On my first
day as a Boston College employee, in 1987, I showed up for work,
was soon intimidated by the press of my duties, and went for a walk.
Francis Sweeney, SJ, was standing under the enormous bronze eagle
in front of Gasson Hall. He was regarding the bird with distaste.
"How are you, Father?" I said.
"I am as fat as a stuffed pig," he replied. "I am
old and my teeth need repair. But I have just had word from the
poet Richard Wilbur that he will come for the Humanities Series
this fall, and I must see to the details of the contract. He is
the poet laureate, as you know. I do not think that I will pick
him up at the airport. I wish I had a trustworthy assistant to do
these things. I had one once, but he is, I believe, now incarcerated,
or a graduate student, both of which are predicaments. My teaching
is going well. I have too many papers to correct. I am far behind
in my tasks. I have no energy anymore. Such is the wage of age.
But I must tend to my writing as well. I am working on a brief piece
about my mother. She was a saint. Are you new here?"
"Come to lunch."
At lunch this unusual person held forth on Benedict Arnold, Arnold
Toynbee (whom he called Arnold), Phyllis McGinley, Pedro Arrupe,
Robert Frost, Czeslaw Milosz, Susan Sontag, Jack Kerouac, Alec Guinness,
Annie Dillard, George Higgins, T. S. Eliot (whom he called Tom and
with whom he had boxed in a South Boston gym), the mournful nature
of the lunchtime fare served at St. Mary's Hall, the mysterious
disappearance of Chestnut Hill's rabbits, the virtues and vices
of freshmen from 1950 to the present day, olden times on Nantasket
Beach, and the audiotronics of Gasson Hall, Saint Ignatius Church,
and Robsham Theater, respectively.
Without effort he also managed to elicit from me my history, favorite
authors, and romantic status. By the end of the lunch, I found myself
rattling away on my theories of writing, love, and divinity to a
man I had met an hour ago. This easy familiarity, I was to discover,
was one of Sweeney's trademarks; he befriended people as effortlessly
as he told stories.
For all his gravitas, he enjoyed telling tales on himself. My favorite
of these is a trip he took to Ireland, to visit the poet Richard
Murphy. Murphy decided to buy a cow. Sweeney went with him, up into
the hills of Killarney, heading for a small farm where there was
a cow for sale. When priest and poet arrived, the young farmer led
out the cow.
"She's a very quiet cow," the farmer said to Sweeney.
"A child could milk her. She has soft tits." Sweeney blushed
every time he told this story, and he told it more than twice.
There are a thousand stories about Francis. Stories swirled about
him like birds. How he was hatched and coddled, as he said, in Milford,
Massachusetts, and worshipped his mother, and found his way to the
Jesuits, and at age 27, armed with a suitcase and a bad heart, showed
up at Boston College to teach literature to freshmen. How he advised
the writers of Stylus for so many years and watched with
pride as writers the caliber of George Higgins and David Plante
and Frank Bergon flew from his tutelage into their careers. How
he wrangled and persuaded and dazzled and lured many of the finest
writers in the world to Boston College for his Humanities Series:
Auden reading in his bedroom slippers, Frost in a chair making his
student listeners sit on the floor in front of him, Andre Dubus
weeping as he read aloud from his wheelchair. How Francis taught
and taught and taught—four decades of poetry and writing and
literature and stories. His amused voice. His decrepit suit-jacket.
His headlong shuffling gait. His face the map of Cork. His Old World
manners and dry sharp bookish wit. The dry-leaf snicker of his laugh.
His hen-scratch handwriting in later years, both meticulous and
illegible. The inky warren of his office in McElroy where a hundred
student assistants kept Sweeney organized while never quite managing
to conquer his voluminous files of letters. The dark-brown light
of his room in Saint Mary's, where he fought thousands of lonely
hours with thousands of warm words in letters, essays, poems.
He was crusty and honest and funny and prim and curt and kind and
precise and rude, a short round witty paradox of a man, a bemused
prayer, a sweet intricate puzzling story.
Doyle was BCM's
senior writer from 1987 to 1991. He edits Portland Magazine
at the University of Portland in Oregon.
In his attic a Bedlam choir of clocks
Crowded out life,
With time the tenant
And himself a cramped intruder.
Knowing no other prudence or care,
Not mad, but gathering all his wit into this elf's desire,
He oiled and tuned them, and gave them back
Their dignity of varnish and gilding.
He taught them to chime together,
And woke each hour in the night
Like a lord naming the spires in the barony.
Then he set them to strike, each for a different city,
And that was the last of his fancies,
For one night he wandered out of time
And did not wake to four o'clock in Boston,
Nine in London,
Eleven in Khartoum.
In the last
months of Francis Sweeney's life, his body was a burden to him.
His eyesight and hearing were deteriorating, and a cancer was silently
growing. But whenever I talked to him on the phone, I had the sensation
that I was hearing the voice of the 35-year-old Jesuit I first met
in the fall of 1951.
Stylus is the BC literary magazine and Francis was assigned
to be its faculty advisor. I was one of a crowd of students that
Francis found hanging around the Stylus office. To a callow
youth whose spotty knowledge of the world came almost entirely from
wide but disorganized reading and who aspired to a kind of literary
sophistication he couldn't clearly imagine, Francis was like the
pages of the New Yorker come alive. Only better, because
his wry humor and range of reference came with a judicious morality,
a blithe charity, and an understated religious view of life which
was so attractive that, unconsciously, I decided I had to imitate
Two years later, when a friend who owned a Jeep drove me from Malden
to the doors of the Jesuit novitiate at Shadowbrook in Lenox, Francis
endured the bumpy ride across Massachusetts on the old Route 20,
perhaps to make sure that I arrived with my resolution intact. As
we parted he solemnly gave me the only bit of advice he ever offered
about Jesuit life: I should not let any Jesuit superior give me
a secondhand pair of shoes. I have no idea what painful experiences
led him to this wisdom. I have tried to put his maxim into practice
over the ensuing 50 years, though I have yet to meet a superior
who has offered me secondhand shoes, or even new ones.
It was more typical of Francis to turn this sort of arcane wisdom
and quirky knowledge into comedy. His parents gave him a trip to
Europe in 1939 when he graduated from Holy Cross. He took with him
a French phrasebook for tourists and claimed that the most useful
sentence in it was: "Postillion, my horse has been struck by
lightning." He loved telling the story of how, as a young priest
arriving at St. Mary's Hall to join the Boston College Jesuit community,
he had been welcomed by the venerable historian, Fr. J. F. X. Murphy,
who escorted him to his room and then announced, "I shall now
leave you to your own devices—which are, no doubt, numerous
and foul." And he used to claim that he and another Jesuit
faculty member, Fr. Vincent DePaul O'Brien, would occasionally have
a meal together in Boston's North End and disclose to the waiter
that they were "on curates' holiday from the Parish of the
Venemous Bede, inventor of the Rosary."
A peculiarity of death is that, though breath is stilled, the voice
of someone we love is not.
Fr. Appleyard is vice president for University mission and ministry.
Francis Sweeney, SJ, in 1993: "This is my obit photo,"
he said as the photographer worked.
Photo by Gary Wayne Gilbert