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Soc. v. National City Bank of New York.

January 20, 1940


Appeal from the District Court of the United States for the Western District of Pennsylvania; Frederic P. Schoonmaker, Judge.

Author: Clark

Before MARIS, CLARK, and BIDDLE, Circuit Judges.

CLARK, Circuit Judge.

This is an unusual case. In fact, so unusual that the form our opinion should take has been embarrassing to us. We wish that our adversary system had made some provision for advisory judgments. It is certainly on that basis that this defendant-appellant is now before us. We are sure that this ancient and sacred religious Order subscribes to the words of a justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Virginia in dissenting from a rather technical decision of his colleagues: "Zehm knew, the people generally know, and the lawmakers, legislators, and courts know, that Christian denominations of this state are governed by a higher law than statute or decision, and do not require the sheriff to compel them to meet their moral obligations." Forsberg et al. v. Zehm, 150 Va. 756, 143 S.E. 284, 290, 61 A.L.R. 232.

In Mr. Coolidge's famous phrase, they "hired" $250,000 from the plaintiff-appellee bank on October 28, 1929, and now eleven years later are resisting the repayment of this not inconsiderable sum or any part thereof (even to the extent of pleading the statute of limitations as a bar). that money was spent in the Chinese missionary field and without doubt the reason for their present attitude lies in the dilemma, with which we are most sympathetic, occasioned by the tragic events in China.

That religious Order is the Benedictines or Black Monks, Butler, Benedictine Monachism; Taunton, English Black Monks of St. Benedict, Vol. 1.*fn1 The United States branch of the Order is known as the American Cassinese Congregation (St. Benedict migrated to Monte Cassina and established a central monastery there), Hasting's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 2, pp. 792-796. It includes, besides St. Vincent Archabbey, nine other Abbeys, most of which had colleges or schools attached thereto. The missionary work of the Congregation, at least up until the circumstances giving rise to the present case, seems to have been among the Indians, Catholic Encyclopaedia, Vol. 2 (1907), p. 460. The governance of the Order varied from completely autonomous abbeys to the more centralized administration under the abbot of Cluny and then back to the rather loose federation of more modern times, Cardinal Gasquet, Sketch of Monastic Constitutional History (reprinted in Monastic Life in the Middle Ages, 1922). A more minute examination of this structure might very well have led to a different theory of trial.*fn2

As the matter stands, we are left with a failure of proof except in respect to the particular defendant. That defendant is the Benedictine Society incorporated under a special act of the State of Pennsylvania, "An Act to Incorporate the Benedictine Society in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania," 1854 P.L. 842. The statute constituted certain named Benedictine monks, including the founder Dom Boniface Wimmer, "religious men living in a community and devoted to charitable works and the education of youth," a body politic and corporate having as essential objects inter alia "the care and education of youth."

The Order's interest in the foreign as contrasted with the domestic missionary field began in 1922. In that year the Holy See (Pius XI) requested the Benedictines of the United States to establish a school in Peking, China. This request was first made to St. Vincent Archabbey but was refused as too great a single responsibility. However, on June 7, 1923, the Archabbey sent two of their members, Fathers Ildephonse and Placidus, to China and paid their expenses from their funds in the bank at Latrobe, Record p. 120. The subject was then referred to the Right Reverend Praeses of the American Cassinese Congregation, and on August 8, 1923, the General Chapter of that Congregation adopted a resolution: "that St. Vincent Archabbey undertake the establishment of the school, the other abbeys of the Congregation cooperating." This resolution was in turn on October 5, 1923, submitted to a meeting of the capitulars of St. Vincent Archabbey and was acceded to by a vote of 14 affirmative, 7 negative, 8 indifferent. The cooperation of the other abbeys spoken of in the resolution apparently did not materialize because we see in the minutes of February 18, 1926, that the Archabbot reported: "Other Benedictine Abbeys of our Congregation have been asked to assist in carrying the financial burden of the Foundation, but, as many are in debt we can expect little from them."

On June 23, 1924, Archabbot Stehle received permission (renewed in 1929) from His Holiness in Rome to assign professors to and arrange courses of study in the University to be erected in Peking. The first purchase of property in the Celestial City was consummated in 1925. The Archabbot personally conducted the negotiations and the title to the estate of Prince Tsai Tao was taken in the name of St. Vincent Archabbey in 1925 (the exact date not appearing). On March 20th of that year, the Archabbot granted to Fathers Ildephonse and Placidus and one Dr. O'Toole three powers of attorney to operate bank accounts in and borrow money from the plaintiff's predecessor bank. These powers of attorney are made out in the name of Archabbot Stehle, Chancellor of the Catholic University in Peking and signed by him as both Archabbot and Chancellor. On August 19, 1925, the Holy See granted the China Foundation a special novitiate and Fathers Clougherty and Healy took their vows for St. Vincent Archabbey with the significant qualification "until the place" (i.e. the University) "becomes independent." On February 18, 1926, the Large Order of St. Vincent Archabbey authorized a loan of $25,000 to the China Foundation by a vote of 18 affirmative, 5 negative, and 7 indifferent.

Thereafter the receipts from charitable donations fell below the needs (more ground and buildings) of the University. Accordingly their augmentation by borrowing was first discussed in 1927 and was finally consummated in 1929. We think the transaction was in no wise mysterious, as appears quite clearly from the mouths of the borrowers themselves. In the minutes of the Large Chapter of St. Vincent Archabbey for September 30th and October 28th, 1927, the following is found: " * * * In the discussion of the question, Who would be authorized to sign the notes for the University, Father Archabbot declared that as Chancellor of the University, he has this right; and, as the present property was bought in the name of St. Vincent Archabbey, as 'The Benedictine Society in Westmoreland County,' because the University of Peking was not an 'incorporated society,' this could be done also in this case." Minutes, September 30, 1927.

" * * * Father Placidus spoke in favor of buying the half of the estate, and Father Archabbot said that he could get a loan of $200,000 with five per cent interest for the University. In the discussion the fact was emphasized that the risr of St. Vincent is very little, but that a legal corporation in the United States would have to authorize the transaction, to be valid before law. Thereupon the following proposition was made: St. Vincent Chapter grant assent to take up a loan of $85,000 now for the purchase of one-half of the property of Kung Wong Fu (9 acres) and the taxes of this sale, and later $15,000 for necessary repairs and changes of buildings. The note of this indebtedness to be signed by the president and procurator of the Catholic University of Peking, to be filed with the procurator of St. Vincent Archabbey (The Benedictine Society in Westmoreland County), and in the event of the Foundation becoming independent this indebtedness shall remain until liquidated. The Chapter agreed with the following ballot: Affirmative 14, negative 8, indifferent 7." Minutes, October 28, 1927,

It is probable that the Right Reverend Archabbot felt in 1929 sufficiently authorized by the resolution of 1927 above quoted. In any event, he dispensed with further formal action by the Large Chapter of the Archabbey and proceeded to borrow the money from the plaintiff.The pertinent correspondence reads as follows:

"My dear Archabbot,

"As a National Bank we are not allowed to make mortgage loans in Peking but we shall be glad to make the advance on the strength of a letter from your Order authorizing the advance to be made to the Catholic University of Peking and guaranteeing due payment thereof." Letter of October 28, 1929, from ...

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