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Life with the Jesuit fathers: a recollection

Serenity rules over the ample space where neatly placed rows upon rows of plain-looking gravestones, some 750 in all, mark the final resting places of dedicated men who in the long ago invited me into their learning circle and helped steer my young self through the shoals of adolescence and early adulthood as I made my way to who I was meant to be.

No traces of eminence disturb the setting of the rows in the Jesuit cemetery that sits in a grove a short walk down a winding path from the Campion Center in the bucolic town of Weston in Massachusetts; whether noting the death of a university president or a brother who tended to campus gardens, the memorial stones are alike in size, and elegantly austere in their engraved presentations: Johannes W. Sullivan, reads one, the given name in Latin whisking me back almost 60 years to the Jesuit scholastic Mr. Cotter’s Latin class at Boston College High School. Below the name are listed three dates: Natus: April 13, 1917; Ingressus: August 14, 1934; Obiit: February 26, 2003. The day he was born, the day he entered the order of the Society of Jesus, and the day he died.

The Rev. John Whitney Sullivan, SJ, a native, like me, of Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, was, as the saying goes, the best teacher I ever had. White chalk in hand, he slowly unwrapped the mysteries of mathematics for the freshmen in BC High’s Room 1L in the fall of 1956, his casual classroom manner and explanatory brio a very far cry from the force-feeding of numbers that so many nuns employed in grammar school. I kept in touch with Father Sullivan after graduation until his death, when I wrote his obituary for The Boston Globe. In between there were regular lunches, which were easy to arrange because we worked across Morrissey Boulevard from each other, and a special occasion: He gave me the Last Rites in August 1964 when a perforated ulcer almost did me in.

As I walked between the rows and stopped to say a short prayer at two dozen or so stones bearing names that I recognized, I heard their voices again: Ambrosius Mahoney (“Mousie” to some), the hyper-efficient principal of BC High in my time there when 62 Jesuit priests or scholastics dominated the faculty; Eduardus Sullivan (“Big Ed” to everyone), the dean of discipline; the heavy-set Guglielmus Phalen, who taught history as he worked the room like a heavyweight boxer stalking his foe in the ring; Joannes W. Chapman, the legendary, innocent “Chops” who guided us through the Iliad and the Odyssey; Franciscus Mahoney, homeroom teacher-turned omnipresent alumni director; Jacobus Foley, the last Jesuit to shake my hand on graduation day; Arturus MacGillivray, who taught freshman English at Boston College with a fearsomely taut classroom style. Some 40 years later we reconnected when he took to sending me finely honed critical comments of certain Globe writers when I was the paper’s managing editor; and Jacobus Casey, who gave of his extra time to work on biblical exegesis with a small group of curious seniors at Boston College in 1964.

Today, the Jesuit presence at my old high school is minimal, but the education continues in the spirit of St. Ignatius Loyola. Out at Boston College, some 130 Jesuits teach or minister to 14,400 students on campus along with a faculty of more than 761 full-time professors.
My connection to Boston College extends back to my days in infant clothes at the St. Mark’s Parish baptismal font. The Rev. Joseph R. Walsh, a cousin of my father, was the rector of the Jesuit community on the BC campus from the 1950s to the early 1960s, and he was the family priest for Christenings and all manner of other commemorations. When the occasion called for a Mass, my brothers and I were often called on to be altar boys in the small chapel in the Jesuit residence, St. Mary’s Hall.

This week, I will be welcomed back to Boston College as a member of the 50th Anniversary Class of 1964, a Golden Eagle at long last. I have been blessed for the family that has sustained me all of my life and for the steadfast teachers and counselors who backed me from the get-go with their talents and their time and today rest side by side with their Jesuit brothers, their names etched on their simple gravestones in the spirit of their lives.