Shehan: humility, dedication

November 26, 1994|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

One night in 1961, Betty Sweeney fathomed the humility of Lawrence Cardinal Shehan in a church driveway.

He was soon-to-be the next archbishop of Baltimore and she was a volunteer at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

"I left the rectory late one evening. It was quite dark, but I could see a priest coming up the driveway. I couldn't tell who it was," recalled Miss Sweeney, 72. "He said: 'You're working late.' And I said: 'Not too late, father.' When I saw who it was, I apologized: 'Oh, I demoted you, I called you father.'

"And he said: 'That's no demotion.' "

Humility, scholarship, a dry sense of humor, dedication to civil rights and a deep personal shyness were the hallmarks of Lawrence Joseph Shehan's career that culminated in becoming a cardinal in 1965.

Born in Baltimore to Irish immigrants and educated at St. Ann's on Greenmount Avenue, the city's second cardinal was a priest for six decades before dying of cancer at Mercy Hospital on Aug. 26, 1984. He was 86.

Josephine Shehan, widow of the cardinal's younger brother Daniel, knew Cardinal Shehan for more than 60 years. Many times, the cardinal joined her family for dinner. "At home, or in the company of people he knew, he wasn't shy," said Mrs. Shehan, recalling that her famous brother-in-law had no favorite dish and happily ate whatever she served.

"He was shy in a way, but when you knew him he wasn't. When he came for dinner, my children would climb up on the sofa with him," said Mrs. Shehan. "He was gentle, quiet and unassuming, not pompous in any way."

Gentle, yes. Unassuming, perhaps -- to the point of falling asleep at public events, according to retired Archbishop William D. Borders, the man who succeeded him in 1974.

But when it came to the issue that defined his era -- civil rights for all -- Cardinal Shehan was a rock.

In 1962, he urged the General Assembly to pass a public accommodations bill; the next year -- when he participated in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington -- he issued a pastoral letter banning racial discrimination in all Catholic churches and organizations throughout the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

And in 1966, he stood up to racism in an event that many admirers consider his finest hour.

That Jan. 13, Cardinal Shehan and clergy of other faiths appeared at a noisy session of the Baltimore City Council that attracted so many people it was moved to the War Memorial Building.

When he took the floor to argue for an "open-occupancy" bill, the loud boos of racists -- hundreds of them Catholic -- filled the building.

"He stood there with his notes in his hand with the most patient and benign expression on his face, waiting until the noise died down," said Miss Sweeny, who was present. "He presented his position and returned to his seat. It brought him his greatest opposition."

Said Archbishop Borders: "Without question, he was a man who was convinced of the mission of the church. His entire life, up to the end, was devoted to having people appreciate the civilizing influence of the church."

At the historic Second Vatican Council, which changed the lives of Catholics around the world, Cardinal Shehan was the only American among 70 consultors appointed to a commission charged with the mammoth task of revising canon law.

While fighting racism and updating ancient legal structures occupied a large part of his work, the times in which he lived forced him to cope with the unexpected.

Like in 1971, when he went to the City Jail to seek the release of two young priests and one former priest charged with plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up buildings in Washington.

"I think he got more hate mail over that one than anything else, but it never occurred to him not to go," Miss Sweeney said. "He was their cardinal and they were his priests."

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