Humanities Series Founder Fr. Sweeney Dies at 86

Humanities Series Founder Fr. Sweeney Dies at 86

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

No one did as much to summon the muses at Boston College as Asst. Prof. Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, founding director of the University's Lowell Lectures Humanities Series, who died April 25 at the Campion Center in Weston. He was 86.

Rev. Francis Sweeney, SJ
The series that the Jesuit priest founded in 1957 and directed for 41 years has drawn to BC some of the finest writers and artists in the world. Those who have come to lecture or read from their works have included Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Alec Guinness and Maya Angelou.

Fr. Sweeney, a member of the English faculty, served as mentor to a succession of young writers at Boston College who would go on to distinction in letters, including former Boston Globe editorial page editor Martin Nolan, the late novelist George Higgins, and the novelists David Plante and Frank Bergon, among others.

It was at his invitation that some of the Catholic Church's most prominent theologians, among them Hans Kung, Karl Rahner and Henri de Lubac, SJ, visited campus over the years.

"He was a gifted poet, a biographer, essayist, and editor - a man of letters in the old sense - but I think he was proudest of the many students he influenced," said Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ. "Some of them became well-known writers, but most simply had their lives enriched by the way he taught them to read poetry and to enjoy literature."

In 1998, Fr. Sweeney retired as director of the Humanities Series, which added the Lowell Lectures title after the Lowell Foundation began providing support in 1978. He was paid tribute in April 1998 at a performance of the visiting Yale Russian Chorus, held 41 years to the day after the visit by poet Robert Frost that inspired the Humanities Series.

Of the many stories and anecdotes surrounding the Humanities Series, several that stand out describe Fr. Sweeney's experiences with the late Sir Alec Guinness. When invited by Fr. Sweeney to visit Boston College in 1959, the famed British actor was at first non-committal, saying he doubted an audience would find him of any interest. Fr. Sweeney replied that people would turn out to hear Guinness if he were to "just come here and whistle 'Dixie.'"

Not only did Guinness agree to do a poetry reading at Boston College, he returned to campus the following spring to receive an honorary degree, the only one he ever accepted from an American university. Graduates at the commencement exercises serenaded the actor by whistling the famous "Colonel Bogey's March" theme from "The Bridge On the River Kwai." Fr. Sweeney maintained a friendship with Guinness, who died in 2000.

A native of Milford, Mass., Fr. Sweeney graduated from the College of the Holy Cross and entered the Society of Jesus in 1939. He received his master's degree from Boston College in 1944 and went on to teach Latin and English at the Cranwell School in Lenox through 1945.

Ordained a priest in the Jesuit order in 1948, he returned to Boston College in 1951 as faculty advisor to the student literary magazine, The Stylus, and began teaching English the following year.

A poet in his own right [A selection of his poems is at], Fr. Sweeney's verse appeared over the years in The Boston Globe, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly and the Jesuit magazine America. In 1999, the Burns Library at Boston College arranged for publication of a volume of his collected poems. Morning Window, Evening Window, named for a verse inspired by the changing colors of stained glass at Chartres Cathedral in France, contains 51 poems written by Fr. Sweeney over the course of his life. It was his second volume of verse, following by 48 years Baroque Moment, in which some of the poems in the later collection originally appeared.

"There's a good deal of me in it, growing up and growing old," Fr. Sweeney told the Boston College Chronicle on the occasion of the book's release.

Fr. Sweeney was presented an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Boston College in 1978. The accompanying citation praised him, in part, as a literary talent "who illuminates the written word with a schooled and tempered heart" as well as a "beloved mentor to a new and rising generation of writers" and a "devout humanist whose Jesuit vision restores to the Renaissance legacy the power of moral energy."

A funeral Mass was celebrated for Fr. Sweeney on April 29 in St. Ignatius Church.


Return to May 10 menu

Return to Chronicle home page