Tennelly, Father John Benjamin

1981, October 18

Date of Birth: 1890, June 8

October 19, 1981

Dear Sulpician confrere:

Father John Benjamin Tennelly died on Sunday, October 18 at St. Agnes Hospital in Baltimore. A wake service will be on Monday, October 19 at 8:00 p.m. at St. Martin Home. The Funeral Mass will be on Tuesday, October 20 at 10:30 a.m. in St. Martin’s Chapel. Burial will be in the nearby Sulpician Cemetery. He is survived by his sister, Sister Mary Aubert, Louisville, Kentucky.

Father Tennelly was born on June 8, 1890, in Denver, Colorado. His parents were Robert John and Madeleine Catherine (nee Hilpp) Tennelly. His early education was at St. Augustine School, Lebanon, Kentucky. He began seminary studies at the age of twelve at St. Gregory’s Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio, spent a year in the high school at St. Charles College, Catonsville, and continued at St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukie, and St. Mary’s College, St. Mary’s, Kansas. In 1980, he came to St. Mary’s Seminary, Baltimore, for his philosophy studies. At the request of his bishop in Louisville, he was ordained after three years of theology in 1913 in the Cathedral of Baltimore by James Cardinal Gibbons.

His bishop, however, released the young priest for Sulpician work and Father Tennelly entered the Solitude in Washington at St. Austin’s College and formally entered the Society of St. Sulpice in 1914. He spent the following year teaching at St. Mary’s Seminary and St. Charles College, while also taking courses at the Johns Hopkins University. He then did graduate studies in theology and scripture at the Collegio Angelico in Rome and earned the S.T.D. in 1917. Because of World War I, those were harsh years in Italy and the return trip to New York was made under dangerous conditions on a ship out of Barcelona in neutral Spain.

Safely back in Baltimore, Father Tennelly taught moral theology and then Sacred Scripture at St. Mary’s for three years before being appointed in 1920 to the Sulpician Seminary in Washington, and there he taught apologetics and New Testament. In 1926, he became rector of that Seminary, a position he held until 1932, and he continued to teach there until 1935. From 1933 to 1935, he served two terms as the elected president of the Catholic Anthropological Society.

Then Father Tennelly began a new career that brought him into national prominence as executive director of the Bureau of Negro and Indian Missions. Ten years earlier he had become associated with the apostolate, known then as the Commission for Catholic Missions, as part-time secretary and treasurer, in which post he succeeded the recently deceased Father Edward R. Dyer, the first U.S. provincial of the Sulpicians. Altogether he spent fifty years in that mission work until his retirement in 1976, when he moved to St. Charles Villa, where he lived until the recent illness that required his transfer to the infirmary of St. Martin Home.

Given his long and productive life, it is hard to believe that as a student and young priest, Father Tennelly was of frail constitution and often ill. Yet he was the only one of the six priests in his Solitude year who completed the full course, the other five having left to recuperate from illness or to return to their dioceses. A superior student, he was one of the very few in St. Mary’s history up to his time who received perfect grades in theology, a mark of 10 out of a possible 10. Shy and modest, he was a marvel to his peers, who always knew him as “Ben,” for his perfect answers on examinations, for an oral dissertation on the occasion of a visit to the Seminary by the Apostolic Delegate, the topic being the attitude of the early Church in regard to the Mosaic Law, and for his mastery of the field of Biblical inspiration, which was the subject of his doctoral thesis.

An excellent teacher, especially in his favorite field of Scripture, Father Tennelly was a strict disciplinarian as rector, a responsibility he had accepted with great reluctance. His years of administration with the Negro and Indian missions were noted for the orderly and precise records he kept, with a frugal budget a constant fact of life. For several years he published a quarterly called Indian Sentinel. On a visit in 1939 to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota the name of Wambli Watica (Watching Eagle) was bestowed on him.

Working outside the Seminary for more years than many Sulpicians work inside one, Father Tennelly, nevertheless, was known to generations of seminarians at Theological College in Washington, who saw him there every morning to celebrate Mass in the convent and to take breakfast with his confreres. May Father Tennelly and all our brother priests who have died live forever in the joy of the Resurrection.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

William J. Lee, S.S.

Provincial Secretary