It Will Take a Lifetime: A New Look at Reverend Francis W. Sweeney, S.J.

I became more aware of the work of Reverend Francis W. Sweeney, S.J. when I was preparing the exhibition, “It seems I am working for the Jesuits these days:” The Thomas Merton Collection at Boston College. Father Sweeney corresponded for more than 20 years with Thomas Merton, OCSO (1915-1968), the famed Trappist monk and author of the best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain.

Sweeney was born in 1916 in Milford, Massachusetts. He earned an AB at the College of the Holy Cross and an AM at Boston College. Sweeney taught at Cranwell Preparatory School in Lenox, Massachusetts from 1944 to 1945. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1939 and was ordained in 1948. Father Sweeney began teaching at Boston College in 1951, acted as faculty advisor for the student literary magazine, the Stylus, and in 1958 founded the Boston College Humanities Series (now known as the Lowell Lecture Series). As the director of the Humanities Series, he corresponded with many notable authors including Jack Kerouac, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Penn Warren.  A poet who authored a number of books, he also wrote essays. Father Sweeney died in 2002.

This information, while giving facts about the life of Father Sweeney, did not give me a sense of his personality. I asked Reverend Philip Kiley, S.J., Special Projects Archivist at The Burns Library, if he could tell me more about him. Father Kiley, ever the Jesuit educator, indicated that he thought I would best learn about Sweeney through his own words, and gave me a copy of It Will Take a Lifetime, a book of essays by Sweeney.

Shortly after I read Sweeney’s essay book, The New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers announced that it would be hosting an exhibition themed Geographies: New England Book Works, and would consider showing bookbindings that related to the New England states. I felt that It Will Take a Lifetime fit the New England geography theme of this exhibition because the subjects of Sweeney’s essays include growing up in Massachusetts, his education at The College of the Holy Cross and at Boston College, and his life as a Jesuit, beginning at Shadowbrook Jesuit Seminary in Stockbridge, MA, and continuing with his teaching career at Boston College. Sweeney’s essays also cover summer outings at Nantasket beach and Cape Cod. In addition to the essays about his life, Father Sweeney included some of his work about other New Englanders, such as Robert Frost, in this volume.

It Will Take a Lifetime cover

The original cover of the book, black cloth with titling on the spine in silver ink, in my opinion did not reflect the tapestry of tales within. I designed a new cover to appear as scrapbook pages, reflecting Father Sweeney’s early years (Nantasket Beach, The College of the Holy Cross, and Shadowbrook) on the front and his Boston College career (Gasson Hall, Sweeney as teacher and founder of the Humanities Lecture Series) on the back. The John J. Burns Library University Archives is the source for many of the images. I hoped that the images on the cover would invite others to learn more about Father Sweeney and was pleased to get an immediate inquiry about him. Another bookbinder, whose work also is appearing in the Geographies exhibition, asked for more information on Sweeney. I sent her the link to the virtual exhibition about Father Sweeney on The Burns Library website.

The New England Chapter of the Guild of Book Workers exhibition will travel to a number of institutions between March  2014  and  October 2015, including: the Rhode Island School of Design, University of Southern Maine, University of Vermont, Williams College, and Dartmouth College. I hope during its travels It Will Take a Lifetime, with its newly crafted cover, will continue to encourage more viewers to come to know Father Francis Sweeney and his work at Boston College.

Barbara Adams Hebard
Conservator, John J. Burns Library