By Anne Stephens, Communications Director
Edward Sheehan was born into a Boston Irish family of five children – three boys and two girls. He and his younger sister remain. He attended Catholic grade school and high school and then entered the Marist Seminary College of Philosophy in 1952. He entered the Marist Novitiate, making his religious profession in 1955. At Marist College he completed the Philosophy Program in 1957, followed by theological studies from 1957 to 1961 and then his ordination.
He was ordained to the priesthood on February 4, 1961 at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
His first appearance at OLA came in late summer of 2019 at the parish picnic. During that weekend he decided to accept the assignment to move to OLA and, although retired, serve our parish. He moved here in October 2019. His faith and joy, his ever-present laugh, and his now famous jokes led him to quickly become a beloved member of our parish family.
Then the pandemic hit and parish life – along with much of the world – came to a screeching halt. The church was closed and Masses were celebrated in the Daily Chapel. It was in that intimate setting that we have grown to know and love Father Ed.
In honor of the 60th Anniversary of his ordination, I sat down with Fr. Ed for what I thought would be a short meeting to get pertinent information – dates and locations of service. Maybe a nice story to share with the parish or a bit of spiritual wisdom. Instead, I gained deeper insight into a man of deep faith and joy whose greatest desire has been to serve God by serving those around him.
(What follows is a transcript - along with notes - from that meeting. Instead of a chronological story of his life, I have opted to stick (mostly) with the flow of the meeting.
All notes in bold italicized text are my questions or comments.)
Vocation/Society of Mary
I became a priest because of…it was in the sixth grade when I thought about it. It was a missions talk… I thought it would be good to help some of those people… That’s when my vocation started.
So you always wanted to be a missionary? Yes.
The one that helped me most was Sister John Ignatius my senior year in high school. She knew I wanted to be a priest. She put me in touch with the vocations director for the Marist Fathers because her spiritual director was a Marist father. I met a nice priest, Father Bill Dunn. That was the start of my vocation. I left after high school. I was 17 or 18 at that time.
What did your parents think? Or siblings? My mother died my senior year in high school. She was 52 in 52. I never asked my brothers and sisters how they felt about my going to seminary. (My dad) was very proud. He was a very hard worker. He worked for the transportation system in Boston, like MARTA. He worked his way up from bus driver on all those small streets in Boston to inspector and then he was director. He worked in Brighton. There was St. Joseph’s Academy run by the sisters of St. Joseph. He always saw to it that the buses were there on time to get those girls. It was a girl’s academy. They really appreciated that, the special interest.
High School Jobs
What did I do before I was a priest? I was an elevator boy in high school. IJ Fox Furriers. The old elevators. I’d call out the name of the floor, “watch your step.” Then they transferred me to the warehouse where they washed fur coats. So I washed fur coats. I never knew you washed fur coats. And they stored them.
High School Teacher and Coach
Once ordained, Father Ed requested to be sent as a missionary to the South Pacific Islands. Instead, his Provincial (the head of his Province) sent him to Notre Dame High School in Harper Woods, Michigan as his first assignment.
I taught high school Religion and Speech. I loved working with the debate team. The real debate style, not the question and answer they do for the presidential election. They have 10 minutes pro, 10 minutes con, then 5 minutes, 5 minutes, and the judges decide who was best. That’s debate.
Then I left ND and went to teach the same subjects at Bishop Grimes High School in Syracuse, New York. I don’t know who he was…but he was a bishop... Eleven years as a teacher – 9 at Notre Dame, 2 at Bishop Grimes.
While at Notre Dame High School I was also the coach of the hockey team.
Did you play? No, I didn’t…Never played it.
Did you know what you were doing?Well, yes, I did. I was a fan of the team. And I was also a fan of the Boston Bruins. My mother and dad were fans of the Bruins. How that happened was that the coach of the hockey team quit or something, and because the athletic director, Tom Kelly, saw I was at the practices and stuff like that constantly he said, ‘would you like to coach the hockey team?’ I knew something, I was able to figure out some plays.
How did they do? Well, they did fairly well. When I moved to Bishop Grimes, the year after I moved they won the championship.
When they got a real coach? Yeah, that’s right.
Did they win any games? Oh yeah, but we were up against very powerful high school teams because their coaches were from Canada.
I coached hockey about 4 years.
Do you still enjoy hockey? I still do.
Are you still a big Bruins fan?I’m still a Bruins fan – oh yes.
I also, this is fun, I moderated the golf team (at Notre Dame High School).
What does that even mean? What is moderating a golf team? They needed a golf coach. They weren’t ready to hire or pay so they said, would you do it? And I said, “ok.” So basically, I drove the golf team on the school bus to the course, waited, picked them up, brought them back. I didn’t do any teaching.
So did they just teach themselves? Or did they just lose all the time? I have no idea whether they won or lost. Just get on the bus, get off the bus.
So nobody coached them? Not while I had it.
How long were you the moderator of the golf team? Oh, about 3 years.
Have you ever told Fr. Jim that you’d be happy to moderate his golf game? I don’t think he would appreciate that. (Said while laughing.)
A story from my school days – you got me telling stories. I taught sophomore religion and speech for the school. I gave a test – no, an essay. And this kid came in with an essay. It was one of the most perfect essays I had ever read for a sophomore in HS and I said, “this is not yours.” “Oh yes, Father, it is.” I said, “well, it’s not the way I’ve been reading your works over the year.” “Yea, it is, Father, I swear it is.” It was just too polished. So I let that go, I gave him a mark that it deserved, an A+… Well, 2 years later he was graduating – and I admire the kid for this - he said, “Father, can we talk?” I said, “sure.” He said, do you remember when I was a sophomore and I passed in this paper and you said it wasn’t mine?” “Yes.” “Well, you were right. It wasn’t mine and I apologize.”
Another tale. At the beginning of the year, you ask about families and things and one kid said, “My dad’s a priest.” And I said, “Oh!” I thought, wait a minute, what’s going on here? He meant he was a priest in the Orthodox church.
After teaching, Father Ed was assigned to parish work.
Where was that? That was everywhere, I did parish work in Massachusetts, New York, the Boston area. We had a lot of French parishes there. I didn’t speak French but at that time there was just one French Sunday Mass.
Standing Rock Indian Reservation
I also was stationed on a Native American Reservation.
Really where? Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota… There was an English church in the town, McLaughlin; but there were three Native American Catholic Churches (on the reservation). Standing Rock is huge…that’s the home reservation of Sitting Bull. I enjoyed that.
Were there a lot of Catholics in the Native American population? At the ones we were working there were.
They were very, very poor. Extremely poor. About 70% unemployment. 75-80% alcoholism.
We did the mission work; we did the parish work. Schooling was not that great in the community.
Stories from the Reservation
The White Buffalo:
“There is a story that they tell about the White Buffalo. The White Buffalo was supposed to come, and when the White Buffalo came things would be much better. Things would improve. That was the White Buffalo. That goes down to the White Buffalo check. The check came down from the government every month and if some of the native men got that it was spent on alcohol. So the women would line up at the bank to get the check.”
The Vision Quest:
“When I was on the reservation, I did a thing called (a Vision Quest)…you prepared for it by going into the tent. And you enter the tent in a special way. You go in on the left and you go around the fire. Then you sit down. And this is for a weekend, that I was going to make. There was chant and wishes. Then I would get up and I would leave the tent, take all my clothes off, and go out to a hill or to a place and I would spend the weekend or as long as I could be out there by myself.
I’d have to find a place to sleep comfortably on the ground…the Indian Chiefs would do that…I just did it because I was there and I thought I could do it… Indian natives would do it if they went on to a special mission or a call or something. It was a weekend, as long as you could go. So I did the weekend.
You did the whole weekend? Two days and then you come down. They greet you. Obviously, you put your clothes on. And then they have a feast for you.
Could you even eat at that point? I could eat a little bit.
Did you have water out there? No. I had nothing. No food. No clothing. No weapons.
Were you scared? No, I wasn’t worried.
But then you would know your vocation. That’s what it was for the Native Americans.
Did that help you to feel more secure in your vocation? No. (chuckles) To be honest. No.
Burials and Giveaways:
We had burials, obviously… the night before the person (was buried) they had a vigil all night long. It was in the church. They would have speakers, they’d have music, all in memory of the person; and at midnight they had a meal. Anyone could come and have something to eat. Then the next day they would have the burial followed by a giveaway.
The giveaway was where they dispersed of the clothing and materials that belonged to the Native American who died. Because they were a wandering people. This comes from their wandering time. They kept that going. We’d go to that and then a special meal. They’d have a special soup. Hawk soup or something… I didn’t like it. It’s served to the priest first and then the elderly. But what we were told by wise Native Americans…you take a sip and then you pass it on to the elderly. And that was accepted. That was their ritual.
An unfortunate part about the giveaway is that some people had to go out and buy stuff in order to give away.
Because the person that died didn’t have anything? Yeah. They didn’t have anything. There was one Native American who couldn’t have a giveaway, but about ten years later he had enough money and goods to have a personal give away – not his, but this is the one they should have done for their mother or father.
At one of them, a Native American woman, her husband passed away. At that time, when they buried someone, all night long they would put together a knitted or crocheted blanket and they would cover the casket and they would lower that casket with the blanket on and they would bury it. It was something very special to them. Well, this Native American Woman took the blanket off and gave it to me. She said, “for all you’ve done.”
How do you respond to that? I just had to say “thank you.” I knew the importance of it.
The unfortunate part is, in Boston, when the nuns were doing the housework and stuff, they took the blanket off and put it with all the other blankets in the closet and it got lost. So I don’t have that blanket today.
Then Father Ed turned the questions around to me, asking “You ever eat dog meat?” He continued, They were so poor at times they would kill their dogs and eat the dog…One day I went into a house all they had in their refrigerator was part of the body of the dog hanging and I had to eat. You can’t turn down that hospitality. You find a way of getting around it, but you can’t turn it down…
Do you ever want to go back to the reservation? Yes.
Veterans Administration Chaplain
The next thing outside of parish work…well, when I did parish work at a parish in White River Junction in Vermont there was a VA hospital there and I would go up as a chaplain to the hospital. I did chaplaincy work every day and parish work.
And then we got a call that they were looking for someone to become a chaplain in Arkansas. So I moved down to Arkansas as a chaplain for the VA System.
Was that just you or were there fellow Marists there? Just me.
Then there was an opening for chief of chaplain in Providence, Rhode Island and I took that….it was good. In Providence it was mostly outpatient. In Arkansas there were two hospitals – one in Little Rock and another in North Little Rock - and I kept going between the two. North Little Rock was a residence. Very, very few Catholics down south of course, but we still ministered to (them).
Every Wednesday night we had a sing-along. The thing about that was - that was in North Little Rock – the patients would come together. The leader would call out a number and they would all sing. They wouldn’t call out a title or anything. It was group singing. They had a piano player and she was very nice. Every time the number came up, she knew and could play… They were all basically the Protestant hymnal…. Amazing Grace would probably be my favorite.
I haven’t been to a movie – a theater movie – for 25 years… I love the popcorn there. … My sister Kay, who has passed away, she worked at a movie theater. I’d go there and I’d get in free. I could watch any one of the five movies that were showing. Every time I went I was about the only person in the theater…with free popcorn. I would go and see what was the favorite at the time. (Side note: Father Ed is not too keen on romances, but enjoys a good Western!)
Coming to OLA
How I came here is I went to the retreat 2 years ago. Fr. Jim said, “I want you.” I knew him in Vermont and all but then he left.
You know, that’s an interesting point because I think that most people assume that all – you’re Marists so all of you know one another. That’s the assumption. But what I’ve learned since working with the Marists is – cause first it was the Boston Province, the Atlanta Province, the San Francisco Province – so you didn’t really know each other until the provinces started to merge and then become the USA Province, and that was really kind of when you started to know one another. And you still didn’t really get to know each other very well if you weren’t together. NO, and then we didn’t really meet each other in retreat either, until we started coming together in common retreat.
He was looking for someone to replace (Father) Ed Keel. So I came down to visit for a weekend. Terribly hot that weekend. Got off the plane and, ugh, get me out of here. I like heat, but…so we had a very quick tour and I said, “OK, I’ll come.” That’s how I got here.
Missions to Haiti
I also did missionary trips to Haiti with a group of people from the Maine parish. We went to an orphanage. I made ten or thirteen trips… it was with adults. We took three teens one time. We went to bring food, medicine, and minister to the kids. I said Mass for them, got to know some of them. The teens helped to repair the roof on some of the churches. Paint the church. I enjoyed that very much.
I travelled very little out of the country outside of Haiti. I travelled to England for a course on Theology. I was on a farm…it was a little monastery. I could walk among the cows. When I went for a walk I would walk through the barn area.
I went to Florida for education – a storytelling workshop. I used that more or less for homilies for the children. I enjoyed that because it expanded the way of talking...that was later…when I was in Maine.
I enjoyed being on the farm (in England). I met some nice nuns. One from Africa. She was really something. In what way? Very open. She was black and everyone else there was white. She was talking about her experiences. That she was a nobody back home. The lowest class and how she felt about that. She was just a friendly, open. So open about that.
When was that? That would be in the late 80s. That was a good experience.
Where else have you gone overseas? From there I led a pilgrimage to Lourdes. One of the nuns asked if I would be chaplain and lead a pilgrimage from that place in England to Lourdes. And I said ‘sure’…I didn’t take the bath. (Referring to bathing in the healing waters of Lourdes.)
If I could, my primary interest all my life has been to go to Moscow. I just like the shape of the buildings I saw.
Oh…on my 25th Anniversary we got a 6 week vacation thing where they paid for the vacation so I went to the South Sea islands. My trip to the missions…Samoa, Tonga, Fiji.
The rest of my travels have been traveling from Detroit to Boston at the end of the school year through Canada.
Any Special Hobbies? Photography. I have 3 cameras now. I have a Canon with 3 or 4 different lenses. That’s digital…I got 2 small camcorders.
What do you like taking pics of? I like taking pictures of buildings and landscapes.
Do you have any favorite jokes? I don’t have any favorite jokes.
How did you start telling jokes? When did that start? In the past ten years. I just felt, I told one one day and people liked it and I said, wouldn’t it be nice for people to leave church with a smile on their face… so I started telling puns.
What is the most important thing about being a Marist? To be hidden and unknown. That’s the Marist spirit. Just do the work and give the credit to God or to Mary. Just do the work. Of course the human always gets in the way. I’ve had my moments over the years... I’ve been frustrated, upset, y’know?
Do what has to be done, do it in a kindly, gentle way.
I remember this one incident. There was something going on in the parish in Rhode Island. I was stationed there. It was probably a program about raising money. One Sunday noon time we were having a community meal. Masses were over. The doorbell rang. I went to the door – I’m picturing it in my mind – this man came in. He was visibly upset. I forget what the program was. He really laid into me. And I didn’t say a word. I just let him go. I said, “Ok, I’ll see what we can do” and he left. About a month or two later we were somewhere with a bunch of people. He said, “I like this priest. He let me tell him off in no uncertain terms. He didn’t say a word, and he’s still talking to me.”
Thank you, Father Ed, for your service to God’s people. May he continue to bless you and your ministry.