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Fr. Francis Sweeney S.J.

Fr. Francis Sweeney S.J.,
Teacher and Mentor, Journalist, Humanist, Poet, Priest

Francis Sweeney was born in Milford, Massachusetts, in 1916. He attended Holy Cross College, and after graduation in 1939, entered the Society of Jesus. In 1944 he earned an M.A. in English from Boston College, and in 1950 began teaching the subject. From 1951 he served as faculty sponsor of the Stylus, the student literary magazine. In the same year his first book of poetry, Baroque Moment, was published. In addition to directing the Humanities Series, Fr. Sweeney has published several books of essays and poetry, including It Will Take a Lifetime and Vatican Impressions. He also edited the papers of several Boston College conferences, including one held to celebrate the University's centenary, and one dealing with the role of the Vatican in the twentieth century. He has reviewed some forty books over the years, and assisted the Burns Library in its efforts to collect literary manuscripts. Boston College awarded Fr. Sweeney an honorary doctorate in 1987.

When one thinks of Fr. Francis, what really comes to mind is the same thing the John J. Burns Library celebrated with an original exhibit in 1999. Items in this exhibit celebrated the life and work of Francis W. Sweeney, SJ. They included personal memorabilia, photographs, publications, posters, and correspondence. Much of the correspondence concerned the "Boston College Humanities Series", which was founded by Fr. Sweeney and which since 1957 has brought world-renowned poets, writers, scholars, and others to the University for lecture engagements. Letters from such literary figures as W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, and others, were included.

The list of those Fr. Sweeney brought to Boston College is a who's-who of diverse talents, temperaments and achievements: T.S. Eliot, Alec Guinness, Robert Penn Warren, Lillian Hellman, Robert Lowell, Joyce Carol Oates, Seamus Heaney, John Kenneth Galbraith, Margaret Mead, Maya Angelou, James Reston, Julian Bond. It is a small sampling of the eminent personalities who have come to Boston College - often more than once - during the last four decades at the invitation of Francis Sweeney, SJ, as guest speakers in the Lowell Lectures Humanities Series. "He established a style, a precedent, with the caliber of people he brought in," said University Historian Charles Donovan, SJ. "To be that close to a Robert Frost or a T.S. Eliot, and know you might well see them again, it just raised the whole cultural tone at a time when we were establishing ourselves, with a young faculty and great plans for the future."

"I did not think it would go on as long as it has," said Fr. Sweeney in a recent interview. "I'm just very glad to have had this opportunity, to see the wonderful interaction between the University and the many talented people who have visited here." "There is nothing like an author reading from his or her own works," said Fr. Sweeney. "When Frost read 'The Road Not Taken,' you could see how even the faculty took care to note how he accented or emphasized a word or phrase."

Humanities Series stories and anecdotes abound, but Fr. Sweeney's experiences with Alec Guinness, who visited in November of 1959, are particularly revealing. Guinness was non-committal at first, saying he doubted an audience would find him of any interest - to which Fr. Sweeney replied that people would turn out if he were to "just come here and whistle 'Dixie.'"

Not only did Guinness finally agree to do a poetry reading in the auditorium then located in Bapst Library, he returned to campus the following spring to receive an honorary degree at Commencement - the only one he has ever accepted from an American university, Fr. Sweeney notes proudly. He recalls the graduates serenading the actor by whistling the famous "Colonel Bogey's March" theme from "Bridge Over the River Kwai."

Moreover, the two men formed a friendship which has lasted to this day. Fr. Sweeney fondly recounts their occasional get-togethers, including a memorable visit to Guinness's New York City apartment: Sitting in the living room, Fr. Sweeney looked up to see one of England's most celebrated actors standing in the kitchen doorway, spatula in hand, asking him, "How do you want your eggs?"

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