“A Rededication to the Sacred Things we Call the Humanities.”: The Success of the First Five Years of Father Sweeney’s Humanities Series

Father Francis Sweeney, S.J.

Father Francis Sweeney, S.J., undated. Box 64, folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, S.J. Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

When critically acclaimed poet T.S. Eliot left his second lecture at Boston College, he declared, “I want to be invited back. Even when I am unable to go elsewhere, I shall return to Boston College.” And invited back he was, again and again, on account of the Boston College Humanities Series and its first and longtime director, Fr. Francis Sweeney, S.J.

Ever since its official inauguration in 1958, the Humanities Series continues to bring world-renowned literary figures to the towers of the heights. Yet, the first five years of this lecture series set the tone for an unexpected and extraordinary future of literary genius at Boston College.

A letter to Sweeney from E. E. Cummings

A letter to Sweeney from E. E. Cummings, 19 October 1961. Box 18, folder 78, Francis W. Sweeney, S.J. Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Sweeney’s persistence, benevolence, and passionate personality brought forth distinguished poets like Robert Frost, E.E. Cummings, and T.S Eliot.  Through a consistent exchange of letters, Sweeney transformed five years of lectures into durable friendships that helped define Boston College’s academic tradition and categorized Sweeney as a true visionary and champion of the humanities.

T. S. Eliot at Boston College, 1958

T. S. Eliot at Boston College, 1958. Box 61, folder 2, Francis W. Sweeney, S.J. Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.



As a result of constant communication, Sweeney came to regard Frost, cummings, and Eliot as friends. His letters revealed an admiration for the poets, and, in return, the poets saw Sweeney as a genuine and trustworthy equal. T.S. Eliot invited Sweeney to his London home and asked for Sweeney’s support in times of need. Cummings’s assistant spoke honestly with Sweeney and revealed delicate quirks about E.E. Cummings. The beginning success of the series can best be attributed to such personal touches by Sweeney. Frost, Cummings, and Eliot all engaged in small conversations with students following the readings and lectures–a unique tradition that lasted for the duration of Sweeney’s time as director. This special environment truly helped define the series for the participating students.

Announcement of Frost's appearance

Announcement of Frost’s appearance, 1959. Box 24, folder 22, Francis W. Sweeney, S.J. Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

And the relationship between Sweeney and Frost— one based upon a mutual respect and appreciation—was what started it all. A sold-out crowd flooded the Campion Hall’s Kennedy Theatre to hear the last of Frost’s six consecutive lectures, the end of what Frost considered a “regular thing between me and Boston College.”

With the Humanities Series, never before had an academic event in Boston College’s history began with such unprecedented momentum. The popularity of the event among the student body was unrivaled, and the speakers found safety in the admiration of the crowd and the familiarity of Father Francis Sweeney.


  • Racquel MacDonald BC 2016, History & Spring 2015 Making History Public Student

The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit#WeWereBC, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South.    This exhibit was curated and organized byProfessor Seth Meehan’s Spring 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.

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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