Sheehy, Father William

1962, August 25

Date of Birth: 1893, December 7

May 1, 1963

My dear Confreres:

It has already been several months since our confrere, Father William J. Sheehy was called to God, but in reading – for the purpose of putting out this letter – the documents which our American confreres sent to me, I thought I was seeing again in front of me this priest who was so marked by the Cross and who knew withal how to maintain a serenity which everyone admired.

William J. Sheehy was born in San Francisco on December 7, 1893 of a religious family very close to each other. One of his sisters became a Carmelite. Some photographs from his youth show him as an accomplished actor in shows put on in college, and as an ardent participant in foot races and other athletic events.

It was no surprise to anyone in his family to see him turning toward priesthood.

In 1913 he entered St. Patrick’s Seminary at Menlo Park. But shortly after, he was stricken by a tubercular infection which forced him, from 1914 to 1919, to make his studies outside the seminary under the tutelage of the pastor of the Mission of St. John Caristrano in California. He was ordained priest on December 20, 1919.

After his ordination he was assigned to the ministry of the training of future priests at the minor seminary, St. Joseph’s, and at St. Patrick’s Seminary; but he sought admission to the Society only in 1936.

At the college connected with St. Patrick’s Seminary – which in 1924 became St. Joseph’s, the minor seminary, he taught English literature and the classical authors. He was a fine teacher, and more than one of his confreres regretted that he had not published the results of his studies, especially his works on Cardinal Newman. He was particularly fond of that great convert, and he was deeply influenced by him in his personal life and in his preaching. When his health permitted, he liked, on Sundays, to help out the pastors of the parishes in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Some boxes of notes found in his room show with what care he prepared the sermons he gave in those parishes.

In 1944 Father Sheehy came back to St. Patrick’s Seminary with the title of Vice-rector. He taught Preaching and took care of the teaching of Latin to the Philosophy students.

His bent for self-effacement and his innate humility made him think that he was committing a mistake in remaining Vice-rector. He asked, after a little while, to be relieved of that office. He continued, however, to teach Sacred Eloquence up to his last illness. In that job he gave up considerable time to individually instructing each of his students along with preparing the classes which they all attended.

In spite of his late coming into the Society, he gave proof from the beginning of a true Sulpician spirit. By his circumspection he exercised a deep influence on the seminarians and the priests.

However, the suffering which afflicted him from his seminary days dogged him to the end of his life. Pneumonia took him to Death’s door and required a long convalescence. In 1956 he had to undergo a cancer operation. In March 1962, he broke his knee and had to spend thirteen weeks in the hospital.

He was always a very sensitive person, but his deep faith helped him to control his emotions. Although his last days were saddened by the deaths of his brother and sister some months apart, he sustained a peacefulness which he knew how to spread around himself.

His students have remembered some slightly naughty remarks – always accompanied by a smile – when he was criticizing a sermon: “It is a fine example of what to avoid when you have to write a sermon”; or again, “The intention was good ….”

Few seminarians realized what heroism was hidden under that serene appearance. The priests who, in June 1941, attended the pastoral retreat which he gave in San Francisco have not forgotten his talks aglow with true charity and priestly wisdom, delivered in a deep and sonorous voice.

Father Sheehy was called to God on August 25, 1962, following a heart attack.

Present at the funeral were: Archbishop McGuckin of San Francisco and Bishop Guilfoyle, along with many priests. Father Penn gave the sermon, which showed how often Father Sheehy had to carry Christ’s Cross, but also how often this priest proved by his whole life that the Lord’s yoke is sweet and His burden light.

I recommend our confrere to your prayer, and I beg you to accept my sentiments of affectionate devotion in Our Lord and Our Lady.

Pierre Girard

Superior General of St. Sulpice