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

Father Sweeney in his office, Folder 13, Box 64, Humanities Series Director's Records,  MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Father Sweeney in his office, Box 64, Folder 13, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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 Humanities 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.  The Humanities Series-Director’s Records, accessible in the Burns Library Reading Room, contain the  correspondence, manuscripts, financial records, scrapbooks, ephemera, newspaper clippings, and photographs documenting Father Sweeney’s work during the first forty years of the Humanities Series.

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.

The covers of this book, designed by Barbara Adams Hebard to appear as scrapbook pages, reflect Father Sweeney’s early years (Nantasket Beach, The College of the Holy Cross, and Shadowbrook) on the front and his Boston College career on the back.

The covers of this book, designed by Barbara Adams Hebard to appear as scrapbook pages, reflect Father Sweeney’s early years (Nantasket Beach, The College of the Holy Cross, and Shadowbrook) on the front and his Boston College career on the back.

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.

Photograph of celebrated American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) with Gerard Woods and Edward Thomas at reception, Box 61, Folder 22, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS2002-37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photograph of celebrated American poet Robert Frost (1874-1963) with Gerard Woods and Edward Thomas at reception, Box 61, Folder 22, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.37, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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 exhibit about Father Sweeney on the Burns Library’s Flickr site.

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.  For more information about Father Sweeney and the Humanities Series, you may browse the Heights online, view this Flickr album devoted to the Humanities Series, read past blog posts about Father Sweeney or visit the O’Neill Reading Room exhibit, Honoring the Humanities.  Contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu if you have further questions.

Barbara Adams Hebard, Conservator, John J. Burns LibraryBarbara Adams Hebard
Conservator, John J. Burns Library

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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