Farrell, Father Melvin Lloyd

1986, November 14

Date of Birth: 1930, September 4

December 18, 1986

Dear Confrere:

A more credible example of priestly faith, dedication, and loyalty to Sulpician ideals will be hard to find than that given us by Melvin Lloyd Farrell. His very productive life was cut short on November 14, 1986, after a fifteen-month battle with cancer. Ordained a priest at a time when everything in that calling seemed so full of promise, with seminaries expanding, and the Society of St. Sulpice in the United States growing to meet the need for seminary role-models and teachers, he would exercise a ministry that challenged and stimulated the Province to adapt to conditions undergoing radical change. He served in a variety of key positions, and, despite the tumult and the inevitable frustrations for such a forward-looking thinker, he never lost his sense of direction, his love for the priesthood of Christ, and his commitment to St. Sulpice.

Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 4, 1930, one of four sons and one daughter of James Lloyd and Barbara (nee Weber) Farrell, Melvin moved with his family to Seattle in 1942, soon after Pearl Harbor, when his father went to work for the Boeing Company. Two years later, Mel entered the high school of St. Edward’s Seminary in response to his strong attraction to the priesthood. His seminary years demonstrated the mature balance so characteristic of his whole life, his fine mind, and his special love for literature and writing. Active in every aspect of seminary life and drawn toward teaching, he was accepted as an aspirant for St. Sulpice through the generosity of his bishop, Thomas A. Connolly of Seattle, and was sent to Washington, D.C., as a Basselin scholar to complete his college major in philosophy and his theological studies at The Catholic University of America.

During summer vacations Mel would work in a cemetery, until he saw a chance to start preparing himself for teaching. While still working on the east coast for his master’s degree in philosophy, he was accepted by the University of Washington’s graduate school for summer work on a master’s in English literature. He earned his philosophy degree in 1954, completed his English degree in 1956, and received his license in sacred theology in 1957. Equipped with that strong academic foundation, Mel returned to Seattle to be ordained a priest of the Seattle Archdiocese on June 1, 1957, for service with St. Sulpice.

In his first year’s appointment as a seminary director of young candidates for priesthood, Father Farrell taught literature, composition, and religion at St. Edward’s Seminary in both the college and high school, and he spent the following year in Baltimore for the Sulpician year of formation. Another characteristic of Mel’s life emerged in this early period of his priesthood. Always gracious and sociable, Mel also valued privacy, and he found writing a wonderful and satisfying diversion from the steady demands of his public ministry. While in Baltimore, for example, he drafted the manuscript of directives to young seminarians for their spiritual growth. As a seminarian himself at Theological College, he had worked with a fellow student in preparing a hymnal that was eventually published as The People’s Hymnal. For some years, Mel continued to revise and compose texts for its later editions. Approached then by the publisher of a highly popular monthly for high school students, he started to write a series of articles on Christian doctrine, and these appeared regularly for many years beginning in 1962.

On returning to St. Edward’s from Baltimore, Mel found his teaching career taking an unexpected turn when he had to take over the course in physics for two years, a draining experience so foreign to his main intellectual interests. Release from that chore came through his appointment as principal of the high school at St. Edward’s. He also used that position to bring together the administrators of other Catholic high schools in Seattle for mutual help in raising standards. As early as 1958, Mel had begun to take summer school courses at Seattle University to earn State certification as a teacher and then principal. He frequently participated in the annual meetings of the seminary department of the National Catholic Educational Association for which he presented several papers.

Never happy with the demands of an administrator’s duties and passionately fond of teaching, Father Farrell had to deal constantly with role conflict, aggravated further by the appearance of growing trouble in the seminary high school scene. Reading widely in the area of adolescent psychology while strongly defending the role of minor seminaries in the Catholic tradition of preparing priests, he also argued the value of making major changes in their typically strict and confining discipline. Closely following the developments of the Second Vatican Council and taking summer courses in theology at the University of San Francisco, he was able to formulate and express cogent arguments for much more comprehensive changes in the methods of priestly formation in the United States.

Although meeting strong and sometimes hostile resistance to any modification in minor seminary formation, he was being heard in other places, not least of all in the first assembly ever held by the U.S. Sulpicians in 1967, when through elected delegates they first chose their provincial superior. One of the younger participants and secretary of that assembly, Mel was a rallying point for other colleagues troubled about the future of seminaries. He would also play key roles in many later assemblies and usually wrote the final report to the membership of the Province.

Nevertheless, the controversies about high school seminaries wearied Mel and he concluded he might be better off moving into seminary work. The provincial council permitted him to enter a doctoral program at The Catholic University in 1968. Although he had become increasingly attracted to the field of religious education, the S.T.D. seemed to his superiors a more apt specialty for the theological seminary. Mel received the doctorate in 1970, but, as he ruefully noted more than once, he never had a chance as a teacher to build on his research in the theology of the priesthood.

Instead Father Farrell returned to Seattle as president of the seminary college and vice rector of St. Thomas Seminary. He taught the course in catechetics, which kept him active in that field. He also did more work in continuing education of the clergy after directing a pilot program for an eastern diocese that grew out of priests’ retreats, he had directed. Two new areas of administration opened up in the following year, when he was appointed the rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park and elected to the provincial council. 

Both organizations had been impacted by the stormy currents of the time. As head of the California seminary, he immediately ran into a strong disagreement with the archbishop, not only over seminary discipline and budget cut-backs in the pastoral program but also over the interest of some faculty members in pursuing an affiliation with the developing consortium of seminaries in the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley. It was soon clear that St. Patrick’s would have no connection with that new venture, and long negotiations began toward redefining the Sulpician contract with the archdiocese. Two frustrating years followed, filled with so much promise yet rife with anxious conflict.

At the same time the provincial council, with three of the four consultors newly elected, sought to get moving in new directions. In 1973, Mel was elected first consultor. He had also been elected a delegate to the Society’s General Assembly in Paris in 1972 and to the Assise in Paris in 1974 which studied the methods of priestly formation and ways to apply new church directives in institutions under the direction of the Society.

Also, in 1973, Mel left California to become a member of the provincial staff as director of initial formation and of recruitment for the Province. His own lifestyle of simplicity and fidelity fitted well the needs of his new responsibilities. As a staff member and first consultor, he was also deeply involved in provincial decision-making at this time. In that same year he made a trip to Samoa to evaluate the feasibility of a Sulpician mission there. Four years later he was still open to an assignment in Samoa, but nothing came of the proposal. By then Mel was back in Seattle as president-rector of St. Thomas Seminary dealing with highly complicated issues related to declining enrollment, differences of opinion on seminary expectations and methodologies, and a new style of local episcopal leadership.

Through these years of personal struggle as an administrator, Mel’s calm and conciliatory manner gave his colleagues so much confidence that new duties were inevitably thrust on him. He finally began to escape when he declined, in 1976, to take another term on the council, and, in 1977, when the Archdiocese made its decision to close the Seattle seminaries.

A hypothesis tied to that decision was that models of priestly formation other than the traditional seminary might lend themselves to a more personal and effective development of a call to the ordained ministry. In that context the Archdiocese set up a task force to seek a new theologate model, to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the present model, and to decide what would be practical for Seattle. Mel was engaged as the secretary for research. That same summer he was invited to be an observer of a Sulpician inter-provincial meeting in Montreal which studied the design of spirituality programs for diocesan seminarians. About the same time, his work in Seattle expanded to include overseeing a program of continuing education ministry to priests which gradually absorbed most of his time after the Seattle plan for priestly formation was formulated and distributed to collegial bodies for comments.

Meanwhile, Mel also continued as a member of provincial committees, one of which had developed out of a national meeting for spiritual renewal of Sulpicians at Menlo Park in 1974, for which Mel was one of the chief designers. Through the activities of the program development committee, he continued to push the Society to take a more visible stance on readiness to adapt priestly formation to meet the needs of a changing seminary population. He sensed a growing resistance to implementing the directives and reforms advocated at Vatican II, and at the 1982 assembly he advocated greater effort to develop new models of priestly formation.

The Seattle seminary plan, which stimulated Mel’s thinking so much, meanwhile had run into budgetary constraints. He again found an outlet for his stress by writing another book to introduce adult Catholics to the Bible. Family sorrow deeply touched his life in 1984 when his younger brother, Robert, suddenly succumbed to a heart attack, and, within a year, his mother died of cancer. Looking forward to a sabbatical before getting further involved in implementing some of the Seattle plan, Mel chose to spend a year in Berkeley developing further his ideas of a new formation model, especially for older students.

All of that came to a crashing halt in August 1985, when Mel collapsed, and malignant tumors were found in his brain and a lung. Treatment and surgery helped to slow the deterioration, but the cancer resumed its deadly progress, and suddenly Mel was gone. Fully resigned to bringing his earthly life to closure, he prepared well, let loose of all that bound him to earth, and deepened his union with Christ who had been so much a part of his entire adult life.

In one of the last articles he published, Mel reflected on the anguish experienced by many in the church in this time of divided expectations and dashed hopes and how all this fit into the redemptive mission of Christ, especially for those who are called to an office of leadership. It seems to summarize the witness of his own priestly ministry. He wrote, “At the same time, there is no cause for hostility. When all is said and done, this is our moment of history – a moment in which God calls us to be unifiers of the Christian community in the midst of cataclysmic change. If it is God’s will that we bear the brunt of the birth pangs for the church’s renewal in the Gospel, so be it. Our faith in God’s providence assures us that he is with us. Even the hairs on our heads are numbered.”

The evening before his funeral, his former provincial, Father Edward Frazer, eulogized Mel and included the above quotation in a wake service at the Cathedral of St. James. The following morning, November 19, his bishop whom he so deeply admired and worked with, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, presided at a Mass of Christian burial, and the Reverend Gerald L. Brown, provincial superior, delivered the homily in the presence of a large gathering of priests and people. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery. Father Farrell is survived by his father, his brothers, Donald and Gerald, and his sister, Ms. Margaret Castellano

May Father Melvin Farrell live forever in the joy of the Resurrection.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

William J. Lee, S.S.

Provincial Secretary