Appearing in The Tidings Newspaper - Friday, February 9, 2001
"The Early Days: 'A Certain Spirit' "
By Hermine Lees
“A certain spirit had always been there; it was like a family gathering.”
That is how Msgr. Leland Boyer summarizes his recollections of the 18 years he spent working in the special apostolate of religious instruction, education and formation in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. And he should know, for he was there at the beginning of what is now the annual Religious Education Congress, the largest event of its kind in the United States, attended by more than 35,000 adults and youth every year.
Originally, though, it was an “institute” – an immensely and even surprisingly popular event for catechists, held at high schools and then at an airport hotel before it simply became too big and had move to Anaheim. And at the helm was Msgr. Boyer,. whose belief in the need for such an event was justified by the thousands who attended every year.
Now pastor emeritus of St. Bede the Venerable Church in La Canada Flintridge, the 79‑year‑old priest recently recalled the origin of “Congress” in an interview at the parish residence. And even though his sight is dim and the printed word is difficult to read, Msgr. Boyer retains sharp images of his 52 years of ministry in the archdiocese.
Decades in the making
Ordained in 1949, Father Boyer taught at St. Anthony High School in Long Beach and served in parish residence at several parishes. Then in 1956, he joined Msgr. John K. Clarke in what was then called the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine – the CCD.
The CCD history actually began in the early 1920s, under the guidance of Bishop John Cantwell who realized the urgent need to offer religious instruction for the vast number of refugees from the Mexican Revolution in 1922. Under his pastoral care, many new parishes were established during the 1920s, and the new method of instruction used in other parts of the country to bring the faith to children and adults became a vital part of religious life in the growing city (and diocese) of Los Angeles.
Bishop Cantwell appointed Father Leroy Callahan, pastor of San Antonio de Padua Church in East Los Angeles, to implement this parish program that not only offered spiritual comfort to the immigrant, but also laid the foundation for the present religious education program throughout the archdiocese.
By 1937 the program had succeeded so well that a full-time director was needed. Archbishop Cantwell (Los Angeles had become an archdiocese in 1936) named Msgr. Clarke director and for the next 33 years he supervised the confraternity and witnessed the increase in classes from 36,000 to more than 200,000.
Msgr. Boyer was named as the supervisor of teachers in 1956 and that same year helped in organizing the first CCD “institute” held at Mount Carmel High School on Hoover Street in Los Angeles. Some 500 teachers and catechists attended the two‑day conference, listened to speakers and gained experience from other teachers.
From guilt to love
The approach in teaching CCD was one of learning to turn from guilt to love, according to Msgr. Boyer. “The catechists were taught
the sacraments, the commandments, how to be “fishers” and mainly learned how to respond out of love rather than fear,” he recalled.
Topics were scaled according to grade level and based on child psychology with appropriate texts. Several classes were offered for adult instruction also. (Four of the main texts were written by Msgr. Boyer and published by Sadlier Company.)
The next year attendance doubled at the institute held at Bishop Conaty Catholic Girls High School; continued to increase at Loyola University; and culminated with over 4,000 attending the event at Immaculate Heart College. Dynamic speakers like Tim Brunet motivated catechists by their talks, Msgr. Boyer noted, and many volunteers contributed to the growth of the program.
In 1964 Msgr. Boyer was promoted to assistant director of the CCD office under Msgr. Clarke. By 1967, it was apparent that local schools could no longer handle the crowds and a new site was needed.
“I decided to try the International Airport Hotel,” Msgr. Boyer recalled, “although there was some opposition to the plan. Some thought the hotel would convey a ‘convivial’ atmosphere, but I prevailed.”
With the cooperation of the dioceses of Monterey‑Fresno and San Diego, the agenda for the first three‑day “Congress” was set. The purpose, as stated by officials, was “to provide an atmosphere of Christian unity … for the benefit of each and the common good of all mankind.”
Great plans and great expectations, yet even those were exceeded. Some 3,000 were expected but more than 7,000 descended upon the hotel, jamming elevators, hallways, coffee shops and restrooms – even the fog rolled in to further complicate travel.
“I can recall waiting at least 10 minutes just to get on a crowded elevator,” says AI Antczak, former Tidings editor, “and it was a challenge to parcel out assignments to cover all the speakers.” But The Tidings covered that first event and has continued the process to today.
Change in the '70s
The mounting solution to find an adequate site was a challenge that kept gaining momentum for Msgr. Boyer and the CCD office, so much so that another plan became necessary by 1970, a year in which Msgr. Clarke retired as Confraternity director to pursue other duties. Msgr. Boyer was appointed to succeed him, having just been elected to the executive committee of the National Conference of Diocesan CCD Directors. He was also named pastor of Divine Savior Church in Los Angeles.
To find adequate space for the increased attendance at the annual religious gathering, Msgr. Boyer asked the Anaheim Convention Center for an available date. Again there was hesitation. The center never had hosted a religious event and officials feared the attendance would not be sufficient to make the venture a commercial success for the city.
“But they were surprised and impressed,” Msgr. Boyer said, “when we had more than 10,000 attend and took up rooms in all the surrounding hotels. My two nephews, Steve and Greg, were teenagers and helped with the equipment and assignment of rooms. My family was involved from the start and my brother Verne continued for a long time, arranging Mass times and setting up the arena. So it was both my family and the extended family feeling that made the Congress special.”
The following year the first Youth Rally was held to give special sessions for students and became the model for the present Youth Day that now attracts some 10,000 on the opening day of Congress.
In 1972, Archbishop Timothy Manning celebrated a jubilee Mass to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of a formal religious education program in the archdiocese. The first workshops in Spanish were presented in 1973 and that year Msgr. John Barry was named the new director. During his 10-year term the CCD office was renamed the Office of Religious Education.
Msgr. Boyer was named as a consultor to Cardinal Manning in 1973, and in 1975 was appointed pastor at St. Bede the Venerable, serving in that role for 18 years and directing six pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Two years ago, in the year of his golden jubilee of ordination, he was present at the annual Chrism Mass as Cardinal Roger Mahony began an annual tradition of acknowledging golden jubilarian priests at the Mass.
And last year, on the 30th anniversary of the first Congress in Anaheim, Msgr. Boyer was urged to attend. When he was introduced near the end of the closing liturgy, he was greeted with tremendous applause by the nearly 10,000 people who filled the Convention Center arena.
“It was quite a moving experience,” he said. And a moving tribute to the man who – like the CCD and Religious Education directors before him and after – has lived the theme for this year's Congress: “Clothed in Love, Summoned Beyond.”
THE HISTORY OF CONGRESS
1922 – Bishop John Cantwell begins CCD program.
1937 – Msgr. John Clarke appointed archdiocesan CCD director.
1956 – First Institute held at Mount Carmel High School.
1967 – First Congress held at International Airport Hotel.
1970 – Msgr. Leland Boyer named CCD director; first Religious Education Congress convenes at Anaheim.
1973 – Msgr. John Barry named CCD director, office is later renamed Office of Religious Education.
1983 – Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson named ORE director.
1987 – Sister Edith Prendergast named ORE director.