This kind of maneuvering was not unfamiliar to Aherne, and on a much larger stage. By the time of my sophomore year, in 1953, he was embarked on a sophisticated campaign to bring St. Augustine High School into the city’s public-school athletic league, a crusade he waged with clever attention to the egos and appetites of public-school administrators.
Aherne established an annual “Appreciation Night” banquet, staged with elaborate fanfare to persuade public high school coaches and their superiors to allow themselves to be feted with attention and awards for their devotion to the community. Behind it, of course, was the unstated premise that St. Augustine High would be most appreciative if these honored guests would permit the parochial school to compare with their public schools in league play. His effort finally succeeded in 1956.
But then, six years later, at what seemed his apogee, Aherne was removed and sent away. James Donnellon, the North American provincial superior of the Order of St. Augustine, abruptly assigned Aherne (some said banished him) to tiny Merrimack College, in North Andover, Massachusetts.
“All I cherished was destroyed,” Aherne later wrote, “Admittedly, I made my mistakes, but the fate I suffered was unjust.” He declared he had been handed “a sentence of doom.”
At age 49, Aherne had crammed a remarkable number of roles into his priestly life: he was a devoted adapter of Shakespeare, a high school principal and English teacher of commanding presence, a civic leader who sat on boards and commissions, the author of half a dozen stage plays, and a theater director of sometimes imperious moods. But nothing had prepared him for the drama of his sudden dismissal—or for a similar dismissal 13 years later from Merrimack College.
The reasons given for Aherne’s departure from San Diego were deceptively positive: a promotion, an assignment to “practically run” Merrimack as a vice president for academic affairs. The flurry of newspaper articles announcing his new position did not mention that Aherne had been summarily removed from his old one.
At a civic banquet hastily arranged to thank him for his contributions to the community, he spoke of his love for the city and its people and vowed, “if you open up my heart when I die, you will find written there San Diego.”
“Railroaded out” is how Patrick Rice describes Aherne’s transfer by Donnellon. In six years as treasurer at Merrimack College, Rice became one of Aherne’s closest friends. The two priests often vacationed together, in one instance traveling to England, Ireland, and Austria. They attended stage plays in London, visited Rice’s relatives in Dublin, and enjoyed a taste of the good life at the Imperial Hotel in Vienna.
Rice retired in June 1998 as vice president of Villanova University. He says that in San Diego, Aherne was the victim of a plot by a small group of young California-born Augustinian priests.
“Donnellon was looking for votes,” Rice said in a tone of indignation.
The Augustinian order, named for the North African philosopher-saint who lived in the Fifth Century, elects its leaders much as a political party does. The process involves a gathering called a “chapter”,
every three or four years, explained Rice.
What goes on resembles a political convention: delegates (priests) come from throughout the country. The tone is purposeful, and the campus setting of Villanova University is subdued, a far cry from the gaudy civic arenas of New York or San Diego. But the priests’ meeting is driven by the spirit of politics.
“The Delegates from California were gonna swear to give him (Donnellon) their votes if he’d get rid of Father Aherne,” says Rice. “Forgive me, it’s dirty linen, and I don’t like to even talk about it.”
One of the young Turks whose movements helped inspire the ouster was Robert Griswold, a popular instructor who later left the priesthood, married, and is now an English teacher in the public schools in Walnut Creek, east of San Francisco. I remembered Griswold as a witty young professional type who stood in black cassock and, with a disarming twinkle in his eye, read aloud Hemmingway’s story “The Killers” to my junior English class.
Griswold said he’s learned the priestly political process the hard way. At a previous chapter, “I voted for the wrong guy,” he says with a chuckle.
Soon, in what Griswold saw as retribution, he was ordered east to teach at Monsignor Bonner, a new Augustinian-run high school in Philadelphia. Aherne’s role in the transfer seemed paramount. Another teacher, Jeremiah Brown, a wisecracking, crew-cut instructor of drama and speech was shifted to Villanova Prep, a boarding school in Ojai. Sullivan, my English composition teacher, too, was sent to Ojai.
The three men were transferred back to San Diego following Aherne’s removal, completing a cycle of political intrigue that Griswold says grew out of a more fundamental grievance. “We wanted the school to be run more strictly,” he said one night last summer by telephone from Walnut Creek.
“We had ideas that the monastic life was meant to be followed more seriously.”
Another of their targets was Charles Danaher, who took charge of the community life when Aherne assumed a broader role as leader of the Augustinians in California.
With his frequent meetings, often at the Grant Grill, Aherne would be absent from the monastery’s evening meal and prayers. “We understood that,” said Griswold, “but we were worried about other things as well,” including the school’s finances.
Patrick Rice disagrees. “Everybody has to dig up an excuse to get rid of somebody they don’t want. You know that.”
Today Griswold recalls the events that led to Aherne’s transfer with a longer view.
“Looking back, I would have acted differently,” he says
“John Aherne was very intelligent, very kind. I liked him very much,” says Griswold. ‘he had a fine sense of humor. A little sarcastic at times,” he recalls.
In retrospect, Griswold salutes Aherne’s patience.
“That’s what I mean [by saying] he was very kind. He had to put up with all of that from us.”