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Boston College Jesuit Geologist Fr. James Skehan Honored on his 89th Birthday

bronze bust of fr. skehan unveiled at university event

Rev. James W. Skehan, S.J., founder of Boston College’s Geology (now Earth and Environmental Sciences) Department and BC Weston Observatory director emeritus, and sculptor Janie Belive view a bust she made of Fr. Skehan. The bust was unveiled at an April 25 celebration in Devlin Hall to honor Fr. Skehan, who turned 89 that day. (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. (May 2012) Jesuit priest, geologist and author James W. Skehan, a Boston College professor emeritus who served as the longtime director of the University’s geophysical research observatory, has been honored with the unveiling of a bronze bust in his likeness at an event celebrating his 89th birthday.

The sculpture was created in clay by local artist Janie Belive, who works at Campion Center in Weston, Mass., where Fr. Skehan is in residence. Vincent J. Murphy, James Lewkowicz and Robert O. Varnerin—longtime friends of Fr. Skehan—commissioned the bronzing of the sculpture. The bust’s base, from the Le Masurier Family Quarry in North Chelmsford, Mass., is made from Chelmsford Granite, one of Fr. Skehan’s favorite rocks. The bust is on display in BC’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, which was founded (as the Department of Geology) by Fr. Skehan in 1958.

Many colleagues and friends joined Fr. Skehan at the Apr. 25 event. John Ebel, Boston College Earth and Environmental Sciences professor and Weston Observatory director, gave an address that served as a retrospective on Fr. Skehan’s career. A reception with birthday cake followed, hosted by BC’s Jesuit Community and the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department.

Fr. Skehan is a renowned geologist whose research has focused on the history of the Avalon terrane, the geological micro-continent stretching from Long Island to Belgium upon which Boston lies. From 1973 to 1993, he directed BC’s Weston Observatory, which monitors seismic activity around the globe.

He is the author of Roadside Geology of Massachusetts, a 400-page illustrated guide to the geological history and makeup of the Commonwealth. He followed that with Roadside Geology of Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Fr. Skehan has been honored in special ways during his storied career. In 2003, Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark A. S. McMenamin named a new genus of trilobite in Fr. Skehan’s honor. Skehanos is a marine arthropod that lived more than 500 million years ago and whose fossil was discovered in Massachusetts.

Author Sarah Andrews created a fictional Fr. Jim Skehan character for In Cold Pursuit, her mystery novel set in Antarctica. Fr. Skehan is also the recipient of the American Institute of Professional Geologists’ Ben H. Parker Memorial Medal, honoring individuals with long records of distinguished and outstanding service in the field of geology, among other honors.

A man of science, Fr. Skehan is also a man of deep faith. Growing up, his family said the rosary regularly after dinner. He entered the Jesuit order in 1940 and was ordained in 1954.

A noted retreat and spiritual leader, he is the author of Place Me With Your Son: Ignatian Spirituality in Everyday Life and of Praying with Teilhard de Chardin, on the life and thought of French Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher de Chardin. The convergence of geologist and priest was profoundly on display when Fr. Skehan said the first Mass on the volcanic island Surtsey soon after it rose off the coast of Iceland.

Fr. Skehan sees no conflict in his devotion to both science and faith, telling the Boston College Chronicle:

"If you look at a beautiful sunset, or how mountains are formed, or observe how continents move, you can view it either as science or as God speaking to you, or both. I do both. What I do as a scientist is no different from what I do listening to the cosmic word of God. It's nice to have both [science and faith] - in fact, it makes everything so exhilarating. What could be more marvelous?"

--Kathleen Sullivan, Boston College Office of News & Public Affairs