Volume > Issue > The Curious Case of Bonaventure Broderick

The Curious Case of Bonaventure Broderick


By James K. Hanna | January-February 2023
James K. Hanna is a Director of the Catholic Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania and author of The Remarkable Life of Bishop Bonaventure Broderick: Exile, Redemption, and a Gas Station (Serif Press, 2022).

Bonaventure F. Broderick has been but a footnote in the history of the Catholic Church in America. Those who know of him know he ran a gas station — as a bishop! Sadly, the rest of his life has received little attention. The short version is that Broderick was auxiliary bishop of Havana, Cuba, in 1905 when he had a falling out with Pope St. Pius X, a ruptured relationship cloaked in mystery. As a result, Broderick was set adrift at age 36 with no assignment and a small pension. He eked out a living until 1939, when then-archbishop Francis Spellman discovered him pumping gas in upstate New York and brought him back to the Church.

That’s a fair summary, but in truth, the celebrated gas-station episode is just a blip in the full but little-known narrative of a life so remarkable it has the feel of fiction.

It is a story of accusations, from the serious to the salacious to the silly: that Broderick shared in a million-dollar commission to sell a monastery in Havana; that he was living with a nun he “stole” from a convent in St. Louis; and that he was running a hotdog stand in upstate New York. It is a story of a failed bomb-building business in Connecticut and a sewer system in Cuba. It is a story of a millionaire Congregationalist and his Catholic widow, an impeached governor, quarreling siblings, and a quibbling Catholic hierarchy.

A native of Hartford, Connecticut, Broderick studied at the North American College in Rome, where he gained respect as an expert in archaeological graffiti. A student of Orazio Marucchi, Broderick was present for several discoveries in the Forum and the catacombs and was lauded by The Catholic Times of London as a “young ecclesiastic with a brilliant future before him in the domain of Christian science” (Jan. 7, 1898).

After completing his studies in 1899, Fr. Broderick returned to Connecticut. Assigned to a parish in need of a new building, he raised $30,000, including $5,000 from Henry B. Plant, a multimillionaire known for his steamship and railroad lines. Plant, a Congregationalist whose wife, Margaret, was Catholic, died a year later, leaving most of his estate to the future offspring of his then-eight-year-old grandson!

The following year, Fr. Broderick ran into trouble with his bishop, Michael Tierney. One of Bonaventure’s two brothers, Clement, owned the Broderick Projectile Co., which produced ammunition for the military. When Clement secured a contract with the government that required expansion of his factory, his priest-brother secured the support of Bishop Tierney, who endorsed notes in the amount of $15,000. But Clement could not meet the demands of the contract, and the venture soon failed. When news broke that Bishop Tierney was in the bomb-building business, it so shattered their relationship that the prelate wished he could remove the young priest from his diocese.

That same month, in a remarkable coincidence, Fr. Broderick’s former theology professor, Msgr. Donato Sbarretti, was appointed bishop of Havana and asked the young priest to join him as his American secretary. The relieved Bishop Tierney granted Fr. Broderick a leave of absence.

Arriving in Cuba in 1900, during the U.S. occupation that followed the Spanish-American War, Fr. Broderick was tasked with negotiating the rights of the Church to her property. He did such a stellar job that in 1901 Pope Leo XIII made him a monsignor at the tender age of 32. Two years later, Pius X appointed him auxiliary bishop of Havana and titular bishop of Juliopolis, a city in the province of Ankara in modern-day Turkey. The latter was a title to which he would later cling.

Bishop Broderick was popular with the Cubans and enjoyed the favor of the American governmental elite, but he soon became the target of gossip and uninvited controversies. Whether fueled by resentment or because his second brother, David, was successful in securing post-war reconstruction contracts for Connecticut businesses, accusations of impropriety reached Archbishop Placide Chapelle, the apostolic delegate to Cuba. One of the more damning rumors was that Broderick had conspired to sell a monastery and other Church property to the Cuban government for $2,036,000, but that the Church was to receive only $1,000,000 of the purchase price. The suspicious archbishop traveled to Rome in 1904 to seek removal of the young auxiliary.

Bishop Broderick followed Chapelle to Rome, where he successfully defended himself. Pius X exonerated Broderick but, rather than sending him back to Cuba, chose to have him take charge of the Peter’s Pence Collection in the United States as auxiliary bishop to Baltimore’s James Cardinal Gibbons. Due, in large measure, to the rumors dogging Broderick, the powerful American cardinal objected to the appointment and convinced the Pope to pull the assignment. Frustrated with the rejection, a despondent Broderick wrote a letter to Rome that Pius X misinterpreted as a threat to cause scandal. As a result, in the spring of 1905, Bishop Broderick was set adrift without a job and with a meager $100 monthly pension.

He did not remain idle. Within months, Broderick devised a plan to settle Italian immigrant farmers in the southern United States. By the fall, with the endorsement of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Italian American Agricultural Association was formed, with Bonaventure F. Broderick as president and treasurer. His settlement plan gained a bit of traction but not enough income to support his widowed mother and her caregiver, Helen Bowlen. Soon he was wooed by some of the business connections he had made during his time in Havana. Among them were Hugh Reilly, a Boston contractor; John Sullivan, a former congressman from Massachusetts; and William Sulzer, a congressman from New York.

In 1907, while engaged in the construction of a sewage system in the city of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba, Reilly asked Broderick to use his influence among Italian immigrants to find laborers for the $4 million project. But soon there were problems with one of Reilly’s subcontractors, the Donovan & Phillips Co. Broderick witnessed a disagreement between Messrs. Donovan and Phillips in which the two threw inkwells at each other before calling it quits. Broderick stepped in and, along with Sullivan, took over the company and hired his brother David to manage the construction. The Broderick brothers were now in the sewer-system business! For the next few years, the bishop managed the company’s domestic affairs while David supervised the worksite. Eventually, the revenue from the Cienfuegos aqueduct contract, completed in 1912, would lead the brothers to sue each other.

In 1909 Margaret Plant died. Ten years earlier, after her husband Henry had died, she had contested his will and won a $7 million settlement. She later married another millionaire, Robert Graves. When Margaret died, her estate was valued at $8 million. She left Bishop Broderick $25,000, which he used to purchase a 200-acre estate in Saugerties, New York, where he lived with his mother and her caregiver. He named the estate Villa Marguerite after his mother.

From 1912 to 1915 Broderick spent much of his time in courtrooms wrangling over legal and financial matters, either defending himself or trying to win six-figure lawsuits, one of which he brought against David, and another against Pearson’s Magazine for defamation, which garnered national attention. Pearson’s had resurrected Archbishop Chapelle’s old accusation that Broderick had conspired to share in a million-dollar real-estate commission. The magazine was forced to print an apology.

The suit against his brother was a complicated matter in which David countersued. The disagreement over the final payment for completion of the sewer system found the bishop on the witness stand, where he was asked to explain why and how he had been severed from the Church. He made it clear that he was still in good standing. “Once a bishop in the Catholic Church, always a bishop,” he said. He never shied from sharing that he was titular bishop of Juliopolis or that he was a Catholic clergyman, the occupation he claimed on every state and federal census throughout his long exile. After two years of courtroom decisions and appeals, the brothers amicably settled their differences out of court and were reconciled.

During the sewer-system tumult, Broderick was embroiled in another notorious case: the impeachment of New York Gov. William Sulzer. Years earlier, while in Havana, Broderick had interacted with then-congressman Sulzer, who was negotiating with Cuba on behalf of the U.S. State Department. Broderick, concerned about Sulzer’s integrity, tried to prevent him from running for governor in 1912, even predicting that impeachment would soon follow if he won. To aid the effort, the bishop offered details of Sulzer’s indiscretions to Congress. The New York Times published a front-page story about it titled “Sulzer a Tool, Says Broderick” (Aug. 25, 1913). The bishop, with pastoral sensitivity, noted that his concern was born of charity: “I feel sorry about what has happened. What I say of Sulzer I want to say in a kindly spirit for he has been more sinned against than sinning. By that I mean he was used by men cleverer than he, who used him to throw him aside and deceive him.”

Sulzer was less charitable. Through a surrogate, he distributed a press release, claiming, “The unfrocked Bishop Broderick who has been telling a weird tale to the New York Times…was driven out of the Church of Rome for corruption in Havana where he was bishop and is now living openly at Saugerties with a nun he stole from a convent near St. Louis” (Lexington Herald-Leader, July 16, 1913). The “stolen nun” was a fabrication, apparently a reference to his mother’s caregiver, Helen Bowlen. Sulzer won the election, but, true to Broderick’s prophecy, he was impeached and removed from office within months.

In 1926, his mother having died nine years earlier, Broderick (with Helen, who stayed on as his housekeeper) moved across the Hudson River to Washington Hollow, one of three hamlets forming the village of Pleasant Valley, a few miles west of Millbrook, New York. It was there that the appearance of a Catholic clergyman without a parish became a curiosity, a “cause of wonderment to Catholics and non-Catholics alike,” as Archbishop Spellman would later say.

Rumors began circulating about this mysterious man. Was he or was he not affiliated with the Catholic Church? The Poughkeepsie Eagle-News claimed he was running a hotdog stand. Bishop Broderick was incensed, telling the paper, “Hot dog stand! Certainly not! I do not run a hot dog stand or any other kind of stand. That is the product of the imagination of some newspaperman. Those young fellows write principally from their imaginations, I guess. It will be remarkable if we ever see youth and brains together!” (March 11, 1929).

The paper was relentless, however, writing that “stories of the former bishop of Havana living in seclusion in a wayside farmhouse…led many to ask why a clergyman was living apart, apparently having no connection with the church.” Broderick tried to set the record straight. “The reason for that is that people do not understand the organization of our church,” he told the Eagle-News. “They think that because a clergyman does not preach every Sunday and have a church that he is unattached. There is a difference between a bishop and a parish priest, you know. I am certainly not unattached. I am connected with the diplomatic service of the church.” Nearly 25 years after the fact, he was still hanging on to the ill-fated Peter’s Pence assignment of 1905.

More gossip circulated that Broderick had lost his ecclesiastical privileges. Fr. Edmund Harty, pastor of St. Mary’s in Saugerties, put that rumor to rest, telling those who inquired that Broderick celebrated Mass daily in a private chapel in his home.

Though he vehemently denied operating a hotdog stand, the bishop did open his little gas station along Washington Hollow Road in the mid-1930s, around the same time he began penning a weekly column for the local paper, the Millbrook Round Table. His column was titled Things, Events, and Men, and he had free rein to write on a variety of topics. A sampling includes “The Milk-Marketing Situation,” “The Social Security Decision,” and “The Coronation in London of King George VI.”

After 30 years in exile, Bishop Broderick could be forgiven for thinking the Church had forgotten him. If he did, he was wrong. Someone remembered his plight, and the wheels of justice were turning — slowly and half a world away — but turning they were, in his direction.

Three men animated the end of Broderick’s long exile. It was initiated by one, and completed by another, but the one who brought it to life was Amleto Cicognani, the middleman in the three-actor drama of the bishop’s homecoming. Cicognani was ordained a priest in 1905 — the same year Broderick was exiled — and in 1933 he was appointed apostolic delegate to the United States, a position he would hold for 25 years. It was Cicognani who informed Francis Spellman of Broderick’s plight, doing so in an extraordinary way.

Spellman was installed as archbishop of New York on May 23, 1939. The night before, Fr. Cicognani had met with him in the archiepiscopal residence on Madison Avenue, bringing to his attention four serious problems. One was financial, another legal, and the third involved a religious congregation. The fourth was the exiled prelate running a gas station in Millbrook.

Spellman was about to become responsible for one million New York Catholics, in the third largest archdiocese in the country, one, moreover, that was deeply in debt — to the tune of $28 million. The Broderick matter was decades old, and most of his antagonists were deceased. Why was it of such immediate import? Why did Cicognani, a man known for his discretion, put the Broderick issue to Spellman in such urgent terms?

The seed for his reconciliation was likely planted by Broderick’s old friend and former professor Donato Sbarretti. Now a cardinal, Sbarretti had become secretary of the Congregation of the Holy Office. Spellman’s appointment supplied the long-awaited opening for Cicognani to make his move.

Spellman took the task seriously and wasted no time. Within months, he secretly sought out Broderick in Washington Hollow, where he surprised the long-exiled bishop at his home behind his little gas station. Spellman’s early September visit was shrouded in secrecy, with no publicity and no advance notice. Spellman alone knew of the plan.

The approach, visit, and extraordinary conversation between the two are vividly recalled in a letter from Spellman to Cicognani that can be found in Robert Gannon’s biography The Cardinal Spellman Story (1962). Spellman writes:

I knocked on the door and it was opened by a man of about seventy years of age, dressed plainly in rough clothes…. I said, “Good afternoon, Dr. Broderick, I am Archbishop Spellman and I heard that you were here and I thought I would come to see you and ask you if there was anything I could do to help you.” Immediately and spontaneously came his answer. “I have been waiting for thirty years for someone to say those words to me.”

After entering Broderick’s house, Spellman invited him to “tell me his story,” after which, Spellman recalls, “I then asked him if he would be willing to return to his duties as a priest. He told me that gladly would he do so, and the only reason that he was eking out his existence by conducting a little business was because the One Hundred Dollars pension which the Holy See had graciously granted him was not enough for him to live on.”

Spellman completed his due diligence, making inquiries of “several of the bishop’s contemporaries including [William Henry] Cardinal O’Connell and [Dennis Joseph] Cardinal Dougherty, and from Archbishop [John G.] Murray who is from the Diocese of Hartford,” all of whom “agreed that the bishop had not been guilty of anything wrong. There have been stories about the bishop, but that was inevitable…. There is nothing of a grave charge in the file of the Apostolic Delegation concerning Bishop Broderick, and the Bishops who knew him and know him are desirous that he return to duty.”

And so, on December 1, 1939, Archbishop Spellman appointed the Most Rev. Bonaventure F. Broderick, Ph.D., S.T.D., chaplain of the Frances Schervier Hospital in the Bronx. Broderick made haste to the facility, where he assumed residence and ministered to the patients and the 40 Franciscan sisters on staff.

Early in 1940 the Holy Office completed its investigation of Broderick, allowing his full restoration to episcopal ministry. In February, Spellman decided it was time for the long-exiled bishop to appear in procession wearing the robes of his rank. The ceremony for conferring the pallium took place in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. For the next few years, in Gannon’s words, “The Titular Bishop of Juliopolis was a familiar figure in the cathedral and at religious functions throughout the archdiocese, winning hearts everywhere with his simplicity, humility and gracious courtly manner.”

Spellman and Broderick developed a deep friendship that lasted until the latter’s death in 1943. It seems fitting to conclude this brief sketch of Bishop Bonaventure Broderick with the words of the man who knew him best in the last years of his life. In March 1942, at the dedication of a new addition to the Schervier Hospital, Archbishop Spellman publicly declared his admiration for its chaplain: “The greatest thing I have done for my soul and the greatest gift I have brought to the people of the archdiocese has been in bringing Bishop Broderick to New York.”


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