting priest, Fr. Oiver Quilab, SVD, showed me how to use an online dictionary. I could, then, look up the words and get the meaning quicker.”
Wrapping up the translation in late 2011, the historic volume and the translation has been sent to Techny and the care of archivist Marcia Stein.
“By Fr. LaForge doing this translation, using current media, it’s now an electronic document,” she said. As an electronic document, and in English, it is much more accessible to SVDs all over the world. German is not as prevalent as it once was, nor is Latin, the language which was used in other versions of constitutions. “In my opinion, this translation will help them understand what this religious order is all about.”
In this way, current and future SVDs will be able to read the actual words of the founder. They will note the differences in format and style and they will gain valuable insights into religious life in the late 19th century.
“Times have changed in the way things are stated and even set up,” Fr. Paul said. “If you tried to put this in what we would consider logical form today, then it would be absolutely useless.”
But beyond the unique structure, period language and the dictates of the bylaws, perhaps its most valuable attribute is a closer, more intimate understanding of the SVD through the words of a saint.
“You have to realize this was pure Arnold Janssen,” Fr. Paul said, “then you experience what his spirituality was.”
Of the book itself
In the early days of the SVD, Saint Arnold would sign copies of the constitutions to present to newly ordained priests. The particular copy was presented to Fr. Friedrick Schwager, SVD, on April 30, 1896, the day he professed his vows. Unfortunately, he did not stay with the society.
“Fr. Schwager was an early anthropologist who was considered weak in his vocation, but was actually quite a scholar in missiology at the time,” Fr. Paul said. “He was noted for his nervousness and that he would make far out theological statements.”
Fr Schwager left the society in the 1920s and is believed to have become a Protestant minister in Iowa.