"A return to the Gospel": The Lacouture retreat and American Catholic revivalism, 1931–1985

Jack Downey, Fordham University


This dissertation investigates the origins, development, and influence of a controversial retreat movement on the spiritual formation of Dorothy Day—co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, candidate for sainthood, and an icon of contemporary radical activism. The phenomenon, known pejoratively as “Lacouturism,” emerged as a self-consciously countercultural response to the socio-religious revival in early twentieth-century Québec. The retreat’s founder and namesake, Onésime Lacouture, S.J., developed a redaction of the Exercises of St. Ignatius that was heavily informed by his enthusiasm for ascetic spirituality. The retreat was wildly popular among Québécois clergy and vowed religious, but drew exacting scrutiny and criticism from local and Jesuit hierarchies, on account of Lacouture’s perceived extremism. The retreat endured Lacouture’s personal suppression, and migrated southward to the United States, nesting among sympathetic clergy constellated around Pittsburgh. Its most prolific advocate and apologist was a diocesan priest named John Hugo, who publicly traded blows with antagonistic critics and was himself “exiled” to a series of rural Pennsylvanian parishes. He also wrote for The Catholic Worker newspaper on Christian pacifism, became Dorothy Day’s confessor, and steeped her Lacouturite theology—which she openly identified as one of the most critical influences on her spiritual formation. Drawing on unpublished manuscripts, retreat manuals, journals, and written correspondence, this project excavates the narrative history of the Lacouture retreat, and its impact on the Catholic Worker, beyond what has been revealed by previous scholarship. Considerable attention has been given to the contextual history of both the Québécois Catholicism which birthed the movement and the ascetic theology that informed its substance. This dissertation traces the development of the retreat itself—how it shifts from being essentially anti-social to providing spiritual nourishment for arguably the most radical expression of engaged Catholicism. The history of Lacouturism and its impact on Catholic Worker theology are presented as a case-study of the convergence within the Catholic counterculture between the “mystical” contemplative tradition and radical social activism.

Subject Area

Religion|Religious history|Theology

Recommended Citation

Downey, Jack, ""A return to the Gospel": The Lacouture retreat and American Catholic revivalism, 1931–1985" (2012). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3560074.