The Time of their Times

Spent part of the first day of new semester ‘regaling’ [eye/ear of the beholder] undergrads with stories of John F. Kennedy’s motorcade through Pittsburgh in mid-October 1962 (the Cuban missile crisis was just days away). I described how his open limousine slowed to a crawl as it reached Sts. Simon and Jude School—where I was a newly enrolled first-grader—and the President rose to salute what I recalled as a ‘brigade’ or ‘battalion’ of nuns in their white ‘dress’ habits.

I asked my students at the historically Jesuit institution if any had ever attended a Catholic school where the entire teaching staff was made up of nuns. To my great surprise, one student had. The school? Sts. Simon and Jude in Pittsburgh. The young woman then delivered shocking news that this same historic parochial school was slated to close; soon.

We talked about Sargent Shriver—who died two days prior to the fiftieth anniversary of his brother-in-law’s presidential inauguration–and how during a 1963 commencement address at Fordham he cited the inspiration of Pope John XXIII as a factor behind the success of the Peace Corps, which Shriver ran, and continued to direct during the Johnson administration even as he shouldered the additional enormous responsibility of leading the ‘war on poverty,’ a campaign inspired in large part by former Catholic Worker Michael Harrington’s 1962  book The Other America.

Harrington was the first person I ever heard speak at the Catholic Worker’s Maryhouse, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side; Dorothy Day had died there just months earlier, in November 1980. I could never have imagined, as a first year U.S. history graduate student, that I would later enjoy the chance to spend some time with Harrington, or to write a dissertation treating Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, or that I’d be blessed with the opportunity to lead two Friday night discussions at Maryhouse, or appear in ‘American Idealist,’ Bruce Orenstein’s moving 2008 documentary on Sargent Shriver. Or that his son Tim would serve as keynote speaker for a highly meaningful conference on autism and advocacy Dr. Chew and I hosted at Fordham in October 2006.

That was all made possible due to my studies of twentieth-century U.S. Catholic culture; I’m grateful even if I no longer identify so strongly with that field; even less so with the Church that could once welcome and nurture these figures and others with an apostolic charge…well in fact there are plenty doing such work to this day across a wide range of spiritual traditions, notably our inspiring students, so…

The novelist and essayist Wilfrid Sheed died the day after Sargent Shriver. He was a less well known yet important transitional figure between the extraordinarily devout, sophisticated Catholic milieu of his legendary parents, the publishers and Catholic Revival promoters Maisie Ward and Frank Sheed, and another kind of worldly literary scene that Sheed graced (he was a friend of Budd’s; they played softball in a Hampton’s writer’s league). Sheed and Ward published the kinds of books Sargent Shriver read in his own early lay-apostolic phase, which saw him take leadership of the Chicago Interracial Council, a sometimes daringly progressive apostolate of the Catholic Action movement of the 1950s.

Before ‘leaving’ the church—if such a thing is possible, which Wilfrid Sheed himself seemed to doubt at times—he worked at Jubilee magazine in the 1950s, a remarkable and visually quite stunning publication founded by Ed Rice, a close friend and Columbia classmate of the celebrated Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Jubilee was the magazine for Catholic beatniks, as Sheed put it. That alone would recommend it to me, but it also turns out that its very first edition, in autumn 1953, featured a stirring tribute to the waterfront priest by Dennis Howard; a piece wonderfully illustrated with shots of Pete Corridan in and around the great Port.

As the other relevant news of the day suggests, waterfront mobsters shaking down longshoremen we may always have with us. We wish Pete Corridan remained always with us, too.


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