Eaton, Father Vincent Moore, S.S.

1999, November 14

Date of Birth: 1915, June 9

January 25, 2000

Among the holdings of the Sulpician Archives at Catonsville is a slim volume of 86 pages entitled Ordinary Priest: Autobiographical Sketches, written in 1991-92 by Father Vincent M. Eaton, S.S. The volume is one of only a half dozen copies put together by the author. It contains some very detailed recollections of his youth, less detailed of his middle life, and even more sketchy of his later years. But together with our own reminiscences they add up to the account of the life of a more-than-ordinary priest and Sulpician whose earthly career came to an end on November 14, 1999.

Vincent Moore Eaton was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, June 9, 1915, the youngest surviving child of William H. and Elizabeth McMahon Eaton. Though he would later occasionally visit relatives in Worcester, he lived in Brooklyn, New York, from the age of three, for his father moved the family there in a search for a job in the printing business. Vincent grew up in St. Jerome’s parish, where he made friendships that persisted almost to his dying day. His fidelity as an altar boy made it natural that his pastor and the other priests would try to guide him to a priestly preparation.

Once he graduated from St. Jerome’s school, he was accepted at Cathedral College, the day seminary for the Diocese of Brooklyn. For six years most days were marked by the serving of Mass at 6:30 at St. Jerome’s, a quick breakfast, and then commuting to class by subway or bus. Here too was the gathering of new friends, many of whom remained close for the next five or six decades. It was also a time when Vincent’s hard-working father died at the age of 59, leaving his mother to support six children during the depths of the depression. Those years marked a transition from the pick-up games in his neighborhood to the more organized intramural sports at Cathedral College. Because of asthma and poor eyesight Vince did not make the regular teams, but he served faithfully as a manager of the basketball team and thus earned a letter on his sweater.

When he came to the end of his six years at Cathedral College, it would have been normal for Vincent and his thirty-nine classmates to be sent to the major seminary of the Immaculate Conception at Huntington, L.I. But these were not normal years. In the midst of the depression Bishop Mulloy of Brooklyn picked only 25 of the 40, and Vince Eaton, in spite of his good scholastic record, was not among those chosen. Some of his teachers at Cathedral arranged for him to go to Baltimore to see Father Fenlon at St. Mary’s to ask for admission there. Even though Father Fenlon was away, Father John Lardner did accept him for entrance into Philosophy at Paca Street in September 1935. They subsequently arranged for Vincent to be adopted as a student for the Richmond diocese (even as they did for his fellow Brooklynite, Eugene Nicolaus) and later be released for work as a Sulpician. The two years at Old St. Mary’s were filled with wonders: being inspired by the rector, Father Lloyd McDonald; studying and praying and recreating with fellow students and professors; experiencing Christmas in the seminary and the other events of the seminary of that era.

By the end of 2nd Philosophy Vince had been made a Sulpician candidate, and thus began the routine of summers commuting from Brooklyn to Columbia for the study of German (which he was never destined to teach) and returning in the fall to the New St. Mary’s in Roland Park. His years there were marked by working in classes to complete his S.T.B. degree in two years and his S.T.L. in another two years and by taking part in the weekly “walks” of the St. Camillus Society (a sort of forerunner of the later pastoral ministry programs) – in his case to the Eudowood tuberculosis sanitarium. At the end of his four years he was slated to be ordained by Archbishop Curley of Baltimore in the Cathedral of the Assumption on the feast of Corpus Christi, but the Archbishop was compelled to celebrate the ordination one day late on June 13, 1941. Next day Vince was back in Brooklyn to celebrate his first Mass in the Angel Guardian Home where his sister Lue (now Sister Mary Vincentia, R.S.M.) was stationed. Sunday marked his first solemn Mass at St. Jerome’s, with minor seminary professor, Father Charles Mulrooney, preaching; in 1966 then Bishop Mulrooney, pastor of St. Jerome’s would preach at Father Eaton’s silver jubilee. The rest of the summer of 1941 was spent back at Columbia for the last time to obtain his master’s degree. A desire to go on for doctoral studies at Boston College was precluded by the advent of World War II.

The new priest’s first assignment was to St. Charles College where the living quarters were not the most attractive and where the seeming aloofness of the faculty made him feel less than welcome. But the acceptance of the students and their enjoyment of his classes helped tide him over that first year. This was followed by the year of Solitude at St. Mary’s, Paca Street, where Father Lloyd McDonald, the director of the Solitude, was also the Superior of the Philosophy house. This made for a less than satisfying formation experience, one that was interrupted by a long siege in the hospital and a long recuperation from an emergency appendectomy. Added to this was the great personal loss he suffered in the death of Father John Fenlon the summer of 1943, for he felt he owed to the long-time Provincial the very beginnings of his seminary preparation and priesthood. With Vince’s return to St. Charles in the fall came extra duties (like the teaching of French) that were extended even more by the entrance into wartime acceleration in the summer of 1944; this added to responsibilities, but it also lessened the tensions and contributed to a greater spirit of friendliness and acceptance.

Perhaps here should be told the story of Vince’s letter sweater. He had earned it at Cathedral College as a manager for the basketball team. Now sometimes he wore it in recreation, and a legend was born. The students knew that he had obtained his M.A. at Columbia, and they began to believe that the Cathedral “C” was actually from Columbia and that he had once been a basketball star at the latter institution. Vince never disabused them of the story; in fact, one day we went up to the Junior basketball hall, stood at the foul line, and made nine out of ten baskets in a row. The story has a footnote: he never afterwards touched a basketball.

Also here should be noted the young priest’s fascination with discovering new ways of teaching fundamental English grammar. In the absence of a satisfactory textbook, he began to develop his own. This involved a great deal of mimeographing. When his Superior, Father Gleason, complained about the overuse of paper for mimeographing, he took it as a personal criticism. He first tried to have his Essentials of English published, but, when that effort failed after several tries, he bought his own mimeograph machine.

Except for the loss of his mother in September 1955, the postwar years were ones of growing satisfaction. He established a reputation in the teaching of English in high school and was ready to move up to college upon the retirement of Father Lawrence Brown. Over the years he breathed new life into the college English classes and contributed greatly to the effectiveness of the long-neglected speech course. He early undertook the task of leading morning and night prayers for the Juniors and providing them with daily guidance in their mental prayer; this he did for over a dozen years. He also served as moderator of The Borromean for half a decade. At the same time, he was growing in closeness to a whole series of his fellow faculty members. And on weekends and during summers he contributed to the life of a number of parishes; St. Agnes in Woodlawn, Sacred Heart in Bowie, St. Athanasius in Curtis Bay, and especially Our Lady of the Fields in Millersville. In each of these he found new friends – even several generations of friends – who remained loyal and supportive long after his health forced him to give up such outside work.

This is not the time to review all the tensions and turmoils that led to the phasing out of the high school at St. Charles and to the amalgamation of the senior college at Paca Street with the junior college at Catonsville. These are mentioned only to note the fact that in 1969 Father Eaton was asked by Father Lee to be the vice-rector of the new St. Mary’s Seminary College. This brought him into close contact with a number of the demands and challenges of that period of seminary life. One instance will suffice: there was a time when the college students thought it would be good if they could legitimately call all the professors by their first names. When they asked the vice-rector how he felt about this, he said he had no problem with the request. So, they pressed on: “What is your first name?” He had the immediate answer, “Father.”

“Father’s” new position gave him a seat on the University Council, where he began regular inquiries about what plans the Sulpicians had for a proper preparation for the celebration of the historic occasion of St. Mary’s bicentennial in 1991. Since his main concern was about documents and records involved, he was asked by Father Purta in the fall of 1972 to “look into the condition of the Archives.” In the following months he began to assemble materials from St. Charles College, from old St. Mary’s on Paca Street, from St. Mary’s in Roland Park, and from Theological College in Washington. He also spent some weeks in a course at the National Archives in Washington to familiarize himself with techniques and methods. At first, he gathered what he had found in a room at Roland Park, but he soon made arrangements for the collection to be housed
in the former stacks area of the library on the fourth floor of the Administration Building at Catonsville. There his skills and the help of a series of part-time secretaries transformed the mass of materials into a wondrous arrangement of record groups (each with its own major topic) and individual boxes of documents, each one color-coded and backed up by an alphabetical file that has since grown to over 40,000 index cards. By 1974 he had to withdraw from college administration to devote himself fully to the work of organizing and arranging. By the late 1970s he had won public praise from such scholars as Monsignor John Tracy Ellis and Dr. Annabelle Melville for the way he had made many historical documents available to students and researchers.

By 1980 Father Eaton was pressing for relief from a position he had never wanted. And he was able to get Father John Bowen, whom he’d suggested originally and who was now free of obligations in Seattle. From the time the new Archivist came in September 1980 until he retired 15 years later, Father Eaton was available to help but never to interfere or say that he wouldn’t have done it that way. But mainly Vince devoted his time to projects he’d long wanted to do: indexing the volumes of The Voice and The Borromean, translating Father Boisard’s La Compagnie de St. Sulpice:Troois Siedes d’Histoire, and assembling and translating The American Necrology of the Society of St. Sulpice. He also contributed to the semi-annual WHENCE that he himself had started.

But mostly his time was devoted to the care of his unmarried sister Marguerite whom he brought from Long Island to a house near St. Charles Villa and then to St. Martin’s Home until she died. He kept trying to express his gratitude to his family, his fellow Sulpicians, other priests he had worked with, and the many former students and friends from the parishes as well as the religious who had helped him all through his life. This gratitude was reiterated at length in his autobiography and in the talk he give on the occasion of his golden jubilee.

The last few years were increasingly sad. He lost much of his eyesight and had to depend on talking books to supply for the reading he could no longer do. His days revolved around the daily concelebrated Mass, the meals (at which his appetite gradually diminished), and then retreating to his “cave” in between times. This decline accelerated in the months when many of his confreres lived elsewhere during the renovation of the Villa. When he rejoined the community in July, the downward trend continued until Sunday, November 14, when his unsteadiness of walk, his increasing falls, and his loss of interest made him ready to surrender to the Lord who came for him that evening.

A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel; Bishop Ferrario presided at the Mass, John Bowen preached, and Father Ronald Witherup led us in the burial ceremony at the Sulpician Cemetery.

May the Lord reward him for his many selfless labors and bring him into the full light and vision of heaven.

John W. Bowen, S.S.