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Letters from the Past Reveal Rich History and Foreshadow the Future

February 6, 2018

With the passing of Fr. John “Jack” Linnan, CSV, last month, came to light a series of handwritten

letters he had written to his classmate and lifelong friend, Br. Don Houde, CSV.

L-R: Houde, Freitag, Foster, Linnan

Their correspondence took place nearly 60 years ago, from 1958-1960, while Linnan completed advanced degrees at Catholic University of Louvain in Brussels and Houde taught English at the former Spalding Institute in Peoria, where they had started together just one year earlier.

Both were young brothers, at the beginning of what would become long and successful ministries. Ultimately, Linnan would go on to help form the Washington Theological Consortium before serving as president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, while Houde would serve as the director of curriculum and administration for the Office of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

As Houde paged through the letters, written in perfect penmanship on onion skin paper for airmail, he felt himself going back in time.

“It was a different era,” he said simply, of the letters that were single-spaced and often stretched as long as eight pages.

Both referred to each other formally, as Br. Houde and Br. Linnan. Topics ran the gamut, from Linnan’s observances about the culture of Brussels and what he was reading at the time, to discussions about their Viatorian Community and its leadership, and the changes going on at the time in the Catholic Church.

“It shows you the depth of Jack’s intellect,” Houde says. “He was interested in everything.”

In one letter, Linnan recounts with amazement that Pope John XXIII had called a gathering of the general council, to take place in 1962.  The Second Vatican Council and its impact on the wider church — and on religious communities — would be groundbreaking.

Linnan and Houde shared their hopes for renewal among their own community in the letters. In re-reading them, Houde now believes their correspondence may have helped pave the way for the Viatorian Self-Study, which took place between 1966-67 and brought about significant changes in the way Viatorians lived and carried out their ministries.

Fr. Jack Linnan, left, with Br. Don Houde, celebrating 25 years as Viatorians

Mostly, the letters recall a simpler time.

“I wish I could tell you how beautiful it is here,” Linnan wrote on July 2, 1959. “Surrounded by (the Alps) which tower above us you can not but have a magnificent feeling just from looking around you.

“Away in far distant mountains, you can see glaciers and crevices filled with snow,” he adds, “and yet today it is quite warm in our valley. . . Sometimes, it is really quite hard to believe that I am here.”