"The Chalice of Salvation"
by Theresa Smith
November, 1939: a vast sea of young priests poured out into St. Damian Courtyard in Rome, listening to the words of a dying pontiff. Pope Pius XI's voice was weak but his words were strong.
Years later, behind a tape recorder, Passionist Father Fidelis Rice recalled the Holy Father's message ("a statement which literally hit me between the eyes"):
"As an old man with not much time left, I would urge you always to keep at least one step ahead of the devil," the Pope said. "The devil is using every modern technique and every available means to destroy souls and to destroy the church. You must be alert and seize every opportunity that comes to you to try to defend the church and to try to help souls."
February, 1997: a chapel equipped with a studio control room constructed adjacent to St. Michael Cathedral in Springfield, Massachusetts. And "The Chalice of Salvation," the live, televised Mass on WWLP-TV at 10am Sunday mornings for some 40 years finds a new home.
Many of his contemporaries say that the program's founder, Fr. Rice, is smiling down from heaven.
Passionist Brother Terrence Scanlon, today's current host and executive producer of "Chalice," reflects:
"The ministry started in the early days just scratching, crawling and groping for every opportunity possible to be on television with the sacred Liturgy. Only to bring us forty years later to a totally overwhelming electronic infusion of all the different energies that go into broadcasting. Now I think that's a culmination of Father Fidelis Rice's dream."
After mulling over the words of Pope Pius XI, Fr. Fidelis determined in his priesthood to take advantage of any opportunity "by means of new inventions" to spread the Kingdom of God -- in particular, the message of the Passionists, a community founded to be zealous preachers of the Passion of Jesus Christ.
Initially, while abroad, Fr. Fidelis focused his efforts on news and publicity, not thinking of radio (and certainly not the infant medium of television which only began to grow in the early 50s.)
However, upon returning to the United States in 1941 (during World War II), Fidelis was assigned to Scranton, PA. As fate would have it, he was asked to "fill in" on the radio broadcast of the annual St. Ann's Novena in July. Listener response was impressive enough that he was eventually asked to host a Novena broadcast on a weekly basis. right: Passionist Fathers Louis McCue, Fidelis Rice, and Isaias Powers. circa 1963 -- archives of the Province of St Paul of the Cross
Fidelis contacted local station WGBI [now WILK] with a proposal on behalf of the Passionist community. The station's owner was interested, but after consecutive meetings with the station's board of directors, Fidelis was convinced he was getting "the run-around." His patience wearing thin, he told the station he wouldn't return.
"Either you want to give us the time or you don't! If you do, please give it! If you don't, I will preach at next Monday's Novena devotion and tell all the people that WGBI doesn't want to give us time." February, 1942 marked the first weekly Novena on WGBI.
Fidelis remarked, "This was the first opportunity I had had since 1939 to fulfill the injunction of Pius XI -- to stay one step ahead of the devil."
That first step kindled a bigger dream -- to establish a radio program for the Passionist Congregation that "would provide an effective instrument for preaching the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ."
The next step didn't come until 1953. Fidelis was appointed sacred eloquence professor at the Passionist Monastery in West Springfield, Massachusetts. The Bishop of the Springfield diocese, Christopher Weldon, asked him to give a talk on Holyoke radio station WREB.
Fidelis had just purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder for homily and choir rehearsals at the Monastery. Arriving at the radio station, he had many questions about studio equipment and spoke of his endeavors.
The studio director asked to audition a recording the Passionists had already done (which included Gregorian Chant and a homily.) As a result, he asked Fidelis to record a series of half-hour programs for Wednesday afternoons in Lent of 1954.
After his first excitement at the project, Fidelis feared the station would cancel his new "Hour of the Crucified."
"It sounded like we were all underwater," he said.
But the station assured him the contents were fine -- his recording equipment simply wasn't professional.
"The Hour of the Crucified," later known as "Crossroads," was soon a regular on WREB. The popularity of 'Fid's' program quickly spread and was picked up by many other New England radio stations.
By the mid 1950s religious radio programs were common in the Springfield diocese. People eagerly awaited spiritual refreshment on radio, and the Passionist program, with its powerful preaching, was by far the most popular.
Before long, Fr. Fidelis' program was broadcast on hundreds of radio stations across the English-speaking world. His Passionist community became aware that he needed help with this new apostolate, eventually assigning priests (and later a small staff of lay people) to assist him.
George Katsuranis of Westfield, Massachusetts, a production assistant of some 30 years with the ministry, recalled the excitement within the Monastery walls as the apostolate rapidly expanded:
"We always had a tremendous mail response. At one time we were broadcast not only nationally but internationally -- even on Armed Forces Radio. We'd receive mail from Africa, Greenland, Italy, Iceland, all over the Caribbean and South America."
While a small group of Passionists worked feverishly to keep up with mailing demands and broadcast schedules (all from ten small third-floor rooms in a cloistered Monastery), a great discovery was being made -- television!
The Birth of "Chalice"
Others were watching the Passionist broadcasting boom and obviously following its popularity in the Catholic community.
One was William Putnam, owner of WWLP-TV on Provin Mountain in Feeding Hills, a station then one-year old. He invited Fr. Fidelis to host a regular half-hour program on then Channel 61. Originally called "Modes of Life," and later "Joy of Heart," the Sunday afternoon program consisted of interviews, music, talks and dramatic presentations.
In 1957, the Passionists transferred Fr. George Nolan from Scranton to West Springfield to help Fidelis with his radio work. George had been instrumental in starting a televised Mass in Scranton and he suggested that Fidelis do the same.
Mr. Putnam, now owner of both WWLP (now Channel 22) and repeater station WRLP (Channel 32 in Greenfield) supported the idea and cleared 45 minutes for the Sunday morning Mass. He even agreed to give the Passionists an additional 15 minutes free air time if the station's primary sponsor couldn't cover the extra time needed for the Mass.
There were some who expressed reservations about this marriage of new technology and Christian tradition. But Springfield Bishop Weldon, recognizing the importance of the live, televised Mass for shut-ins, gave the program his blessing. On September 8, 1957 Bishop Weldon celebrated the first televised Mass on "The Chalice of Salvation."
Through the Years
While the radio program was eventually discontinued, today "The Chalice" is the longest-running non-news program on Springfield television.
From 1962 until 1990, "Chalice" was produced in a specially-built facility at 1089 Elm Street, West Springfield, which evolved into the "Springfield Diocese Catholic Communications Office."
Since Fr. Fidelis, the "Chalice" torch has been passed to over forty Passionist hosts and producers. Among them: Fathers Cyril Schweinberg, John Patrick Moore, John Powers, Joseph Jones; and Brothers Damian Carroll and Terrence Scanlon.
A New Center
Under Brother Terrence, "Chalice" is now produced at The Catholic Communications Office, 65 Elliot Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, The staff includes six full-time lay and religious members plus a pool of free-lance talent who help prepare the program.
The program features many different members of the clergy (including the bishops) from across the Springfield diocese in order to introduce them to the viewers at home. Brother Terrence says that viewers particularly enjoy "meeting" the newer priests by television.
Passionist Father Columkille O'Grady has been a regular celebrant on "Chalice" for six years, often celebrating the televised Mass twice a month.
"It's a privilege to be able to celebrate that Mass," he says. "It's a highlight of my ministry." He points out that he prepares for the televised Mass in a different manner than he would for a regular Liturgy.
A New Feature
In the late 1970s, "The Chalice" added a 15-minute pre-recorded segment 'feature' replacing the former live interviews conducted by the various Passionist hosts.
"What we try to do with the 'Chalice' feature," says Brother Terrence, "is to show the diocese back to itself. By doing this, we really show the health of the diocese by interviewing the various ministries associated with the diocese."
New technology has allowed "Chalice" to be televised from remote sites about seven times a year, some satellite-linked, making the Mass available worldwide for those who may have access.
Most significant advances began in 1982 when Springfield Bishop Joseph Maguire formally created the "Catholic Communications Office," hiring Michael Graziano as co-ordinator. Mr. Graziano immediately planned for a production truck and field equipment.
Bishop Maguire says: "I think we are all in awe of the tremendous impact 'The Chalice of Salvation' has had on the people of western Massachusetts, and I mean people of all faiths." He described the programming produced through the office as a "tremendous instrument of evangelization. . . .Many people can't come to church. It's important for them to hear the Word of God and listen to the preaching."
The Youth Among Us
At a time when young people are being swayed by a materialistic world, the Office provides an opportunity to do television in a Christian setting. It hires many young adult free-lancers and interns.
Brother Terrence: "When youth are involved, it gives the elderly and shut-ins a sense of hope. A wonderful spin-off of being connected to "The Chalice" is when you go into nursing homes or hospitals. In one visit three or four years ago, a lady was commenting on the students from Holyoke Catholic High School who were music ministers and readers. She felt so happy and affirmed, knowing that there were young people interested in their faith."
Through all the good times and with gratitude to WWLP-TV for providing a studio setting, the producers of "Chalice" still desired to have 'a more sacred place' to hold the sacred Liturgy.
Since the studio-chapel was a studio first and a chapel second, producers had to arrive hours before the actual telecast to physically locate the "Chalice" set.
In 1992, Bishop John Marshall was installed as the sixth Bishop of Springfield, well aware of diocesan needs. He appointed Fr. Karl Huller (Vicar of Finance) to explore construction of a parish center adjacent to St.Michael Cathedral on Elliot Street.
On February 23, 1997, the first "Chalice of Salvation" Mass was held in the new Holy Spirit Chapel. The milestone celebration, hosted by Brother Terrence, included some of the program's past producers, including Brother Damian Carroll, who served as Lector.
With this celebration, the Passionists completed their first 40 years of broadcasting in the New England area.
(Editor's note: This article contains just some of the highlights of the history of "The Chalice of Salvation." A more complete history is found in the 28-page booklet by Theresa Smith entitled "A History of the Chalice of Salvation: 1957 - 1997." The author prepared this well-researched history as part of the 40th anniversary celebration. She lives in the Springfield, Massachusetts area and is a special writer for "The Chalice of Salvation."top of page
archives of the Passionists Compassion Magazine
© 1997, 2007 - all rights reserved - Passionist Missionaries of Union City, NJ USA