Life on the farm and in the seminary
Mary and Bill at the old farmstead, March, 2002
It was 1943 in Livermore, California. Mary was standing in the vegetable garden when Bill came out of the house and said, “Mary, I’m going into the seminary.” Mary said, “What does that mean?” and he answered, “I’m going to become a priest.” She was shocked because all of a sudden her brother had become holy and he definitely hadn’t been holy before. Bill was “just a regular guy.” He was a farm boy and got in trouble like any other kid.
When Bill told his mother, she said, “You’ll never make it,” but his father said, “Let him go.” Others were more direct; they laughed and said, “You’re kidding!”
But Bill had been thinking about becoming a priest since he was in fourth grade at St. Michael School in Livermore. The nuns had inspired him, saying that “the best thing you can do with your life is become a priest,” and he wanted to be like the priests he admired. “It was just their niceness,” Bill says. They played baseball with the boys and took them swimming in the creek.
The idea came to him in fourth grade, just a passing thought, but by sixth grade he was feeling a pull. He prayed, “God, if you want me to be a priest, you’ll make me a priest.” He thought of obstacles: he wasn’t holy, he wasn’t smart enough, who would pay for it?
By eighth grade he was aware of girls and beginning to have second thoughts. He told a priest that maybe he’d go to high school first, and the priest said, “You’d probably never go to seminary. So Bill was asking himself what God wanted him to do, and the answer came one blazing hot day when he was working for a neighbor, helping build a haystack. His job was to drive the horse to activate a derrick, which then placed hay on the stack. He was dusty, sweating and tired, and he was thinking, “There’s got to be something better”. He told the guys he was going in the seminary, and they said they’d give him six weeks. Then they caught him swearing at the horse and said, “Billy, we’ll give you six days.”
Bill was one of seven children. His parents were Maude Regan O’Donnell, born 1895 in Livermore, and Anthony O’Donnell, born 1891 in San Francisco. They were living on a farm near Livermore when Bill and his twin were born, and in 1936 they moved out in the Altamont Hills, east of town. His mother’s parents came to live with them after they lost their ranch in the Depression.
In Altamont they lived in a farmhouse built in 1878, which is still standing on North Flynn Road. The Alameda County Waste Management Authority bought the site in the 1990s and rehabbed it for $440,000. The O’Donnell family lived there as sharecroppers and worked 400 or 500 acres, growing wheat, barley and red oats and raising cattle and horses, “a bastard kind of cattle, red and white, typical range cattle.” They had a dozen work horses to pull plows and harvesters. “They were plug uglies,” Bill says. Anthony O’Donnell paid the owner a quarter of the crop.
They had 12 horses and a hundred head of cattle, which included 10 milk cows. Bill and his twin brother Gene started herding cows when they were seven years old, running out to the fields to bring them in for milking. They fed the horses and cows, and when they were old enough, they milked the cows themselves. Their younger sister Mary would run out to talk to them. They’d say, “Open your mouth, Mary,” and they’d squirt warm milk into her mouth. To this day, she says, she can’t stand warm milk. When it was winter and raining, the boys had to go outside in the mud to milk the cows, which Mary thought was only fair, because she got to stay in the house, the center of women’s work.
The boys also helped trim stacks of hay so the horse-driven buck could come along and pick them up. “I picked up hay all over the field, on hills, everywhere, and carried it to stack. The hay press would come bale it, and bales were taken to the barn. We would play in the barn. We would jump from the rafters onto the loose hay.” They made themselves a baseball field. “We used cow slops for bases, broom handles for bats, an old tennis ball or rubber ball and played on a bumpy old field.”
The farmhouse was a two-story Victorian with a big farm kitchen, a dining room, a pantry, and a parlor that was never used. It was built with square nails. Outside were two outhouses. Inside was a bathroom with a tub but no hot water. Maude O’Donnell cooked on a wood stove, and the kids did their homework by kerosene lamps. Saturday night was bath night.
In 1940 the family got a portable radio with a battery, and that same year the farmhouse was set up with indoor plumbing. The next year Anthony O’Donnell gave up farming took a job with the farm bureau, where he was in charge of membership and insurance for the organization, and the family moved into town.
In the library of the Altamont house, just off the parlor, was the room where Bill’s brother Martin lived, “the peace center of our house,” Bill says. He was hydrocephalic and never spoke, he was always a baby. Saintly Grandmother Regan, whose bedroom was just off Martin’s room, took care of him, but visitors never even knew he was there. Martin lived out his years in a crib. “He giggled like a baby. He was absolutely pleasant, and he cried only when he was sick,” Bill recalls. “Then he whimpered like a baby. Mother never thought of sending him away.” When he died, Bill was in the seminary, and the doctors said it was amazing that he had lived so long, into his middle teens. But his life had been full of affection; the family had loved him. “We would play with him,” says Bill.
The O’Donnell family included Ed, born in 1927; then Bill and Gene, born in January 1930; Martin, born in December of the same year; Mary, born in November 1931; Betty, born in 1934; and Jim, born in 1938.
In the horse trough, from left, Ed, Betty, Bill, Gene, Mary.
During harvest and the spring plowing and seeding, three or four farm hands sat at the dining room table, along with Grandmother Regan and all the O’Donnells. The men slept on cots in a bunkhouse that had once been a school and still had blackboards on the wall. Most of them were rough types, bachelors and drunks who spent Saturday nights in town drinking until dawn. Bill remembers Armand, a French Canadian, as the nicest of the lot. “He got off the railroad and looked for a ranch to work on. He wasn’t a drunk. That was a big surprise. He was gentle with us kids. The other guys would ignore us and boss us around.” One hired hand made a move on Maude O’Donnell, and when Anthony heard about it, he knocked him flat. Another was prized as a good worker, but one night, “walking down the road to get more booze, he was struck by a Model T and killed.”
The O’Donnell kids thought farm life was tough, but looking back, Bill says, “It was very healthy. Work never ended; even in winter we sharpened tools. I worked on sharpening the hay mower with a sharpening stone. I fixed the harness with rivets when the leather broke. I learned how to use a hammer and saw. I built fences, and I could bang up a board on a barn.”
Maude and Anthony
Their father was a disciplinarian, “very strong,” and no one tried to test the limits of authority with him. ÒWe could never talk back, not with Dad. He had a gesture, he would hold a finger up and say, ‘Hup!’. That was it. He had a temper.” But he would play with the kids, chase them around the table, get down on the floor and roughhouse. “Us twins sat on his lap, and he played with us. He told us stories, like about Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth. He was a Yankee fan.” He had a good sense of humor; he told jokes and read the kids the funny papers on Sunday.
Anthony was upright and honest: you did the right thing no matter what. He never cheated, never drank too much. He had a good voice and was a good public speaker. He organized farmers for the Farm Bureau, and he worked for the bureau as a lobbyist after he gave up farming. Neighbors in Altamont and Livermore wanted him to run for county supervisor.
Both parents were straitlaced when it came to language. “Once I heard some words said by some hay balers. I asked Mom what they meant, and she said, ‘Never say them again.’ One night my brother said ‘shit’ at dinner table. There was absolute silence.” Likewise, his parents never expressed feelings, though there was lots of kidding.
“Mom was a little cynical about authority. I don’t even know if she was conscious of this, though she would never criticize a priest. She was cynical about government, but Dad was a big believer in politics.” His parents never openly discussed sex, politics and religion, however. When Bill was eight or nine years old, he asked his mother why the bull jumps on the cow. She said, “That’s because the bull wants the cow to get out of the way.” That didn’t make a lot of sense because the bull had 100 acres on every side, so Bill wasn’t convinced and says he’s “been left ignorant ever since.”
His mother showed compassion to the drifters who rode the rails. She would feed them, and Anthony would let them sleep in the bunkhouse. But Bill remembers one man his parents had to turn away. The family was Christmas shopping in Stockton, the twins were about five years old, and “what burned into my soul,” Bills writes in a parish bulletin, “was the man who approached my dad begging for a job. In the dead of winter there is no work on a ranch, much less during the height of the Depression years. Dad didn’t need a farm hand. When he said ‘sorry,’ I’ll never forget the pain of rejection in this job seeker’s face.”
Both Maude and Anthony lived into their nineties. As they came toward the end of their lives, Bill says, “My mom was very reserved; she couldn’t articulate her feelings. My dad was more open, very accepting. He was in a wheelchair, then in bed. He never complained; he never was bitter or felt sorry for himself. He prayed a lot, but he would never tell you he was praying. He would go to the benediction at the chapel of the Little Sisters of the Poor (in San Francisco). He went to Mass every morning; he said the rosary. He died in 1987 at the age of 96. She died in 1989 at the age of 94.”
Maude had grown up near Livermore and rode a horse to a one-room schoolhouse. When her children were growing up in Altamont, she drove them 10 miles to school at St. Michael in Livermore. She starched and ironed the kids’ uniforms – middies and blue serge skirts for the girls, white shirts and corduroys for the boys.
St. Michael’s School
St. Michael’s School was under the San Rafael Dominicans, who taught reading with the text inflicted on all kids in those days, “Dick and Jane,” He thought it was “incredibly stupid” and preferred the comics – Flash Gordon, Donald Duck, Red Rider, Tillie the Toiler, Mollie and Jiggs and Barney Google – so he learned to read by poring over the funny papers. The only subject Bill liked was history “because they told stories.”
The Livermore Valley then had two elementary schools, St. Michael’s and the public school; they were sports rivals. Bill sat on the bench one baseball season, secretly reciting Hail Marys so his team would win, and it seemed to work. St. Michael’s won the pennant. The following year he was old enough to play and became an aggressive catcher. “I would run out ahead of the batter and catch the ball and throw to second, get the guy on base out. We had great arguments over it, but I got away with it.”
He remembers the fourth grade nun as “crazy,” but he loved Sister Rafael Marie. He recalls, “In class there were long green window shades. We had very few textbooks, so the nun wrote history on the blackboard. We were shooting the shade with a beebee pistol, and one day she turned around in tears and said, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ Sister Rafael Marie, she wasn’t playing games, so we stopped. She had been so kind to us.”
Sister Rafael Marie was involved when Bill had a run-in with the police chief (harbinger of worse to come). Bill was working as a traffic boy when he stuck his tongue out at the chief – for good reason, he says today, because “the guy was a stuffed shirt.” “He stopped his car in the middle of the street and left the door open. He threatened to tell my father. I was scared. He told Sister Rafael Marie, and she heard him out (she kind of tsk, tsked), then she looked over and winked at me.”
It was Sister Rafael Marie who encouraged him to become a priest. Bill was convinced and tried to talk Gene into it, too, but his twin was too interested in girls. They had been close when they were young, but they started to go separate ways when Bill decided to become a priest.
Bill was born 10 minutes ahead of his brother. They were identical, and their mother could tell them apart at first only “because I had a mole on my side.” Mary also remembers that “Gene had more freckles than Bill.”
Mary says Bill was a good big brother – most of the time. At school he shared his lunch with her when she left hers at home, and he convinced another kid, considered to be a tough “Mafia type,” to share some of his lunch, too. “He was good about taking care of me,” she says, “except when we played baseball. I would swing the bat and wouldn’t let it go until it crossed his knees, because he was the catcher. I started to run and he grabbed me and said, ‘Don’t you ever do that again.’ So I never did that again.”
He could be a tease, too. He brought her mothballs and told her they were candy, and he once kidded her, saying it wasn’t a successful day unless he made her cry.
Mary also reports that he had a temper. “Mom would try to teach him to count to 10 before he acted or spoke. I always said it didn’t work because he could only count to five.”
Bill recounts a humiliating experience when he and Gene were appealing little look-alikes. It was June, rodeo time, and the boys were chosen to be part of the parade. “The Diamond Match Company made this truck bed; they made a sweet little cottage and put us there with two little curly haired girls. We had to wear dinky little suits and just sit there. God, it was awful!”
The twins were so close, Bill says, that they “never had to finish sentences with each other.” People called them “twinny”, which they hated because it took away their individual identities. When they were six or seven, they insisted on wearing different clothes, Bill in blue, Gene in brown, “so people would call us by our names.” This came in handy in sixth grade, when they fooled a nun by changing clothes. It worked “up to 10:30 when I answered when she called Bill.”
They slept in the same bed, played together, did chores together, hunted rabbits and squirrels together (with water pistols) and once swore that they would never hold secrets from each other. When they were four years old they chased after a blimp and disappeared over the hill. “We were going to catch it and make it our toy.” Their mother had to drive around in the car to fetch them. One Saturday afternoon they were told to stay away from a junk fire their mom had set with the help of Ed, so they went off and made their own fire and burned up two acres. Their dad saw the smoldering acreage as he returned home with a longed-for gift. “He said, real cold, ‘Here’s your football.’ ”
But they tried to claim separate identities, all the same, by cultivating different friends. And there were differences. “Gene was less interested in school; he was picked out as a daydreamer.” During the years he was in seminary, Bill did hard physical labor and put on more muscle than Gene.
At 13, when Bill had decided to study for the priesthood, Gene got a job with the county fire department, which put out the grass fires sparked by passing trains. Gene was paid $5 per fire, and he picked up the habit of smoking from other guys on the crew. Bill once grabbed a pack of cigarettes from him and crushed it in his hand. Gene was furious, but two years later Bill took up the habit, too, and worked up to a pack-and-a-half-a-day habit that lasted for 35 years.
In the summers Bill would come back from seminary and take jobs in construction. He hung around with his brother’s friends and went with them to swim in the stagnant water at the Kaiser gravel pits, a quarry between Livermore and Pleasanton. He remembers, “They would be bragging about what they did to girls, but then when they were around girls they were nice guys.” It was a different world from the seminary. In the summer he would pick up swear words (which he later confessed) and he would drink with the guys. “Then back to the seminary, very pious.”
Gene, Betty, Mary, Ed, Jim
Gene got his girlfriend pregnant and married her when he was 18. She was only 16, and neither of them ever finished high school. Maude blamed the girl, saying she just wanted to get out of Livermore and move with the O’Donnells, who were leaving the valley for Berkeley. Gene and his bride went with his parents and built a cottage for the two of them behind the family home on Hillegass Street. After the move, she gave birth to a girl.
When Gene’s daughter was five, her mother took singing lessons and ran off with the piano player. “My brother was crushed,” Bill says. “He was 21 or so; he’d become a manager of a paint store. I wrote her a long letter and went to see her lawyer. My dad said, ‘Let her go and forget about her.’ I was so naïve. I thought he was cold and cruel. It was very disappointing that God didn’t do anything, that God didn’t move her. I was praying, really praying, to remove everyone’s pain.”
Eventually Bill realized that it was how you deal with pain that really matters, that his prayers were misguided. Gene went on to “get a social life in piano bars.” He began drinking heavily and died from alcoholism at the age of 41. “He was more real than me, though,” Bill says. “I had my head in the clouds. I thought that if you did everything right, it would all come out right. I thought you could impose morality.”
His sister Betty also chose religious life. She joined the Holy Names sisters and worked in Peru, organizing women who lived in a barrio and later organizing for the United Farm Workers. She died of breast cancer in August of 1981. In January Bill asked her to teach them what it’s like to die. She said, “Oh, I never thought of that. That gives me a purpose.” At the end she told him, “God is very gentle.”
Mary recovered from alcoholism and a bad marriage and ran an alcohol center and today lives in the rectory at St. Joseph the Worker, Berkeley, along with Bill and his colleagues, while she attends school. Ed became a property manager and is now retired. Jim conducts alcohol recovery programs for professionals in Contra Costa County.
After Bill joined the seminary, his brothers and sisters would rib him, “Here comes the priest.” Bill says they thought he was crazy, but, “Grandma, Mom and Dad were very proud of me. They never said much, though, because they never believed I was going to last.”
He entered St. Joseph’s College in Mountain View, a minor seminary, then out in the country. The routine was four years of high school and two of college in the minor seminary and six more years at the major seminary, St. Patrick in Menlo Park, for two years of college and four of theology. Bill was the only farm boy and he was poorly prepared for academics. “The first year I couldn’t believe this awful thing called Latin – and algebra. I had six months of being in shock.” Twelve boys flunked the first year, and ten of them, including Bill, repeated.
It was a restricted world, with rules about every aspect of life. It was also innocent and sheltered from talk about women and other experiences Bill had when he was home with his brother’s friends. But it was macho in other ways. “We got very physical in games. We would clip a guy, pile into a guy.”
They got into fights; they would rush groups, class against class. They had battles with horse chestnuts and played a kind of “kings of the mountain” on the stairs, yelling, “Hey, get off the stairs. Those are our stairs!” Bill could throw a football 55 yards. While World War II was raging he prayed that the conflict would continue until he was 17, so he could quit and join and “go get a Jap.” He admired the priests who were hard on the students “because they were tough, strong male, all that nonsense.”
The seminarians were a mischievous bunch. They left the grounds, which was against the rules, they disrupted class. When professors turned their backs, the boys would make noises and throw things. One priest was hard of hearing, and the seminarians “would talk low so he would turn his hearing aid up, then we’d open a squeaky window and it would grate in his hearing aid. We’d begin to talk softer and softer so he’d turn up his hearing aid.” Bill feels some regret today. “He was old, the most gentle of persons.”
By his third year in minor seminary, Bill was thinking of dropping out. Ten of his friends had been expelled, including Leo McCarthy, “for attitude,” and he was drawn to the excitement of high school life. He told Maude, who advised him to stay at least for the semester, and this gave him time to reflect. “I said to myself, Why not give it a try?” and he asked himself why he had come there. “My desire to be a priest was still there, but I thought that if the studies were so hard and I flunked, then that would be God’s will telling me I wasn’t going to be a priest.”
Before then he had “goofed around” and showed little interest in studies, but by the fourth year in minor seminary, he was doing his best. Even so he was “just barely passing” and he worried about staying in for the full course. But priests told him, “Do your best, and you’ll have no regrets.”
“From then on I passed, I never flunked, except chemistry. I did it again and barely passed. I feel guilty to this day. I cheated on the chemistry test by looking over this guy’s shoulder. But if I hadn’t, I would have flunked and been thrown out and wouldn’t be a priest today. It’s the only time I remember cheating. I rationalized it by saying the teacher was incompetent.”
When he was in major seminary he asked a priest why they didn’t kick out the whole gang of 12 troublemakers, why they let Bill and Tim Thorsen stay in school. “We thought that if we threw out the gang and kept the leaders, they would make something of themselves,” the priest said.
Bill was drawn to the priesthood partly because it seemed to hold out “insights into the mystery of God.” He remembers looking at the night stars and the land, and asking himself questions about nature and the universe. “I would wonder together with my twin.” He was “always interested in mystery,” but in the seminary only the rare professor would talk about it. He adds, “We were badly educated in the Psalms,” which express this same longing and sense of wonder.
At St. Joseph and St. Patrick you didn’t have to relate to God, Bill says, because “the seminary did it for you.” But he was working on it. During the morning meditation he prayed to be pure, humble and loving, “the three things my nature militated against. But I trusted God.”
The seminarians were up at 6 in the morning, had Mass in the chapel, ate breakfast at 7:45. There were classes, meditation in the chapel, the rosary every day at 5:15 p.m., spiritual reading at 5:30, silence from 9 p.m. to 7:45 a.m. One Sunday a month was silent until late afternoon. To break silence was a serious infraction; two or three times and you were out. “We were really trained to be monks. We were to bring that spirituality to the world.” The slogan was, “Keep the rule and the rule will keep you.”
A bell set on an electric clock clanged to mark each phase of the day. “We lived by that clock,” Bill says – and by the rules governing when to speak, when to pray, where to go and what to avoid. You were never allowed to enter another student’s room. If you took one step inside, you were expelled. It was forbidden to have “special friendships,” a code word for homosexual relationships.
At St. Joseph and later at St. Patrick, Bill took to working on the grounds. In minor seminary he helped build a dam across the creek. At St. Patrick he and a some four other seminarians cut grass for the football and baseball fields, cut baseball backstops, laid lines in the field for track, painted a barn (which was transformed into a gym), chopped wood and helped construct an outbuilding with four adobe walls and a big fireplace in the center. “We just saw a job to be done and we did it,” he says. “It was looked upon as creative and enterprising. If we did it during rec time instead of sports, it was looked upon as initiative.”
After spending time in class it felt good to work outdoors. One seminarian, a rancher, created a tractor mower out of a Model A with dual tires in back, a rebuilt transmission and motor, and a gear box with 10 gears.
The outdoor crew also took advantage of being out from under the daily round of supervision to smoke, which was forbidden on site. They would visit the carpenter in his basement workshop, and he would give them cigarettes.
Bill and his friends were paid for working on the grounds. They got about 10 cents an hour, and the money was subtracted from the bill, which was $400 a year at the minor seminary (including tuition, room and board) and $700 at St. Patrick. Church subsidies kept the cost low. The O’Donnells helped pay expenses for a couple of years. “Then they couldn’t,” Bill says, “so I worked in the summer.”
He found jobs in construction, where he wielded a pick and shovel and drove trucks. He recalls one foreman who gave him a bad time and a colleague who came to his rescue. Bill was moving rocks and the foreman was harassing him, telling him to go faster. Then, Bill says, “This big black guy came crawling out of a deep ditch over the braces. He was about six foot five; he picks up the foreman and says, ‘You white son-of-a-bitch, if you ever talk to this kid like that again, I’ll tear you apart.’ He was a very black guy; his name was Snow.” The foreman backed off.
At one construction site Bill discovered a girlie calendar and said to himself, “Time for Catholic action.” He took out a knife and cut out the girlie picture. The boss came in, saw what had happened and “ranted and raved.” Bill owned up but he kept his job.
For three summers, from 1952 to 1955, Bill worked at Hannah Center Boys’ Home in Sonoma with “kids who were hoods, kids in incredible bad trouble.” When they went through the courts, they were given a choice of Boys’ Town or Juvenile Hall. Bill was a vacation replacement, and he was pleased to be picked for the job “because the guys who went before me were big, with tough builds, a lot of presence and a sense of humor.”
The kids had suffered abuse, they acted tough. “They taught me they were not really bad,” Bill says. “They just had a terrible upbringing.” Some of them were the children of prostitutes, some learned to steal tips at bars and bring the money home. Bill remembers one “real tough kid with a body like an ape and defiant, but he backed down when I yelled at him” – maybe because the punishment was isolation.
Priests of all stripes
One of the attractions of becoming a priest was feeling special. “You’re held up on a pedestal and all that nonsense.” But in the seminary Bill began to learn that priests were not so different from anyone else. “Some of those guys were nuts, so out of it. They were nice guys, you know, but a couple had a cruel streak in them. Some were wonderful.” When professors lost their tempers he would ask God, “What’s this about?” Then he’d say to himself, “They’re just human.”
The priest professors were all types – gentle, friendly, funny or tough and autocratic. “Some were working their own problems out,” Bill says, and one of them got even when he refused to show the proper deference. “I would ignore him because if you didn’t kowtow to him, he’d almost scowl. My disrespect showed.” One year before ordination the president of the seminary called Bill in and said he couldn’t become subdeacon (the last step before deacon) because he “couldn’t wait to get out of his cassock and into grubby clothes and roar around on a tractor” rather than work for “serious student growth.”
Bill knew it was the priest he had deliberately ignored who did him in because he was the one supervising when he and his friends were working on the grounds. When he heard that he’d been held back, Bill decided that the seminary rule was “an adult agenda to have total control all in the name of God.” He had tried to keep the rule, but then he had been “clipped” by a vindictive priest.
But Bill also had his fans among the faculty. The rector paid for Bill to have dental work, and when Bill took the mail up to him at night, he would keep him talking past 9 p.m., although the rule of lights out and silence was strictly imposed. “He just loved to talk to me, and to this day I don’t know why.” The dean of students, a hard-nosed type who “took glee in catching you,” liked Bill and his outdoor buddies and gave them permission to work on the grounds. He told them, “I would wait for you guys to come up with good ideas and then let you leave the property.”
Other priests from outside the seminary would visit, and Bill admired a number of them. There was Monsignor Bill O’Connor, the head of Hannah Center Boys Home “with a wild man called Tom Regan.” There was Jim Flynn, “totally macho,” and Pete Sammon. “Some good priests came back to visit, so I saw there was life beyond the seminary. I wanted to be like the good guys.”
In minor seminary they had a uniform of white shirt, tie, dark pants and dark sweater. In major seminary they wore cassocks. Their campus in Menlo Park “was so totally isolated. Stanford people would wonder who these black-robed young guys were. We were only allowed to walk into town to buy what we needed. We had a three-hour window of opportunity.”
When he was at St. Joseph’s his family visited every third Sunday. “Mom would make a picnic lunch,” Mary says. “She would make slumgullion and pies, and we would eat dinner in the park. He was always happy when we visited because he got real food and they played baseball.” Seminary food was bland, and they never celebrated birthdays, only Church feast days. The students had two months off in the summer, one day for Thanksgiving, two weeks at Christmas, five days for Easter.
Jim Keeley, who was captain of the basketball, football and baseball teams, was one of Bill’s closest friend in seminary. Another was Jim Walsh, who was more of a scholar. “He would explain things to us,” Bill says. Father Jim Keeley died in 1997. Walsh married and lives in Mariposa, where Bill pays him regular visits and helps work on the grounds.
Close friendships and camaraderie helped the seminarians survive their restricted lifestyle, and Bill formed ties not only with his fellow students but also with saints and philosophers. “I became a great fan of Ste. Therese of Lisieux. She had this incredible test of faith. She suffered desolation for so long, for her last two years.” St. Augustine was another favorite “because he based everything on love, and I was trying to figure out what that meant. Aquinas was incredible, such a mind.” Then there were Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who attract him because of “their incredible insights in meditation.” And Francis of Assisi, a “model as a revolutionary.”
He loved philosophy “because it gave insight into why people do what they do.” He preferred Aristotle and Socrates (“an interesting character”) to Plato. He liked English when they got out of grammar studies and into literature; he loved history though he hated the way it was taught – “like a telephone book.” He also read Diary of a Country Priest and the story of Bernadette of Lourdes in his free time.
“In studies,” Bills says, “a lot depended on the teacher or how much interest I had. I did terrible in Virgil; you had to translate, you had to memorize but with no context. Philosophy and theology – I was fascinated with that. Scripture was awful. It was answers to Ninth Century scholars’ questions.” It only got good the last year in the seminary when someone asked a question about social justice and the priest said, “Let’s see what the Gospel says.” Bill was amazed. “I thought the Gospel was for pious, individual purposes. We never heard really that God is love until Vatican II.”
They had Latin for seven years, Greek for four, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, physics, chemistry, religion (“all doctrine, glorified catechism”), history Church history and Scripture. Scripture consisted of examining controversies: “Were there really miracles? Was Christ really the Son of God? We got all the answerers that Rome gave to these questions.”
“So much of what we studied was unrelated to life. Then Rome had such an iron fist against letting Scripture be opened up and made relevant, but we had to read the Bible at least 20 minutes every day alone, though we didn’t get much out of it.” He also learned to feign interest in a subject. “You asked questions so the teacher thought you were interested and passed you.”
It was all personal piety, no talk of social justice. “We had to kneel to say our prayers – Hail Mary, Our Father, an Act of Contrition. This was being right with God.”
Through it all Bill was working at getting to know God. Even his first year in seminary he had a conversation with God over passing his exams. He said he’d hold the pencil if God would do the writing. But he learned that wasn’t the way. “My own lesson was: ‘God isn’t going to do it for you, Bill. You’ve got to do it for yourself.’ ” But he says, “I knew faith would get me through.”
In minor seminary, at high school level, the seminarians were told that doubt was a temptation of the devil. At college level the teaching became more sophisticated, but the message was that “obedience and loyalty were the premier values.” Bill was starting to question this, especially after he had been denied the rank of subdeacon. “My attitude was: I’ll find it out later. I got to be very good at not revealing myself in front of priests, only the guys.”
Bill remembers seminary as “incredibly unreal and most of the time boring,” but he stuck it out and found himself heading for ordination. “As ordination approached, I was in awe of little me becoming a priest. Thirteen years of struggle to get there. I was 26.” He graduated from St. Patrick’s in 1956; ordination was June 16 at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.
“Ordination day was a thrill of thrills. That was so wonderful. The bishop, the hands, the chalice, life flat on the floor, being blessed by all the priests, giving the first blessing to Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters.” He went through it in a daze. Then he went home for two weeks.