Saying goodbye to Father Sellinger 1,000 at funeral for Loyola president

April 24, 1993|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

Although about 1,000 people gathered to say goodbye to the Rev. Joseph A. Sellinger, S. J., it was really Father Sellinger who said goodbye to them.

President of Loyola College since 1964, the determined and charismatic Jesuit priest who died Monday at age 72 of pancreatic cancer helped plan his funeral, which was held yesterday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on North Charles Street.

One of his main requests was that the service be a celebration rather than a mournful commemoration.

So one man, an old friend, the Rev. E. Paul Betowski, S. J., spoke about Father Sellinger. And he told a golf story and made everybody laugh.

"Having read all the accolades, all the wonderful things said about Father, there's nothing left for me to say," Father Betowski said.

Father Sellinger was one of Baltimore's favorite -- and most forceful -- citizens. During his 29 years as president of Loyola College, he transformed it from a quiet commuter school into a respected regional institution.

His name became synonymous with Loyola College.

He touched many people along the way, and many of them packed the majestic cathedral yesterday for a service filled with song and celebration.

Maryland's senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, were there. So were the governor, William Donald Schaefer, and Baltimore's mayor, Kurt L. Schmoke, and other elected officials as well.

Archbishop William H. Keeler was the principal celebrant, and the concelebrants, which included former Archbishop William D. Borders and about 30 Jesuit priests, crowded onto the resplendent altar.

Father Sellinger would have appreciated the turnout.

"He was really a people person," the Rev. Bill Sneck, S. J., said afterward. "He really loved to party. He loved to mingle, and not only with the high and mighty, although he would have loved that the governor and all were there, but also with the average person.

"In life, sooner or later, he'd get around to see you if you stayed long enough."

Father Sneck, who teaches pastoral counseling at Loyola College's Columbia campus, knew about Father Sellinger's wishes for his funeral.

"He was a very accomplished man, but he didn't look around for people to praise him," Father Sneck said. "He didn't in life, and not in death either.

"He didn't want 78 people getting up and saying what a great man Father Sellinger was."

Also, Father Sneck said, Father Sellinger wanted the service to be joyful.

"He wasn't much for moaning and groaning, even when he was sick," Father Sneck said.

Father Sellinger learned last summer that he had cancer. He knew it was inoperable. Yet he continued presiding over meetings, counseling students and raising money for the college -- "begging," as he sometimes called it.

He also selected prayers and music for his funeral. And the music soared, filling the cavernous cathedral with warmth and exaltation.

Loyola College's chapel and hand-bell choirs, which included two flutes and a clarinet, recorder and piano, performed as if inspired. George Miller, the college's director of music and liturgy, confirmed afterward that they were.

"It was a labor of love," he said.

And Father Sellinger requested that his longtime buddy, Father Betowski, deliver the homily. The two men met 45 years ago at the seminary in Wernersville, Pa. They became, and remained, best friends.

"He wants you to think about him as you always have, sometimes favorably, sometimes not as favorably," Father Betowski said during the homily, prompting chuckles. "Someone told me this morning: The only thing Father ever did peacefully was die."

Father Sellinger, hard-charging all his life, died in his sleep.

Father Sellinger could get angry at times, his good friend continued.

"One time we were playing golf, and he put three balls in a pond," Father Betowski said. "I could see he was getting a little irritated.

"So I tried to relieve the tension a little bit. I laughed. That was a mistake. . . . He pulled a club out, the heaviest one he had, and chased me . . ."

The rest of the sentence was drowned out by laughter.

Then Father Betowski got serious. As rainbow reflections splashed through the stained-glass windows, he said that Father Sellinger's legacy wasn't merely the beautiful stone and steel of Loyola College.

It was also how he lived his life.

"And he lived it to the fullest," Father Betowski said.

At the end of the 90-minute service, the pallbearers, which included Father Sellinger's relatives -- he is survived by a brother, sister-in-law and nine nieces and nephews -- guided the casket along the center aisle of the cathedral and carried it down the stone steps out front.

The morning sun, which shone at 10 when the funeral began, had bowed behind clouds. The cool breeze, which wasn't unpleasant before, had turned into a nasty wind.

The casket was loaded into the hearse for the trip to the Jesuit Novitiate of St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, Pa. That is where Father Sellinger trained to become a priest. That is where he chose to be buried in a private service.

As the Angelus bell of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen chimed slowly and steadily, the procession moved out onto Charles Street. Father Sellinger had said his last goodbye to Baltimore.

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