The Bread of the Strong

Lacouturisme and the Folly of the Cross, 1910-1985

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Jack Lee Downey
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , September
     280 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


This compelling and original work provides the first full account of “Lacouturisme,” the charismatic religious movement that is most famous for inspiring Dorothy Day. Interestingly, while Jack Lee Downey is clear that his interest in Day was the motivation for the project, she only appears near the end of the volume. I found this to be an effective and refreshing strategy. Many of the figures in the opening chapters are unfamiliar, but the reader is aware of an eventual payoff in the figure of Day. Along the way, the reader is treated to a clear and well-researched foray into transnational religious history.

The book has two parts. The first half of the book (chapters 1-3) discusses the rise of Lacouturism in the transnational spaces plied by Onésime Lacouture. These chapters root this figure, and his movement, specifically in the context of early 20th-century Quebec. Francophone and Catholic like no other site in North America, Quebec played host to a Catholic political and theological revival in the early 20th century, linked above all with the historian Lionel-Adolphe Groulx. Groulx oversaw a Catholic revival centered on nationalist politics, social activism, and Catholic Action organizations. Like all nationalists, he and his followers nourished an international and in this case anti-colonial imaginary, finding common plight with, for instance, the Irish. This kind of political and worldly translation of Catholicism was anathema to Lacouture. Born near Montréal in 1881, he had many of his formative experiences in the United States. He migrated to Rhode Island at the age of six, and had the mystical experiences that would inflame his life’s work while on a multi-year mission trip in Alaska. In Downey’s telling, Lacouture was at first devastated by this appointment, which seemed to foreclose the possibility of an academic theological career. In the end, though, it was in the so-called “White Desert” that Lacouture became something different. Chapter 3 chronicles Lacouture’s rocky return to Quebec and the launching of the “retreats” for which he would become famous. The first one, in 1931, had only four participants, but he gave many more over the course of the decade, reaching almost three thousand people. The retreats asked participants (mainly clergy) to nourish radical self-negation in the interest of holy communion. That is shorthand, of course, for a more thoroughgoing theology. Using Lacouture’s own retreat notes, Downey reconstructs it, and the related demonology (Lacouture is very much a pre-Vatican II figure). 

Lacouture ran into troubles with the Church hierarchy, and he was eventually forbidden from publicly propagating his ideas. He, and his ideas, likely would have been forgotten if they had not been picked up in the United States—a process recounted in the second half of the book. The protagonist in chapters 4 and 5 is John Hugo, an American priest of Irish heritage who gave Lacouture’s ascetism an activist spin after experiencing one of his retreats in 1938. These chapters place Hugo into the context of early 20th-century American Catholicism, which, like its Quebecois counterpart, was trying to figure out a place within a dominant national project that did not organically include it. More specifically, Downey places Hugo into the context of Pittsburgh, a city where Catholic social doctrine was animating labor activism by priests like Charles Owen Rice. In this environment, Hugo translated Lacouture’s 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” (139). Hugo, more than his mentor, reached out to the laity, and was more populist in his approach. This nonetheless led him into controversy, which Downey painstakingly reconstructs. Chapter 6 turns at last to Dorothy Day, who was introduced to Lacouturism and Hugo by way of a Québécois priest named Pacifique Roy. She first conducted a retreat with Hugo in 1941, and repeated the experience at least a dozen times before her death in 1980.

As this summary hopefully makes clear, The Bread of the Strong is a whirlwind tour through North American Catholicism, including ecclesiastical drama and insightful theological exploration. In the end, though, it is not clear what sort of argument the author is advancing, or what sort of contribution he seeks to make to modern Catholic history. Much of the book rhetorically hinges around the figure of Dorothy Day, but Downey is transparent in his unwillingness to claim to what extent she was impacted by Lacouturism. It would be hard to claim much influence, as Day had already arrived at many of her positions in the 1930s under the influence of Peter Maurin, as Downey knows full well. But if Day is not the analytical payoff for the text, then what is? Downey does not make a strong claim for the place of the retreats in mid-century Catholicism, nor does he explicitly relate his narrative to the standard accounts of North American Catholic history that we find in authors like John T. McGreevy or Kathleen Cummings. He also might have considered the impact of “retreats” of this sort in European Catholicism (as explored by John W. Hellman, among others). Lastly, for a book that is mainly about men but ends with Day, and which is so focused on close webs of sociability, it is surprising that gender is explored so infrequently.

These criticisms, it should be noted, come from a historian, and this book is not only—or even primarily—a work of history. For Downey, the work of contextualization that is our bread and butter is secondary to his true purpose: the reconstruction of an inspiring and largely forgotten movement of Catholic asceticism, with fascinating links to a culture of Catholic activism. In this, the book succeeds brilliantly. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

James Gregory Chappel is the Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History at Duke University.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jack Lee Downey is assistant professor of religion at La Salle University.


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