Great Books to Great Works

How three Gaels shaped the Catholic Action Movement

Critics of liberal arts education often question what courses like literature, art or the Great Books have to do with the problems of the real world.

Clearly, they never met James Hagerty, a man who combined an ardent love of the Great Books with a yearning for social change. Or Sylvester Andriano, who championed his faith like a warrior. Or Jack Henning, who waded into the world with oratorical skills and values he learned at Saint Mary’s and left behind a legacy of reforms.

For a little while in the 1930s and ’40s, the paths of these three Gaels intersected, and they joined forces in a campaign that energized thousands of San Francisco Catholics to speak out on some of the most pressing social issues of the day.

A Modern-Day Socrates

At Saint Mary’s, the name Hagerty is legendary—so much so that the main social gathering spot on campus, Hagerty Lounge, is named for him. So it’s always a surprise when you see a picture of him. Randy Andrada ’73, once described Hagerty as “a tweedy, owl-eyed man steeped in the classics.” But beneath this meek, scholarly facade beat the heart of a trailblazer.

Even in the 1930s, Hagerty, who taught philosophy at the College for nearly 40 years, had acquired a cultlike following among many undergraduates, mainly for his embrace of the revolutionary idea that in college, students should be taught not what to think but how to think, principally through the study of the most important books of the Western world.

“He was a modern-day Socrates,” said Brother Dominic Ruegg ’41, who studied under Hagerty and later taught Greek, Latin and Seminar at Saint Mary’s. “He never answered any questions. He would ask a question, but he would never answer it. He forced us to think things through.” For Brother Dominic and many others, it was a transformative experience.

From his base in rural Moraga, Hagerty also created a community of thinkers that reached across the nation, weaving together a far-flung social network long before social networking became the craze. As co-editor of the influential Moraga Quarterly, he became fast friends with social activists and renowned thinkers of the day and invited them to campus. Among them were Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Mortimer Adler, who brought the Great Books crusade to the masses with his best-seller How to Read a Book: The Art of Getting a Liberal Education.

“He was extraordinarily friendly, warm-hearted, social and approachable,” said Brother Dominic.

Hagerty would later go on to initiate the Great Books program, the predecessor of Collegiate Seminar, but in the 1930s he contented himself with organizing forums at which students and colleagues would wrestle with the world of ideas, arguing about the natural rights of man, the nature of truth and virtue, and the value of personal gain vs. the greater good. Soon, however, he would have an opportunity to put his philosophical beliefs into action.   

From Scholarship to Service

In 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, Hagerty heard the call of public service. That spring, Sylvester Andriano, a 1911 Saint Mary’s graduate and attorney, delivered the commencement address and “urged his audience to make Catholic Action an integral part of their private and public lives,” according to William Issel, a professor emeritus of history at San Francisco State University.

Catholic Action was “a faith-based cultural and political reform movement” inspired by the Catholic Social Teaching of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, Issel wrote in his book about the movement, For Both Cross and Flag. It called for Catholics to live out their faith by standing up for key principles, such as human dignity, the common good, charity and the just distribution of wealth. 

It was a message well-suited to the times. Nearly a quarter of all Americans lost their jobs in the Great Depression, and all across the country workers were striking for better wages and conditions. Overseas, Europe was being torn apart by Hitler in Germany and the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy. Just as worrisome for the Catholic Church, the influence of communism was spreading worldwide. 

With so much at stake, Hagerty joined forces with Andriano, an Italian-born attorney, and by the fall of 1937, after meeting with every parish in San Francisco, they presented a “Plan for Catholic Action” to Archbishop John J. Mitty of San Francisco, who gave it his full support.

In a letter to Mitty, Andriano summed up the vision of Catholic Action: “What the world needs today are men of faith, action and courage.”

And so, on the feast of the Epiphany in January 1938, Andriano and Hagerty assembled about 200 men at St. Mary’s Cathedral to inaugurate the Catholic Men of San Francisco. Mitty appointed Andriano and Hagerty as president and executive secretary, and the band of crusaders began their mission to “vitalize” the faith.

Battle for the American Soul

The Catholic Action cadre “saw themselves engaged in a struggle against secularism, materialism, fascism and communism,” Issel explained. “The activists combined zeal to revitalize their personal faith with a determination to be politically influential.”

From 1938 until the winter of 1941–42, Andriano and Hagerty expanded the organization to 160 of San Francisco’s 174 parishes, and membership in Catholic Action Circles grew to 1,500 men and 300 women.

Much of their work was devoted to increasing participation in the rituals of the church and campaigning against what were seen as society’s evils, Issel said, but it also “forthrightly announced that Catholic faith-based principles deserved a leading place in the making of public policy.” 

It might have been even more influential but for the growing demands of the war in Europe and a smear campaign that branded Andriano a Fascist sympathizer and led to his brief exile from “all coastal areas in the United States.” He was later exonerated and returned to San Francisco, resuming his activism and even earning a commendation from Pope Pius XII for his war relief work. In 1961, just before his death, Saint Mary’s honored him as Alumnus of the Year.

Despite occasional setbacks, Issel said, “The struggle between Catholic Action activists and the Communist Party profoundly influenced the debate over how to define the public interest in San Francisco from the early 1930s through the 1950s.”

Catholic Action and Workers’ Rights

One of the most vociferous debates at the time was the battle over workers’ rights. Into this arena stepped John L. “Jack” Henning, whom Issel describes as a young member of the Catholic Action cadre and a “protégé” of Hagerty.

He may have been drawn to Catholic Action because it offered an alternative to both unrestricted capitalism and to communism, which was making significant inroads in the American labor movement.

Unlike Hagerty, Henning looked every bit the fighter, from his square jaw to his broad shoulders, and he lived up to that reputation, immersing himself from an early age in the cause of workers’ rights. In 1938—fresh out of Saint Mary’s—he helped to found the San Francisco branch of the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU).

A year later, in a stirring speech at Saint Mary’s entitled “The Catholic College Graduate and Labor,” he urged his audience to join groups like the ACTU and the Catholic Worker Movement “to foster and spread…sound trade unionism built on Christian principles.”

It was the first of many speeches in his 58-year career as a hard-charging labor advocate. In the words of Bay Area labor writer Dick Meister, Henning became “a powerful crusader on behalf of those who do the work of the world and against the wealthy and privileged who exploit them.”

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy drafted him as Undersecretary of Labor, and he later served 13 consecutive terms as executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, from 1970 to 1996. At Saint Mary’s, the John F. Henning Institute, a center for the study of Catholic social thought and action, is named in his honor.

He credited his Saint Mary’s education, and particularly the great orator Brother Z. Leo, for much of his success. “The ability to learn public speaking from Brother Leo enabled my father to get all those distinguished jobs,” said his son, Dan Henning. Andrada added: “He understood the Great Books. He understood that philosophy and ethics had to be lived in the day-to-day, rough-and-tumble world we all deal with.”

After his death in 2009, Senator Edward Kennedy extolled him, saying “He’ll always be remembered as one of the true giants of the American labor movement.”

Henning, Hagerty and Adriano


Fighting for the Great Books 

As for Hagerty, he threw himself into educational reform with the same vigor he had brought to the Catholic Action movement, converting the entire Saint Mary’s curriculum into a Great Books model during the first years of U.S. involvement in World War II, fighting for its preservation in the curriculum for decades, and finally initiating the Integrated Liberal Arts Curriculum, the predecessor of the Integral Program, before his death in 1957 at the age of 58.

The next spring, the SMC honor society sponsored a fitting forum in his memory, moderated by Mortimer Adler, on “What Makes a Great Teacher.”

It has been more than 70 years since Hagerty, Andriano and Henning joined forces in their Catholic Action crusade, but at Saint Mary’s—and beyond—they are remembered as exemplars of liberal arts education and “men of faith, action and courage.”

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