With Gratitude and Humor, His Flock Says Goodbye to Father Bill Morgan

By Charles M. Sennott
Boston Globe
February 14, 1999

The pews at Canton's St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church were packed Thursday with people whose lives the Rev. William H. Morgan had touched through a half century of ministry.

About 1,000 of his former parishioners from Canton to Boston's South End and from Winthrop to Braintree had gathered. More than 100 priests and scores of family members and friends all had come to honor Father Bill, as everyone knew him.

He was one of a fast-vanishing breed, the great diocesan priests who emerged from a generation of Boston Catholic clerics born of the Depression, coming of age in World War II, and putting its blessings on the baptisms, weddings, and funerals of three post-war generations.

On a mild winter day, a long funeral procession wound its way through the heart of his ministry. It set out from Canton, where he served as administrator through the 1950s and 1960s at St. John's, the church he designed in the spirit of Vatican II to have the priest face the parishioners.

Flanked by a dozen motorcycle police, the motorcade shut down traffic at the Route 128 exit in Canton, just a few miles from Braintree, where he served for many years at St. Thomas More until his retirement in 1993.

Then the procession continued through Jamaica Plain, where he was born in 1919, and West Roxbury, where he was raised, to St. Joseph's Cemetery, where his casket was lowered into the earth as Sister Angela, who helped him through his illness, sang a simple hymn in Spanish titled "De Calores," which translates to "Of Many Colors."

Father Bill, who died Monday at the age of 79 after a battle with cancer, was "Uncle Bill" to my family. He was my mother's first cousin and a huge presence in our family.

He was 6-foot-4 and had a booming voice that sang everything from Frank Sinatra to Italian operas on early Cape Cod mornings or while doing the dishes at family gatherings. Those who knew him remember him best for his hugs. They were powerful embraces - for men and women alike - that engulfed you and reminded you of both his commanding size and his huge heart. He was a chieftain of our Irish tribe, the man who stood at the altar when my parents were married and who presided over baptisms, weddings, and funerals for siblings and cousins in our extended family.

Now, sadly, Father Bill has passed on, as have many priests from his generation. The Catholic heirarchy they leave behind is concerned about the diminishing numbers of young men in its seminaries, but hopeful that a new generation is beginning again to seek out the priesthood.

Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided at the funeral, gave a touching remembrance of Father Bill's years of service and sacrifice in what he called "the mystery of the priesthood." Law said that during a retreat this weekend at St. John's Seminary in Brighton, from which Father Bill was ordained in 1950, about 50 young men will be exploring the possibility of joining the ministry. It is a larger turnout than church officials have seen in years and is an encouraging sign, Law said.

At the close of the service, Law stepped from the altar and stood next to the coffin draped in a white linen pall. He stood before Father Bill's sisters Gertrude Geran and Sister Mary Louise.

He meditated on the significance of those priests and nuns, like Sister Mary, who continues in her service as a Sister of St. Joseph at Regis College, who have dedicated their lives to their faith and to their parishes.

Father Bill, like many priests of his generation, provided his parishes and his family with a spiritual ballast through the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. He was a soulful reminder of Jesus's message to the poor through the consumer-obsessed 1980s. And he was among the priests who provided a strong voice of not just morality, but of forgiveness in the era of tabloid scandal that is the 1990s.

He entered the seminary in 1940, with the Franciscan Order, and in 1946 went to St. John's Seminary. During World War II, he continued his studies and learned "The Rule" of the priesthood. He was ordained in 1950 by Cardinal Richard Cushing.

His early ministry spanned a time of confidence and growth in post-war America. As new families were formed and suburbs were built to embrace them, Father Bill landed in Canton from 1950 to 1967. After that, he served as spiritual director of the Boston Archdiocese Cursillo Movement, a program of study to deepen spiritual life, for seven years.

Father Bill and the priests of his generation cut a fine line in their daily duties. They were meditative, but not cerebral. Spiritual, not pious. Humorous, not cynical. They were gentlemen. They got things done.

The intense camraderie and humor they shared came through at the funeral.

Father Gerard Barry, one of his closest friends, remembered a time when Father Bill was feeling a bit on in his years. The men were on a retreat and sharing living quarters when Father Bill turned to another close friend, Father Gerard Brennan, and said, "We're falling apart."

Father Bill, who had lost an eye in an accident, said, "Just look at the nightstand."

"What about the nightstand?" Father Brennan asked.

"My eye is watching your teeth," Father Bill replied.

Father Bill and Father Brennan and six other priests bought a house on the Gloucester shore back in the 1950s. For decades they would gather there, reflecting on Scripture, listening to the Red Sox, and looking out at the ocean. It was their escape.

In recent years, Father Bill and most of his close friends were living at Regina Cleri, the archdiocesecan home for retired priests near Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Despite his failing health, he tried to continue his ministry, volunteering in local parishes and continuing to teach on Cursillo weekends.

When he died Monday, he had left some instructions for the funeral. He wanted it to have humor, he told his friends. And he did not want to be buried with the gold-plated chalice he received at his ordination, as is the custom among priests. He asked that it be donated to St. John's Seminary for someone "deserving in the next generation of the priesthood."

CORRECTION-DATE: February 15, 1999

CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's Metro/Region section misspelled the title of a hymn sung at the burial of a priest. It is "De Colores."


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