McCormick, Father John

1981, October 10

Date of Birth: 1904, August 1

October 28, 1981

Dear Confrere:

“Last May, when we Sulpicians were celebrating our fiftieth anniversary as priests here in this chapel, there was one pathetic figure in a wheelchair near the altar of sacrifice. Pathetic would seem a poorly-chosen word except for those of us who realized the agony of contrast between that wheelchair and the vibrant spirit of Father John McCormick.”

Thus began the personal and touching homily of Father John C. Selner at the Funeral Mass of Father McCormick, who died in late afternoon on October 10, 1981, in the infirmary of St. Martin’s Home, Catonsville, Maryland. Burial in the nearby Sulpician Cemetery followed the Mass and so closed the distinguished career of a priest who had devoted his entire ministry to the formation of priests.

John Patrick McCormick was born in Baltimore on August 1, 1904, the son of John P. and Ann (nee Gaynor) McCormick. Educated in the elementary schools of St. Ann’s Church, his native parish, and Calvert Hall College, and then in the minor seminary of St. Charles College, he was awarded a Basselin scholarship at The Catholic University of America, where he earned an M.A. in philosophy. John, an aspirant to the work of St. Sulpice, completed his studies in theology at the Sulpician Seminary in Washington while also taking graduate Latin and Greek courses at the University.

Ordained a priest on June 9, 1931, by Bishop Thomas J. Shahan in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Father McCormick that fall entered the traditional year of Sulpician formation in the “Solitude” at St. Charles and also taught French at the College. He then returned to The Catholic University for doctoral studies in Latin and Greek, living in Caldwell Hall where he served as procurator and assistant to the president of Divinity College. He received his Ph.D. in 1935 and during the summers of 1934 through 1937 taught Latin and Greek in the summer sessions of the University.

His delight with and proficiency in those classical languages as well as his mastery of French were to make him not only a successful teacher but a valuable helper of churchmen in the chanceries of Baltimore, Washington, and Seattle, and of publishers of roman documents, who could rely on him for impeccable translations and editing. Papal encyclicals and allocutions were among those works that his skills were brought to bear on.

In 1934, Father McCormick became associated full-time with the faculty of St. Charles College. In addition to teaching Latin, Greek, and French, he took charge of the library, directed the students’ alumni publication, The Borromean, and served as faculty secretary. His many ties in Baltimore with family, friends, and Church provided him with numerous outlets for his abundant energy and sociable ways.

While it was a big step into a very different world for a St. Charles’ faculty member, it was not a great surprise to many of his friends when, in 1943, he was appointed to the presidency of St. Edward’s Seminary in Kenmore, Washington, to succeed the almost legendary founder of that Sulpician institution in the Pacific Northwest, Father Thomas C. Mulligan. One of the alumni of that Seminary would later write of Father McCormick’s impact on seminarians in those very happy and successful years. They will remember, he said, not only his thorough scholarship, his great love of Latin, and his engaging personality as a teacher, but also “his exactness – in fact, the devastating exactness – of his memory. They will remember his honest gentlemanly interest in all the varied projects born (and stillborn) in the community. They will remember he offered up before them … the Divine Worship. But before all else, the alumni of St. Edward’s will remember and will thank Father McCormick for one thing: for his constant, infectious spirit of charity.”

The sudden death of the Sulpician provincial, Father John J. Lardner, while on an official visit to Seattle in October 1948, led directly to Father McCormick’s transfer in January, 1949, to the rectorship of Theological College of The Catholic University where he succeeded the new Provincial, Father Lloyd P. McDonald. For over nineteen years he led that institution in some of its strongest days and into the period of radical transition that followed upon Vatican II. Under his spirited leadership, the cramped quarters of the original building were renovated and greatly expanded.

The variegated university campus life challenged his talents and he responded enthusiastically in many directions. His great interest in liturgical and rubrical matters, which began in his student days at St. Charles, found an outlet in The American Ecclesiastical Review, where for many years he wrote “Answers to Questions.” He was associate editor of that journal from 1965 to 1968. He was also a delegate to the Sulpician general chapters in Paris in 1959 and 1966 and attended the special chapter in 1969 in his role as the general consultor representing the U.S. province from 1966 to 1969. He would later serve as the general treasurer of the Society, resigning that position in 1975. A particular contribution that he made to the generalate was his negotiation with Roman authorities for the sale of the Sulpician Procure property that provided the nucleus of the fund which now underwrites the expenses of the generalate and assists the Society’s mission work. But the experience that most thrilled him was the Second Vatican Council, which he attended first as an advisor to Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington, and then as a peritus to the Conciliar Commission on Seminaries, Universities, and Catholic Education.

The seminary years were more difficult for him after the Council. Always thinking of himself as a progressive, he, nevertheless, found things moving faster than he had expected, although he did not hesitate to try new structures and methods to meet the new demands placed on authority in the seminary world. After resigning the rectorship of Theological College in 1968, he moved a year later to the newly organized St. Mary’s Seminary College in Catonsville and began to teach Latin again, even though he could not hide his dismay over the lowly state to which his beloved language had fallen in the curriculum. He still retained, however, a remarkable capacity to inspire students with his love of it.

The final years were the pathetic ones referred to in the funeral homily. He moved to St. Charles Villa in 1976 for retirement. Father Selner’s words capture the scene as follows:

“After he had suffered crippling surgery, his full spirit of faith came into view. Over and over people remarked that he gave nothing but edification throughout his suffering. The smile never went away. His gratitude was constantly expressed to the good Sisters who took care of him just as it had been through the administrative years to the Sisters of Divine Providence.”

The patient and humbling suffering of Father McCormick gave sure evidence of the depth of his priestly commitment. He had preached some thirty-five retreats to priests and numerous other retreats to seminarians and religious women. His wise leadership in priestly formation and in updating its structure as well as in his counsel to his superiors in both hierarchy and in St. Sulpice, has left a strong legacy. The tribute he was paid as he was leaving Seattle, almost thirty-five years ago, sums up well his ministry of fifty years: “For as rector he has in his own priestliness given the example, he has led us in the straight path we are trying to follow.” May Father McCormick and all our brother Sulpicians who have died live forever in the joy of the Resurrection.

Sincerely yours in the Lord,

William J. Lee, S.S.

Provincial Secretary