Schmitz, Father Walter John, S.S.

1994, October 20

Date of Birth: 1907, June 8

January 13, 1994

During his nearly twenty years as rector of Theological College, Father John P. McCormick, S.S., used to remark from time to time: “Everybody comes to Washington.” But there are very few who come to stay. Though he did not know it when he first came in 1930, Father Walter J. Schmitz, S.S., was one of those who did stay. His name will always be associated with The Catholic University of America and Theological College. He will be remembered as a man who, through many years and in many capacities, touched the lives of generations of young men, especially those who were seminarians and recently ordained priests.

Walter John Schmitz or “Wally,” as he universally came to be known, was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on June 8, 1907. He was the son of Frederick Joseph Schmitz and Philomena Hess Schmitz. The elder Schmitz was the proprietor of “the Hub,” a clothing store for men and boys on West Mifflin Street in Madison. Wally attended Holy Redeemer School in his boyhood and graduated from Central High School in 1925. He travelled south to attend Columbia (later Loras) College in Dubuque, Iowa, graduating in 1930 as a classics major.

Having decided on the priesthood as his vocation, Wally faced his first major decision. As a student for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee (Madison did not become a separate diocese until 1946), he was offered the opportunity of going to Rome to study theology. But much to the disappointment of the pastor of his home parish, he declined the offer and expressed a desire rather to study theology in Washington, D.C.

In the fall of 1930 that young Walter Schmitz arrived at the perpetually half-completed building known as the Sulpician Seminary at the comer of Michigan Avenue and Fourth Street, Northeast. Father Benjamin Tennelly, S.S., was the rector at that time, but half way through Wally’s years of theology, Father Anthony Vieban, S.S., a man whose memory even now is venerated, became superior. Walter Schmitz, the seminarian, was attracted to the life of the priests of the seminary and sought acceptance as a candidate for St. Sulpice. In the spring of 1933, Archbishop Stritch of Milwaukee wrote to his seminarian: “What larger field can there be than that of training for the priesthood? A seminary professor is many times a priest and even he does not realize the reach of his slightest works.” Having been released to the Sulpicians, the seminarian drew closer to ordination in the fall of 1933 when he was ordained a deacon in the crypt of the National Shrine by Bishop John McNamara. Finally, on May 26, 1934, Walter Schmitz was ordained to the priesthood in St. John’s Cathedral in Milwaukee by Archbishop Stritch (later Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago). Wally told the story that one of the ordination gifts he received was a counter (with which he was to keep count of the number of confessions he would hear in the future). He was taken aback since this was a gift from a family of some means. He returned the counter to the religious goods store and exchanged it for a book about Church ceremonies and rubrics. Knowing, as we do, what was to be his future, we think this exchange to be as momentous an action as his choice of Washington for the study of theology!

The young priest’s first assignment was to the Sulpician Novitiate or the Solitude on the grounds of the old minor seminary, St. Charles College, in Catonsville, MD. After nine months, the director of the Solitude, Father Benjamin Marcetteau, S.S., noted in his final report to the Provincial Council that young Father Schmitz was “cheerful, gentlemanly, very regular, a good worker and very reliable,” all traits of a good Sulpician. As it turned out, these months in the vicinity of Baltimore were to be the sole interruption in a Washington sojourn of fifty-six years.

While he expressed openness to whatever assignment he might be given by the Provincial Council, apparently he had been asked about the possibility of his becoming the treasurer of the Sulpician Seminary. He was willing to undertake this position; and, accordingly, in the fall of 1935, he returned to Fourth and Michigan N.E. in that role. It was not an easy task. At that point in the great Depression, the financial status of the seminary as a whole was precarious. Yet the new treasurer found the means not only to keep the institution going but, as generations of hungry seminarians will testify, always provided ample and delicious meals prepared by the Sisters of Divine Providence. Those who studied at Theological College during the years of the Second World War, a time of stringent rationing, will attest that Wally seemed able to work miracles in providing what was needed. During these years, he established many contacts in Washington that enabled him, later on, to be a service to others.

My own recollections from the late 1950s are similar. The meals were excellent, especially in contrast to what had been served in the minor seminary of my experience. While the rest of the faculty ate in the private dining room, Wally presided over breakfast. A lordly meal was prepared by the sisters; of it Wally took a cup of coffee and a piece of toast. The deacon waiter, to the joy of his tablemates, acquired what Wally had neglected.

In addition to his duties as treasurer, Father Schmitz took on many other tasks within the seminary. He always had a good number of penitents who later remembered his advice and direction with gratitude. He taught courses in Liturgy within the Sulpician Seminary and served as Master of Ceremonies. Each year seminarians learned to celebrate Mass under his genial guidance. A 1939 letter from Father Anthony Viéban to the Provincial Superior expressed great concern lest Father Schmitz be transferred. “He is the best-liked spiritual director” and a sort of factotum. In short, Father Anthony Viéban concluded: “We could not get along without him.”

During these years, it is clear that Father Schmitz’s influence was spreading well beyond the walls of the seminary. In the fall of 1940, Father Maurice Sheehy of the University’s Department of Religion asked him to teach an undergraduate course. (He taught this and other courses until 1945.) He was at a loss for words when one of the students whom he had told to buy a New Testament asked him for the name of the author. A short time before this, he had become Assistant Master of Ceremonies for the University, and for the Archdiocese of Washington (Baltimore-Washington until 1948).

Shortly thereafter he transferred to the School of Sacred Theology where he had the opportunity to teach more specialized courses in Liturgy and Pastoral Theology. But Wally had a serious problem. Despite his expertise in the field of rubrics, increasingly recognized in his collaboration with periodicals such as Emmanuel (since 1942), The American Ecclesiastical Review (1954-67) and The Priest (1945-1969), Wally did not have a doctorate. Unlike most Sulpicians who came after him, Wally’s involvement in the operation of the seminary denied him the opportunity for several uninterrupted years of doctoral studies. 

While he was occasionally able to take courses, as we have seen, he was engaged in a great many pursuits essential to the functioning of the seminary that became the Theological College of The Catholic University in 1940. So he was not able to complete the work for his doctorate in Theology until much later. Crowning his work of many years, on March 26, 1956, he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation on the subject of the restored rites of Holy Week promulgated by Pope Pius XII. Both before and after this date, he published numerous works of use to priests. Some of these volumes include: Holy Week Manual for Priests; Sermon Instructions for Holy Week; Follow the Rubrics; Manual of Ceremonies and the Liturgikon.

In the 1950s and early 1960s the years passed with a minimum of change in the University and the seminary. In 1953, Father Schmitz became an Assistant Professor and, in 1961, an Associate Professor. But then came a great turning point. With the unexpected death of Father Edmond Benard, Wally was elected Dean of the School of Sacred Theology in the fall of 1961. This was a great honor for him and for the Sulpicians. At this time, he also was promoted to the rank of full Professor. But great changes and trials lay ahead.

The Second Vatican Council brought many momentous changes and even more radical shifts of views and attitudes for some priests and many seminarians. As dean, Father Schmitz sought to prepare the School of Theology for the future by hiring new faculty. Noteworthy among these were promising young theologians like Father Carl Peter of the Archdiocese of Omaha and Father Charles Curran of the Diocese of Rochester.

The euphoria of the council and the era of good feelings which immediately followed did not last long. Father Curran, a student of the pioneering moral theologian, Bernhard Häring, taught a new type of moral theology which many in positions of authority judged unacceptable and even dangerous. Father Curran was informed that his contract with the university would not be renewed, even though he was a popular teacher and had published more than most of the other faculty members. This decision sparked a famous incident in the history of The Catholic University when, in April 1967, the University went on strike against this decision of the Board of Trustees. The later 1960s, to be sure, were an era when such events were commonplace. But The Catholic University strike was unusual in that it was not the strike of students against authority, but of students and faculty against the administration. In this moment of truth, Dean Walter Schmitz stood with the faculty and Father Curran, a decision which cost him dearly. His post of Master of Ceremonies of the Archdiocese and his close friendship of many years with Archbishop Patrick O’Boyle were terminated. The strike was quickly settled. Father Curran’s contract was renewed, but this was not the end of problems. Father Schmitz’s difficult time as dean continued. After the confrontation on the occasion of the encyclical Humanae Vitae in the summer of 1968, the candidate for the dean desired by the faculty was rejected by higher authority, and Father Schmitz had to continue in office. Finally, in 1970, an outsider, Father Reginald Masterson, O.P., from Dubuque, was brought in as dean. But it was not long before he became ill and Father Schmitz returned as acting dean until 1973. It was only the reorganization of religious studies at the University in 1973 with the formation of the new School of Religious Studies which relieved Wally of his post. Father Schmitz thus goes down in history as the one who had the longest tenure as dean of the old School of Sacred Theology.

The difficulties of the post-conciliar period persisted. Father Schmitz left Theological College in 1966 and moved to Caldwell Hall where he was to succeed Father Louis Arand, S.S. as president of Divinity College, the collective name for the student priests at the university. He succeeded to this post in 1968. But Caldwell Hall, once filled with young priests, was quickly emptying out and the very concept of Divinity College was becoming problematic. First the title of “Divinity College” was eliminated and Father Schmitz became simply the director of Caldwell Hall. With the upheavals in seminary life which followed the council, he, like many priests of his generation, had become increasingly critical of, and alienated from, the seminary scene. Attempts to re-involve him in the financial affairs of Theological College in 1971 were fruitless. Finally, at his retirement in 1977, the position he had held at Caldwell Hall was abolished and the historic contract with The Catholic University which had involved the Sulpicians with student priests since 1889 was abrogated.

As he grew older, more honors came his way. In 1975, he became the censor librorum for the archdiocese. In 1976, he received the University’s Distinguished Service Award. There were special celebrations in 1982 for his 75th birthday and in 1984 for the 50th anniversary of his ordination. In that same year, thanks to the close cooperation and hard work of friends of long-standing such as Ralph and Joan Wells of Potomac, MD, the Walter J. Schmitz scholarship fund was established.

Inevitably, old age also brings increasing problems of health. A prostate operation at Georgetown University Hospital was followed by blood clots in the lungs. One happy incident during this hospitalization, however, was his reconciliation with Cardinal O’Boyle, retired Archbishop of Washington. Wally long resisted moving to the Sulpician retirement home, St. Charles Villa in Catonsville, but a serious illness, a brain tumor, in 1986 brought him to Georgetown University Hospital and necessitated his departure from Catholic University and Washington after so many years.

During his final years spent in the Villa, visitors often noted that he thought he was still in Washington. The end came on October 20, 1994, at the age of 87. The funeral Mass was celebrated in the chapel of St. Martin’s Home by Bishop William Newman, Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore and a T.C. student of the 1950s. Father John Whelan, a T.C. student of the 1950s as well and a close friend of Wally over many years, preached the homily. He was buried in the Sulpician cemetery nearby. Because of their absence in Rome for the synod on the religious life, Cardinal Hickey of Washington, a T.C. student of the 1940s and Father Gerald Brown, Sulpician Provincial, were unable to attend the funeral. In early December, a Memorial Mass was celebrated by Cardinal Hickey in the crypt church of the National Shrine where Father Schmitz had been tonsured, received the minor orders and been ordained a deacon. Father Schmitz’s will revealed that he had left funds for the establishment of a Walter J. Schmitz Professorship of Liturgy at The Catholic University. Father Walter J. Schmitz, S.S., was known and respected by priests over many decades because of his work in Washington.

Robert B. Eno, S.S.

Theological College and The Catholic University