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Father John Aherne at St. Augustine's

This man in black: Why did they love him? Why did they fire him?

As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me.  He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure.
As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me. He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure.

On a bright October day in 1962, two men stepped from the street into the front yard of a large brick house in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Except for the fact that both wore black (and the house was not for sale), they might have been mistaken for a real estate broker and his client, pausing as they did to gaze at the exterior, the taller man speaking in low tones, the smaller one listening mostly in silence.

By the autumn of 1962, John Aherne’s career was in shambles. A few months earlier, on June 18, he had been summarily replaced as principal of St. Augustine High School.

After a few moments, they rang the doorbell, spoke to the smiling woman who answered, and were invited inside the former home of Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century American poet who spent most of her 55 years of life in the house and wrote all her poems in a single upstairs room.

Bill Mahedy: “Then, at a safe distance, four or five guys would step into a line and walk right behind him with the same big steps.”

As they mounted the stairs, it was clear that the taller one, John Aherne, priest and poet, had come to pay homage.

At six feet five inches and 240 pounds, Aherne filled the room, a shock of jet black hair crowning his broad forehead, tiny scars pocking his cheeks, chin, and neck. (Some never forgot their first sighting: “the beast,” said a fellow priest; “an avenging angel,” said the father of a student; “Frankenstein!” said a former seminarian.) Aherne stood and looked out the window from which the poet had gazed across a field to the house of Austin, her brother, then he turned and looked around the modest room where Dickinson had expressed much of what she valued, verses from which he had taken drafts of pleasure.

Father Aherne in his youth

Later at the cemetery, standing inside an ornate iron fence surrounding the Dickinson family gravesite, he leaned and placed a bouquet of roses, staring down at the headstone:

  • Emily Dickinson
  • 1830-1886
  • Called Home

“He proceeded to have sort of a conversation with her,” recalled his companion, Patrick Rice, a fellow priest working with Aherne in Boston.

A middle-aged Father Aherne

“He recited many of the poems that were his favorites. A few tears were shed, then we headed back to Merrimack College.”

By the autumn of 1962, John Aherne’s career was in shambles. A few months earlier, on June 18, he had been summarily replaced as principal of St. Augustine High School in San Diego, directed, after 20 years, to leave the city in less than two weeks.

Father William Sullivan: One cause for the vote of no confidence was Aherne’s remoteness. He saw Aherne submerged in civic duties, leaving him isolated from many men in the monastery.

Much of San Diego’s establishment was in shock. Over the span of two decades from his campus on Nutmeg Street, Aherne had become good friends and confidant of the establishment, joking and commiserating over drinks and dinner, most often within the sanctum of the Grant Grill. His companions were a male elite, which controlled commerce and politics in a city growing far beyond its roots as a Spanish Mission and American port.

Father John Sanders: "The student body numbered perhaps 350 within five years of Aherne’s arrival. At its height during Aherne’s tenure, it approached 800 students."

With affection and humor, the cigar-smoking Aherne had forged many bonds. His allies came from city government offices, labor temples, corporate boardrooms, newspaper desks, even a bookmaker’s sidewalk. He befriended Protestants and Jews. Although not an athlete, Aherne was nevertheless respected in the sports community, a close friend of the city’s beloved Jack Murphy, the sports editor of the San Diego Union Tribune and a man whose daily column nurtured the city’s dream of major-league sports maturity.

Father Harry Neely: "As a teacher, he was marvelous. He was the master of the put-down, and the kids enjoyed that. He would sink you.”

Because he moved in all these circles, by 1962, with the exception of the bishop, Charles Francis Buddy, John Aherne was the most respected and best-known Catholic in San Diego.

As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me. He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure (the same height and almost the same weight as home-run hitter Mark McGwire) moving across campus in full black regalia, his giant strides straining the buttons that ran down the center of his cassock.

Jackie Carter recalled that Maria Callas was Aherne’s favorite female singer.

Bill Mahedy, a smiling, energetic upperclassman who was later ordained an Episcopal priest, recalls that despite the fear and awe with which Aherne was held, his demeanor was sometimes the object of adolescent scorn.

“You’d see Big John walking these giant steps,” said Mahedy, now a chaplain at Veterans Hospital in San Diego. “Then, at a safe distance, four or five guys would step into a line and walk right behind him with the same big steps.” In short, Aherne was fun to mock, but not to his face, which often held a strained expression of purpose and sourness.

On occasion, Mahedy and his classmates were willing to incur Aherne’s wrath. Once, convinced that their assignments were too rigorous, members of one of Aherne’s class turned in their homework on sheets of toilet paper. Aherne was flustered. A debate ensued. “We called it the tissue issue,” laughs Mahedy.

Others were not so brave. When Aherne called on me in senior English lit, I held my breath. It’s not that I was a poor student. In fact, I enjoyed English Composition, taught by a tall, wiry priest named William Sullivan. In his hands, I found myself writing essays and, in a class competition, winning a tiny two-volume set of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Sullivan, gentle and soft-spoken, encouraged me to write about sports for the school newspaper and convinced me that I had a talent as a writer.

But in Aherne’s presence (he sat at a desk on a raised platform, staring down at students arrayed across five rows), my confidence drained away, and I often froze, uncertain of what to say, especially when I had not fully prepared for the day’s lesson.

In one sphere, however, Aherne proved surprisingly solicitous and friendly. He recruited me to perform in two theater productions. One, Come Slowly, Eden, was an original play that he wrote and directed. The other was a full-scale staging of Hamlet.

Both plays held starring roles for my boyhood friend, Victor Buono, who performed at the Old Globe Theatre while we were still in high school and later became the extremely gifted Hollywood television and screen actor.

Not long after we began rehearsing Hamlet, I realized Aherne had cast me in both plays for a broader purpose; to assure that Victor, who could not drive, would be delivered home to Mission Beach each night after rehearsal. Seeing that I drove a car and lived in nearby Pacific Beach, Aherne concluded that I was uniquely qualified to play the role of Rosencrantz.

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.”

Upon his transfer back to St. Augustine High, Griswold became the school’s financial officer, or procurator. The institution was about $40,000 in debt, he says. “All I did was raise tuition.” This solution had been strongly opposed by Aherne’s adversaries in the monastery. But on the heels of Aherne’s ouster, Griswold and Patrick Keane, Aherne’s successor as principal, were given more latitude. The tuition hike was accepted and the school’s finances were restored.

In the end, more than a few who knew him agree that Aherne was not skilled at directing the budgetary operations of the community. Aherne himself recognized his limits in 1981: “Mathematics was—and is—my nemesis.”

“He wasn’t good at handling money,” says Griswold. “He had no interest [in finance]. He was interested in why you couldn’t understand his plays.”

“He wasn’t a grubber,” says John Glynn, a startlingly spry 85-year-old who teaches four Latin classes a day at Villanova Prep in Ojai. Glynn attended seminary with Aherne and knew him for more than 50 years. “He didn’t enjoy the things you have to do to raise money.”

Thirty-six years later, the seeds of dismissal are still delicate, too private for Aherne’s successor, Patrick Keane, to discuss fully and openly with and outsider.

White-haired, wearing black trousers and a black-gray pullover, Keane sits in a chair beside a gray metal filing cabinet in the rectory at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai. It is night in the mountains above the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles north of Ventura.

Aherne arrived in Ojai in 1939, a tall, skinny new priest sent west after her ordination and a year’s study at Catholic University in Washington D.C., where he received a master’s degree in English. His three years at Villanova Prep, a small boarding school, were his first taste of teaching.

In 1942, he was transferred to San Diego, where William Sullivan and Patrick Keane were among his first students, “He looked like Lincoln,” says Sullivan, “He was so painfully thin.” Ultimately says Keane, Aherne helped him become a priest. Working behind the scenes, Aherne overcame objections to Keane’s poor eyesight, which threatened to prevent his acceptance by the religious order.

Keane has a relaxed air. His life has taken interesting turns. After serving a principal of St. Augustine High for 13 years, he moved to various positions within the religious community, finally becoming assistant general for the North American provinces at the Vatican, one of the top worldwide positions within the Augustine order.

“John, of course, was a great man about town,” says Keane, choosing his words with care. “Now that’s a hard role to play, a hard role to drop into the midst of a religious community.”

Keane parries questions about the reason for the ouster. Keane’s job, upon succession, was to heal the rift within the monastery. “I think there was a sense that John had been had,” he says. “And the faction that got him was still in the house.”

One day in 1979, on the campus of Merrimack College, John Aherne chatted with John Sanders, an earnest young historian and priest who was teaching at Villanova Prep in Ojai. Sanders, who became a principal of St. Augustine High nine years later, was researching the story of the Augustine order in California. A tape recorder was rolling as they talked.

“The man who really had the ultimate authority,” said Aherne of the 1960s, “was…Donnellon. [He] had no sympathy whatever for the independence of California. As a matter of fact, I think he kind of thought it was a personal affront that we were trying to operate somewhat independently of him.”

Aherne insisted that Donnellon, his superior in the Augustinian order and one time president of Villanova University, had reneged on an arrangement to help finance the San Diego school. “There was an agreement,” Aherne told Sanders. “For four years we were to receive [a] $25,000-a-year subsidy from the Eastern province,” Only the first two installments were made, then nothing. “They were ignored,” Aherne said. “That was under Jim Donnellon.”

Seventeen years later, Aherne was still irate. “I protested, but it didn’t do any good. There was no possibility of expansion. We were undermanned for the places we had. It would have been folly to have taken on anything.”

Aherne’s despair was well founded. The order, headquartered at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was investing heavily in the East but neglecting the West. The small vice province of California, which Aherne was assigned to head as provincial superior in 1959, was left to struggle. It encompassed only three parishes, three elementary schools, and two high schools, yet it was engulfed by a growing population. The 1950’s Southern California real estate boom was in full swing.

“We needed men. We needed them desperately, “There was no real belief in the future of California,” said Aherne. Meanwhile, he noted, dozens of newly ordained Augustinians, some from the West, had been assigned to teach at two eastern high schools run by the order in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

Of the Augustine order’s approach to burgeoning California, said Aherne to Sanders: “it was just indifference. They didn’t give a damn.”

As I listened to Aherne’s voice, I thought back 40 years to the quiet conversations I’d had as a senior at St. Augustine High. Several priests gently tested my interest in a “vocation.” This was the term used to describe a decision to pursue a life in priesthood.

Several classmates answered the call and entered the seminary. But most did not. It was a trend that accelerated after our departure. And it explains an effort Aherne undertook in sheer desperation—to his lasting regret.

“I did something he [Donnellon] didn’t like,” Aherne conceded to Sanders, “And this is very important, because it had a lot to do with my future.”

As Aherne described it, he was determined to replenish the dwindling supply of teacher-priests, so he took an audacious step: “I went to Europe,” he said, “to Ireland, Spain, and Holland, looking for volunteers to work in California.

“I didn’t succeed at anything in Holland,” Aherne’s voice rose slightly, broken by an occasional cough. “The Irish province sent us one. Now the Spanish province would have sent us four. But in the meantime, Donnellon blocked the thing.”

Aherne summed up: “That was kind of the crossing of the Rubicon with Donnellon.” After that Aherne knew there was little hope and assumed, he said, that at Donnellon’s hand, his days were numbered as leader of the California vice province.

Those final days in California were also clouded by a rebuke from his fellow priests on Nutmeg Street. Aherne’s budget from the high school, ordinarily approved without question by the members of the monastery, was rejected. Aherne was deeply offended.

One cause for the vote of no confidence was Aherne’s remoteness, suggests William Sullivan. The son of a Brooklyn-born Colorado cowboy, Sullivan became one of San Diego’s first native-born priests to teach at St. Augustine High. He saw Aherne submerged in civic duties, leaving him isolated from many men in the monastery. Sullivan was not the only one to notice.

Harry Neely, a favored student of Aherne’s before Neely’s graduation in 1945, returned to the classroom as a priest in 1957.

"As a teacher, he was marvelous,” says Nelly. He was the master of the put-down, and the kids enjoyed that. “He would sink you,” Nelly recalls, meaning Aherne would find an appropriate sarcasm to fit the tone or thrust of a student’s remark, then submerge him with gentle ridicule.

‘When I came back to Saints as a priest, he was the boss then. He affected a very…gruff, lordly manner. Imperious. He’d stride around with that cigar. Frightened people. Kids were scared of him.”

Neely says he believes Aherne was hiding his true feelings, convinced that he needed an authoritarian image to deal with students. Before, says Neely, “with those who liked him—you know, he had favorites—he was very charming and soft spoken, just affectionate.”

But there had been a clue to the new Aherne. It emerged shortly before young Neely’s departure from seminary in 1945. “I was surprised. One day he asked me to wait after school. We just walked the patio for an hour. He was kind of sharing some of his feelings, you know. I was dumbfounded. He was talking about the disappointments of being friendly.”

Neely says Aherne told him, “ ‘You befriend somebody, and the befriended one lets you down.’ And he said something to this effect: ‘I’m not going to be that way anymore.’ And I said, ‘Aw, no, you can’t.’ ” To Neely, Aherne was steeling himself against future displays of friendship.

On a breezy spring afternoon in 1953, a few months before the end of the Korean War, two crew-cut young men in white shorts and skintight T-shirts warmed up on a dusty gray tennis court at St. Augustine High School.

The court was in poor shape: cracks ran across lines, weeds appeared inconveniently. A dozen or so young men crouched and leaned against the chain-link fence. Most wore Khaki pants and cream warm-up jackets trimmed in purple and gold, the school colors.

Leonard Burt, the school’s chain-smoking tennis coach, announced, “We are honored today to have two of the country’s finest players visiting our campus.”

Indeed, within a few months, one of the players, the muscular Tony Trabert of Cincinnati, would win the national tennis championship at Forest Hills. His opponent this day, Herbie Flamm of Beverly Hills, scrawny by comparison, was a top player in Southern California and nationally ranked. By the grace of Pentagon personnel officers, both were assigned to Navy units in San Diego.

Trabert, with pinpoint serve, won the exhibition, but it was a freewheeling match, and the students applauded ferociously. Coach Burt, wearing a tan cap and peering through wire rimmed glasses, was visibly pleased. He had arranged the appearances of two superstars from a sport which St. Augustine had a truly outstanding team. (Later that year, led by six-time Ink Tournament champion Franklin Johnson and Jack Movido, the team reached the Southern California Interscholastic Federation playoff semifinals, competing against teams from much larger schools in Long Beach, South Pasadena, Beverly Hills, and San Marino.)

For Trabert, whose career ultimately led to victory on Centre Court at Wimbledon as well as to royal pavilions and posh country clubs all over the world, it must have been one of the odder exhibitions.

In 1953, the St. Augustine campus on Nutmeg Street, surrounded by an ocean of small residences, was a jolt of urban reality; an old football practice field, scarred and slashed from the previous season’s scrimmages, sat across from a gleaming new gymnasium; to one side, two long, white, single-story classroom buildings sailed forth on a sea of newly laid black asphalt. A sunken dirt field had been scarped level and was awaiting assignments to intramural sports.

If Trabert looked south, he could see students crossing a city street that cut imperiously through the heart of the campus, established in 1922. Carrying books, some wearing purple and gold beanies, they sauntered on to a quadrangle with a flagpole. On one side were classrooms for mechanical drawing, chemistry, and physics. Directly across sat a long white chapel. A small library and a clutch of administrative offices formed another side of the quad. Across from them, a broad walkway led past the flagpole to the street.

These precincts were the ambit of students and faculty. Only a favored few students were admitted to the monastery, a long, two-story white building to the east of the chapel. Today only a few priests live there, but in the 1950s, it housed nearly a dozen clerics. It was their refuge from the rigors of the classroom.

The monastery was a nerve center: a series of simple bedrooms, a few small offices, a large kitchen, a dining area, and an upstairs meeting space that medieval monks would have called a cloister, which was simply the living room of the establishment. Here the faculty would assemble and discuss the business of teaching several hundred young men growing up in the age of Elvis.

Inside these monastery walls, John Aherne’s life took a remarkable turn of fortune on a late summer evening in 1953. An act of God catapulted him from a gangly 41-year-old English teacher and dean of studies to the leader of the school and its community.

That night, within hours after arriving by car from Philadelphia, the school’s newly appointed principal, John Sparrow, a scholarly man with white hair, died peacefully, sitting in a chair.

“We had just watched the Pabst Blue Ribbon Fights,” said John Glynn. “I think it was a Friday night.” Glynn had bid the newcomer Sparrow good night and walked down the street to a house he shared with his mother. Forty-five minutes later, about 8:30 p.m., he said, “There was a knock on the door. I answered it.” A fellow priest, David Ryan, reported: “Father Sparrow is dead.”

With classes starting within a few days, there were hurried consultations with Augustinian headquarters in Villanova, Pennsylvania. By November, “Aherne was picked,” said Glynn, his eyes seeming to settle in the distance of 45 years. “He was the clear choice. Scholar. Competent.”

Aherne accepted the task with customary directness. In their yearbook, he wrote to graduating seniors: “Providence, which the ignorant call destiny, placed me in the position of leadership.”

Glynn became his vice principal and remained the school’s disciplinarian. For nine years, the two men guided the school’s fortunes in tandem. Aherne was the public face and big-picture advocate, Glynn the nuts-and-bolts inside operations man.

Aherne took charge of St. Augustine at the end of an expansion engineered by his predecessor, John Gallagher, a troubleshooter who had resolved a difficult financial situation at Villanova Prep, the Augustinian boarding school in Ojai.

After coming to San Diego in 1947, Gallagher settled a feud between the Augustinians and the Diocese of San Diego, whose leader Bishop Charles Francis Buddy, had restricted Augustinian fundraising in a dispute over the order’s property holdings. Within months of Gallagher’s arrival, the issue was resolved.

“Gallagher was more of a public relations guy,” says Fred Kinne, a retired San Diego newspaper editor who was friendly to the school. Kinne, city editor of the Evening Tribune in 1956, conducted afternoon tennis clinics at Morley Field for many St. Augustine players. When tennis coach Burt suddenly decided to leave the priesthood and move to San Francisco, Kinne, aware that the departing priest had no savings, pulled money out of his pocket to help Burt relocate.

Kinne watched both Gallagher and Aherne operate as the school’s principal. Gallagher “got everybody on his side through his personality. He was a glad-hander type. Aherne was more of a dominant figure,” says Kinnne, “and people enjoyed being around him for his intellectual capacity. He could talk on any subject.”

As principal, Aherne moved center stage, joining boards and commissions, gaining the school entry into city sports leagues, taking a key role on the Chamber of Commerce committee that lobbied the University of California regents to establish a campus in San Diego.

While Aherne was raising the school’s (and his) profile in the community, he was also raising academic standards in the classroom. On campus he created an Academic Excellence Committee, developed a seniors’ course in Western Civilization, wrote a syllabus for an honors course in English, and directed more than a dozen plays on a vast portable stage he had constructed and installed in the gymnasium.

Ahearn’s actions expressed a vision of scholars dedicated to the search for truth, a concept that brings smiles to the faces of his successors.

In the 1940s, says Patrick Keane, Aherne’s successor, St. Augustine High School “was a rinky-dink operation out there on the edge of town, and [yet] for him [Aherne], it was Cambridge and Harvard.” Keane smiles, then begins to laugh: “And you had the sense that what he was involved in passing on was the grandeur of Rome and Greece.”

The contrast between students in ragged clothes and the school’s demanding standards was stark: “This was a nondescript batch of kids that would show up there every September,” recalls Keane, who numbers himself among them.

But whatever he thought of their station in life, Aherne treated their scholastic resources as a top priority. On his arrival in 1942, the library collection consisted, by Aherne’s own count, of 356 books locked in a cabinet. “When I left,” he told an interviewer proudly, “there were over 7000.” The St. Augustine High School library (renamed the father John. R. Aherne Library in 1980) became the envy of larger public high schools. Tragically, a fire has destroyed portions of the collection.

The size of the growing library paralleled the growth of the school itself. According to John Sanders, the order’s historian and current St. Augustine principal, the student body numbered perhaps 350 within five years of Aherne’s arrival. At its height during Aherne’s tenure, it approached 800 students. “It was way too overcrowded,” says Sanders, “you wouldn’t want a school that size.” Today, St. Augustine High shares the territory with University High and admits about 600 students.


The Perkiomen valley is about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, a leisurely drive up Highway 29, winding through the rural townships of Rahns (population 800), Graterford (870), and Schwenksville (1320).

To the Southwest lies Valley Forge National Historic Park. To the east, across U.S. Highway 476, Bucks County reaches the banks of the Delaware River as it flows south to its date with history. On Christmas night, 1776, George Washington and his troops crossed the River in a Snowstorm at McKonkey’s Ferry (now called Washington Crossing) and marched south. Within nine days, they defeated Hessian and British troops in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, which turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.

Outside Zieglersville, Pennsylvania (population 900), under a blue-gray sky, cornfields stretch toward the horizon, a jumble of golden stalks bent and broken, then neatly trimmed rows of brown stubble lead toward a green line of cedars announcing a creek.

On Little Road, at a one-story green shingle house, a tall, casually dressed man answers the door. Henry Ockershausen, a retired pharmaceutical-company engineer, is helpful, and curious. I have called to ask for directions to a nearby farmhouse where his mother, Nettie, lived with her family in the 1920’s.

As we ride north along a country road, I ask Ockershausen if his mother ever spoke of her friendship with a young man named John Aherne. “No, I don’t recall,” he says. But soon, after pointing out his mother’s former home and hearing more about the Aherne family, which lived nearby, he remembers: “I believe I went with my mother to a reception for him many years ago.” It was to celebrate Ahern's 25th anniversary as a priest.

Ockershausen’s mother, Nettie Hertl, was a twin. She and her sister, Hattie, and their three brothers were the children of Otto and Amelia Hertl, a Pennsylvania Dutch couple whose property adjoined Cedar Crest Farm, owned by John and Anna Dolores Aherne.

Ahern’s parents settled in the Perkiomen Valley in 1911, a year before his birth, on July 18, 1912. But their fledgling poultry business suffered two disadvantages: Neither husband nor wife was experienced at farming, and it was a long journey to market, too far to deliver fresh eggs and chickens and return to the valley in a day. There were no automobiles, only horse-drawn carriages.

When Aherne was four, the family moved into the city. “I think it was so he could attend good schools,” says his oldest sister, Consuelo Maria, who was a year old at the time. “I think it was more that they were not doing well on the farm,” said Jeanne Aherne, one of his two younger sisters. Jeanne and Maria, were born in the city and never lived at Cedar Crest.

But young Jack, as the family called him, traveled back to the valley every summer to stay with the Hertls, beginning when he was ten years old. “I retuned with the reverence of a pilgrim visiting a holy place,” he says, “Every field in the valley was lined with cedars,” he wrote in 1978, “and their scent to this day carries me back to childhood with an immediate sense, not memory.”

The Hertl farmhouse, a two-story, white stone structure (its first section was built in 1795), sits at the end of a curved gravel driveway that has been lightly rutted by the wheels of tractors and pickup trucks.

As we pull up along the main road above the house, Henry Ockershausen points to the small black mailbox perched on a tree stump. White letters read: “Sims-Young.”

Later, after dropping Ockershausen off at his house, where he promises to look for a picture of his mother, I drive back to the Hertl property. She lives with her grown son, Robert, a financial-services-company employee, and his five-year-old daughter Shaliesha.

A disastrous fire destroyed the Hertl barn and several out-buildings years ago, before her father became the owner, Rosalie Young explains. “It’s all changed,” she says, unwilling to show a visitor the upstairs rooms.

“I can still remember,” wrote Aherne, “waking up on my first morning at the farm with a feeling that the wood-slatted white ceiling was the roof of heaven.”

As a summer and weekend guest, Aherne seems to have led a charmed existence. The Hertls welcomed him for weeks at a time, and, by his account, partially exempted him from the workaday chores of farm life.

“He was a terrible tease,” recalls Betty Barr, a white-haired neighbor whose house is up the road. But even by his midteen years, she says, “everybody knew he was going to be a priest, he was always carrying his prayer book or a Bible.”

Still, this presumed religious calling did not stop him from harassing Barr, a few years younger. Once, she says, he drove a small flock of pesky peacocks to the door of her family’s outhouse, trapping her inside.

“I said, ‘How can you expect to be a priest and do that!’” she smiles, sitting at her kitchen table wearing a ribbed beige turtleneck sweater streaked with attractive narrow lines of blues and reds. “I don’t think I was aware that he was fond of Nettie,” she says, “but I was younger.”

As we sit at the table, I hand Barr a thin paperback copy of A Kind of Fidelity, Aherne’s autobiography, published in 1978. I have opened it to a section in which Aherne describes the sisters.

“Hattie was vivacious, loud, mischievous. She had dark eyes and hair, a pronounced jaw, and dark skin. Nettie was fair, with delicate features and blue eyes which always seemed sad to me. She was quiet, grave, shy.”

At age 14, Aherne professes, “I loved them both but in very different ways. Hattie was a dominant force in my pre-adolescent days; Nettie would be an introduction to the new life.”

Young Jack Aherne, self-described romantic and dreamer, falls slowly and deeply in love with Nettie. “I worked alongside [her] in the fields, fed the stock beside her, watched her move quietly about the kitchen and listened to the soft voice…”

As the summer of 1926 progressed, the two found themselves growing closer and closer: “When it was that the new feeling stole into our lives I do not know,” he writes. “I have no recollection of how I knew that she loved me with the same ardor as that which possessed me. But I knew.”

Around them, the Hertl farm was alive with cows, chickens, field-workers, and the children—four young men and women—now approaching maturity.

“It was not easy to achieve privacy…but somehow we found moments to share; a touching of hands, a long look where soul cried out to soul. And on the tossing hay wagon swaying high above the ground I found the lips I loved and the opulent sweet breasts. No word of love was spoken, only what an embrace said. I remember the sad blue eyes searching mine at such moments. Sometimes I think they were pleading: don’t ever deceive me or I’ll die.”

Aherne describes the joys of two budding young lovers: “Foolish children, neither of us knew life with its burden of sadness and loss. We huddled together, locked in our little world of love…. Though Nettie was several years older, she knew no more of the world of men and women than I did. Perhaps that is why we brought to our passion the freshness of a new creation, another Adam and Eve untouched by the knowledge of good and evil.”

At summer’s end, Aherne returned to Philadelphia and the two began writing “anguished letters,” he says, looking toward reunion at Christmas or the following June. ‘The separation, painful as it was, made the day of return a gift of God, and the moment when we were free to hold each other once more seemed a new discovery of all those things we had learned to cherish in each other.”

One sunny Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1928, the two were alone in the house for several hours. A strange stillness settled over the second floor. He writes: “I sat in my room, acutely aware that in her part of the house Nettie was alone too…. Not only was I conscious that I wanted to be with her in a way I had never been, but my instinct told me that she was contending with this notion too.”

But then, in a moment of pain and uncertainty, Jack Aherne faced an epiphany: “My feelings were in turmoil, but I knew that renunciation was my course.”

To describe his renunciation of physical love solely in these bare terms, as I am doing here, is to deprive it of its sweetness and poignancy, yet a reader of his autobiography understands his decision.

“Was it fear of possible consequences?” Aherne asked himself. “Perhaps,” he answered, “but there was more than fear. Long moral training and an unarticulated but real feeling for the place of God in my life played a part. Beyond these was an inchoate, only half understood, conviction; the fulfillment of love was not for me.”

Within a year, Aherne says, “I had made the essential decision of my life and started out on the long road to the priesthood.”

But he never forgot his first love and the Hertl family. In 1929, Otto Hertl committed suicide, when, in devastating succession, disease destroyed his herd of pigs, fire decimated the farm, and his finances gave out. Learning of his death, Aherne, 17, and his parents returned to the farm to offer condolences. It was the last time he and Nettie saw each other for 34 years, until he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest, in 1963.

Ten years later, when his sister Jeanne told Aherne that Nettie had died: “I went into another room,” he wrote, “where the tears could flow unnoticed for the woman I loved so long ago.” Aherne fantasized in poetry about the road not taken. In one poem, called “Omaha Beach, I Owe You a Death,” he speaks of “the landscape of love remembered” and writes:

  • I recall the abashed young
  • Man now a stranger,
  • Who waited as she moved
  • In white splendor
  • Up the aisle to meet me at the altar steps
  • Sparkling like ruby of the wine of Cana

“Someone might call him a religious freak,” says Sister Marion Aherne, his youngest sibling, looking back on their childhood. “At 15 or 16, he was arrested for breaking into a school and saying a pretend Mass.”

Sister Marion and her sisters tell the story as we sit in the paneled dining room of Jefferson House, a dimly lit restaurant on the edge of a small pond in a suburb of Philadelphia. The sisters are devoted admirers of Jack, as they call their brother. They delight in recalling family theatrical productions he staged with them as willing actors, their parents the willing audience.

Today, Sister Consuelo, now 83, and Jeanne, 80, remember that one night their brother entered a boarded-up building at St. Francis of Assisi High School, which had been closed. He and two friends (both later became priests as well) set up a makeshift altar.

“People saw a light and called the police,” says Sister Marion, 77. After their arrest, the three young men were taken before a judge at the town hall police station. When Jack explained their mission, says Marion, “the judge told them never to enter someone else’s property.” They were sent home to their parents.

“He also went to Mass at almost every Catholic church in the Philadelphia area,” said Jeanne some weeks earlier. “He was interested in the different parishes.” His curiosity, she says, was about how different orders of priests within the Catholic faith approached worship. Aherne was searching for a religious home, suggests Jeanne.

Early in this century, the City of Brotherly Love was an incubator of religious vocations. It was filled with Catholic churches and a zealous spirit of dedication to spiritual matters. This was not unrelated to the struggle of the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants to move upward in life. As in many cities, three reliable paths to prosperity for young Catholic Irish-American men in Philadelphia were the police, politics, and the priesthood.

The Augustinians were established in the United States in Philadelphia by Irish priests who arrived in the 1790s. Once in the New World, the Augustinians placed their headquarters in Villanova, not far from where the Ahernes lived.

The order was a major influence in the Catholic life of the region. Founded in Italy in 1244, the Augustinians are one of four major communities begun in the Middle Ages whose members renounce ownership of property and rely on charity. (Among other so-called mendicant orders are the Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans.)

The Aherne family abounded with priests and nuns. Four maternal aunts were nuns. Two cousins, James and Joseph Flaherty, were priests. Two of Aherne’s sisters were nuns (Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia). Religious dedication and service were family values for the young Aherne children.

Aherne’s father, John Sr., was the son of an Irish immigrant. Aherne’s mother, Anna, was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. The Ahernes were among tens of thousands of Irish ancestry drawn to Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. According to Jeanne Aherne, her parental grandfather had worked as the chief gardener for Lord Midleton in the Irish town called Midleton, about 125 miles southwest of Dublin, in County Cork, where her father was born.

The Philadelphia neighborhoods to which they moved are long changed with blight and decay. Walking and driving between addresses in the Germantown section, a visitor gets a partial glimpse of the modest circumstances in which the Ahernes lived.

At 5036 Wade Street, a plywood board blocks a view inside the front window. The porch displays the results of improving fortunes: above two Adirondack-style chairs and a green trash bin, a pointed arch rises over what was the Ahernes’ doorway. It is covered by a fresh coat of pale green paint.

As I open my car door and stand to take a snapshot, a loud voice sounds behind me: ‘Hey, what you doin’ takin’ a picture of my house?” I click off a shot and turn to face an angry expression. A young black man, hands on hips, glares at a neighborhood intruder. “I’m taking the picture of the house where a Catholic priest who later became a college president lived when he was a boy,” I say, the words bursting out. “Oh, really?” the young man says in a tone of surprise and delight. The moment passes. I drive away.

Nearby, I look inside the gate of the Germantown Cricket Club, for 150 years one of the city’s hallowed sports grounds a d the site of a yearly national senior grass-court tennis tournament. The club is an island of gentility, its manicured lawns filling a vast compound of privilege that the Ahernes could not afford. “We did not go there,” says Sister Consuelo.

At 4613 Greene Street, a narrow wooden house presents a fading beige façade crowned by a white-framed bay window and a twin-pillared porch. A hedge runs along the sidewalk. The shades are drawn over the past and present. Traffic streams along Green Street, winding toward central Philadelphia, passing churches, grocery stores, a library.

To the east, the Aherne house at 2116 Haines Street has vanished. The state tore down the entire row of houses recently and erected a long gray cement-block building. A red-and-white sign proclaims job services for the inner city under a program sponsored by more than of dozen community groups as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“I remember men standing around smoking in the morning there,” says Sister Consuelo, who admits to picking up discarded butts at age three and pretending to take a puff. Jack Aherne started school while the family lived on Haines Street, which was in the heart of a densely populated section of Philadelphia.


One Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1979, a tall, bespectacled nun with rosy cheeks sat alone watching television in a room in the mother house of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia. The house sits on the campus of Chestnut Hill College, a small liberal arts school on the outskirts of the city.

On the TV screen was a program featuring Pope John Paul II. “At one point,” recalls Sister Consuelo, “the Holy Father, stood up, and there, on a desk, were three thick volumes bound in white. I said, ‘Ohhh! He’s using it in the papal office.’”

Soon, the phone began to ring. With sparking eyes, Sister Consuelo, now a retired history professor and editor, remembers the voices and excitement of nearly a dozen callers. “They asked: ‘Did you see the Holy Father?’ ‘Did you see the dictionary?’” Most were colleagues who had helped her compile a reference work over a 13-year period. “We were so happy. We couldn’t get over it.”

The dictionary was the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, a monumental compendium of more than 20,000 entries. Filling 3815 pages, in three volumes, it weighs a staggering 14 pounds. All but one of the 5000 printed copies were bound in red. Sister Consuelo had placed a papal copy bound in white leather in the hands of Pope John Paul II at a special audience in Rome that summer.

What makes the publication remarkable beyond its size and scope is that it is the product of an intense collaboration between three members of the Aherne family: Sister Consuela Aherne, who served as coeditor; Jeanne Aherne Brady, the managing editor; and John Aherne, an associate editor and one of the dictionary’s prime contributors. Between 1975 and 1979, Jack Aherne wrote an astonishing stream of articles.

His entries begin with a concise 63-line history of Belgium (“The Concordat of 1801 brought temporary truce, but Napoleon’s insistence on making fidelity to the empire a religious duty lost him ultimately the favor of the Belgian bishops and people….”) and end with a terse 11-line sketch of Frederick James Zwierlein (1881-1960), a Rochester, N.Y., priest-historian and author of “…a pioneer work in the field of American church history.”

In 1018 entries, the most of any contributor, Jack Aherne covered an extraordinary eclectic mix of subjects and topics. He wrote biographies, from the obscure: (Swiss novelist Heinrich Federer) to the exalted (De Gaulle, Flaubert, Lenin, and Spengler). He summed up the literary achievements of Anthony Trollope and Ben Jonson. He described a master work of literature, the celebrated Gilgamesh Epic (“…most ancient epic known to man, dates to 3d millennium…long narrative centers on hero-king Uruk…brooding man whose preoccupation with mortality and a search for immortality reflects a society long buried and forgotten…”). About the Canterbury Tales, he was analytical (“one of the great poems of the English language…distinguished by poetic power, humor, compassion, and, above all, a realism that accepts good or bad for what they are”).

In a series of brief entries, Aherne defined dozens of terms of religious practice, especially nomenclature, including, for example, the Holy See (“…a term used to designate the residence and the authority of the Pope”) and First Friday (“…an observance based on the promises of Our Lord…that unusual graces would come to those who received communion on nine successive first Fridays of the month”).

There are glimpses into the history of ideas: “The word Utopia,” Aherne wrote, “was the creation of St. Thomas More in the 16th Century and means literally ‘no place’ but can also designate ‘good place’.’” He walked the trenches of religious conflict: “Recusant Poets,” he wrote, were “the large group of English Catholic poets and dramatists” who contributed to English literature in the 16th and 18th Centuries “when to profess Catholicism was to draw down disapproval of society, and in many instances, persecution, exile or death.”

“Jack would suggest…his own assignments,” says Sister Consuelo, sitting in a conference room at St Joseph Villa, a modern retirement home in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, a small community about a mile east of Chestnut Hill College.

Aherne was one of 591 contributors whose words were edited and prepared for publication by a staff that eventually totaled nearly 60 nuns, Aherne’s youngest sister, Sister Marion Aherne, worked as a teacher in the same community of nuns.

The dictionary was begun in 1966 at CTHOLIC University in Washington, D.C., where Sister Consuelo had been an assistant editor for medieval church history on another reference work, the New Catholic Dictionary. By 1973, its funding exhausted, Corpus Publications, staffed by dozens of priests and nuns, was on the verge of disbanding. Sister Consuelo persuaded her order’s superior general to accept the dictionary’s working manuscript (already comprising about 11,000) entries) as a gift. The Sisters of St. Joseph moved the work to Philadelphia, where a new cadre formed to finish the project.

Sic years later, “The [completed] books arrived on Good Friday,” says Sister Consuelo. There were in hundreds of brown boxes, and the mother superior immediately seized the moment: “Good,” she told Consuelo, “we have the perfect excuse not to observe our Friday evening vow of silence.” This set off animated dinner conversations about who had written what and where and how the books would be distributed.

“We sold them for $69 a copy,” says Jeanne Brady. “We covered our costs,” says Sister Consuelo, “which eased certain, ah, anxiety in the community.” Many had doubted the order would be able to complete the work or assumed that its publication would create financial disaster.

With the Aherne crew at work, they need not have worried. The 5000 copies of the dictionary, renamed the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, sold out almost immediately, finding their ways to parish rectories, convent libraries, and colleges and universities.

To scan its pages today is to take a rare glimpse into John Aherne’s rigorous scholarship. Still, the grind took its toll. He mistakenly believed (and wrote) that he had published “more than 1300 articles” in the dictionary. ‘Though I strove for accuracy in all that I wrote, I must confess,” wrote Jack Aherne, “the quality of my writing varied.”

While many of Aherne’s contributions are incisive and sharp, some seem pedantic. Of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), he wrote of his major work: “…Canto Nuovo demonstrated the qualities of pagan sensuousness, not to say decadence, which would mark his later work.”

Aherne described the French composed Claude Debussy (1862-1918) as “…a man of volatile character and numerous love affairs…” And Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) believed, wrote Aherne, “the one important thing was the creation of beauty in writing.” The novelist wrote “…a consuming hatred of bourgeois mind, not only middle class but all mediocrity, [which] cast him often in an anti-religious role, but sun an astute Catholic critic as Francois Mauriac regarded him as a mystic manqué.”

Some of his measurements of political figures are merely conventional: “John F. Kennedy…brought the presidency wit, intelligence, and grace.” His estimation of Linin (“…the most influential political thinker and statesman of the 20th Century…”) has b en overtaken by history. His description of Andre Malraux (“”…a life of high adventure…”) seems merely ordinary, but his portrait of Charles De Gaulle hits a chord (“Irritation as he was to English and American leaders, he exhibited an almost mystical sense of French greatness and destiny”).

Among his specialties, Aherne wrote a 323-line historical review of the Catholic Church in Latin America. But his heart seemed most deeply committed to the artists. He described the lives of many poets, including his beloved Emily Dickinson (“…she deliberately clothed herself in mystery, out of which came only unsatisfactory hints of three overpowering loves, her gnomic, brief utterances condense a vision that see the world, death, immortality in almost shocking clarity. Her poetic vision has a gait that at first disturbs but ultimately fascinates…”).

He could reel off lines of blunt description. Of G.K. Chesterton: “as a student C. displayed a curious mixture of indolence and brilliance… [He] wrote more than one wishes he had attempted, but in that mass of published work, there lies the unmistakable track of a man of genius.”

Not only was Aherne the most prolific writer for the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, he helped recruit many religious scholars who agreed to tackle subjects. One of the most remarkable entries, however, came from his sister, Consuelo.

In a six-page history of the papacy, she described the turmoil within the modern church over birth control, celibacy, obedience; and the right of free inquiry, then concluded: “The prestige of the papacy has suffered a sharp decline…the Church in the late 20th Cent. Faces cruel dilemmas: more anguish than certitude, more losses than gains, more hope than happiness.”


Now, I beseech you, brethren by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. —St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:10)

Thirteen years after leaving San Diego, Aherne found himself removed again from a position of authority, this time from the presidency of Merrimack College, to which he had been assigned in 1962 as academic vice president. He was chosen president in 1968 and helped enlarge and run the small college, which today has about 2800 students.

Founded by Augustinians in North Andover, Massachusetts, in 1947, Merrimack was still a raw place with few trees when Aherne arrive in 1962, according to John Obert, a former student who manages the school’s alumni relations office.

Today, its 220-acre campus is graced by stately trees and ample greenery, a sculpture of Robert Frost, a reflecting pool traversed by the replica of the first iron bridge in America, and a brace of modern structures, including a large library and a huge sports activity center.

At one end of Aherne Avenue rises a redbrick church, its white steeple announcing a cluster of smaller buildings. At the other end of the avenue, the street empties into a vast parking lot for the sports center, named for Peter Volpe, a benefactor with who Aherne worked to raise money...

“If John Aherne had had a fabulous development staff, “says Jim Greeley, a former student, “he’d have been president for many, many years.” Greeley was a student president during Aherne’s tenure and worked in business before returning to direct Merrimack’s Career Services and Cooperative education program.

Looking back at Aherne’s failures as a fund-raiser, Greeley concludes they were not entirely Aherne’s fault. College president Aherne’s staff consisted of a secretary, a pert-time alumni director, and a development officer. Today, the school employs 30 people to do the work of soliciting money for projects and new buildings and finding extra funds to help run the campus.

“You want your president to go after the big donors,” says Greeley, “not the smaller ones. He should not be dealing with people who might contribute a few thousand dollars.”

Finances were always difficult, but Aherne and staff managed to keep the college afloat until 1975, when a sudden doubling of energy costs threw the school’s budget into the red for a second year. Even though rising costs were not unusual amid shortened fuel supplies, Merrimack’s board demanded his dismissal.

The school’s shaky finances were the prime reason for his departure, but not the only factor, according to several friends. Aherne was popular with many students and had a circle of admiring adult friends in the North Andover community, but he had made enemies on the faculty, where he was seen by some as arrogant and elitist.

“He didn’t mind letting individual members of the faculty know when he didn’t think they were qualified,” says Patrick Rice, the close friend who served as a Merrimack treasurer, and later trustee, for several years during Aherne’s presidency.

“He didn’t suffer fools,” laughs Jim Greeley, “at least not gladly.”

Aherne also had a well-deserved reputation for spending precious money on arts projects, which earned the school artistic acclaim but little financial return.

Symphonic groups, including the Boston Pops, operatic stars, Birgit Nilsson among them, and a Hollywood actor, my old friend Victor Buono, were brought to campus in well-publicized appearances that dazzled the North Andover community, which lived in the intellectual and cultural of the exclusive Phillips Academy in adjacent Andover.

The two campuses sit barely two miles apart, connected by winding, tree-lined streets, but the prep school’s financial resources dwarf the college’s, and when the economic crunch caused by the energy crisis took hold in the mid 1970’s, it was Merrimack that blinked. The giant, cigar-smoking Aherne was removed at a stroke.

“It is with heavy heart that I write,” he informed his sister Jeanne Brady on July 15, 1975: “A bloc among the trustees, without notice to me, has asked for my resignation—as far as I can see on the grounds of our two-year deficit.”

When the board demanded that he leave the campus monastery and sever his ties with the school, Aherne bristled: “I shall insist on residing here,” he told Brady, asking her to “inform Consuelo and Marion” but adding: “I prefer that no one else know the forced situation. Just say I’ve had it with the job.”

After this second great upheaval in his career, Aherne was again crushed: “The dynamic of my life, teaching and administration, is gone, and in their place a great emptiness prevails,” he write in in memoir, A Kind of Fidelity.

Nearly a decade after his dismissal, he remembered the event with poetic sadness:

  • So fragile the fabric of my
  • Merrimack time
  • Who sought to weave texture
  • Of learning
  • Where warp of leadership
  • With woof of faculty
  • Entangled in a web gossamer
  • As spiders filament
  • Dismaying the dreamer who
  • Saw the fabric rent

(Final stanza, “A Letter to Some Who Would Mourn My Death,” A Late Winnowing, 1985)

Aherne bemoaned the “savage injustice” of his removal and was thrown into despair. “Those were dark days,” recalls Greeley.

Of course, Aherne had fallen down these stairs before, and a full three years after his dismissal in 1962 from St. Augustine High School, he was still suffering from it. In 1965, he confided to a friend that he was thinking of leaving the priesthood. “He felt the church had let him down.” says Darwin Dapper, a former student and business who remained a close friend until Aherne’s death.

“When he told me at lunch at Lubach’s one day that he might quit, I said: “You’ve gotta be kidding me. What the hell do you think you’re gonna do?’” Dipper’s reaction may have sobered Aherne. His contemplation of resignation “didn’t last very long. It was so ridiculous.”

In 1975, at Merrimack, Aherne faced the same abyss. But after 22 numbing years of administrative duties, he began to feel the stirrings of a new pursuit. Ultimately, it was to take over his life. “It was the writing that saved him, “says Greeley.

  • Irish poets, learn your trade
  • Sing whatever is well made.

—Yeats

(Handwritten note found among Aherene's papers)

As a poet, John Aherne was endlessly observant, attentive to his craft, and remarkably uncertain that he could sustain his artistic vision. In a preface to his second volume (Murmur of Times Past), published in 1979, he wrote; “[T]he force which drove me to write verse has spent itself. I am unlikely to write poetry further. A minor voice…exhausts itself after brief utterance.”

It was a false alarm. In the following decade, Aherne was prodigious: he wrote 11 additional volumes of poetry. (In all, he published at least 626 poems.) Between 1978 and 1989, the year before his death, he produced a volume of poetry every year save one and published two volumes each in 1984, 1985, and 1986 (a year in which he also published Testament, a collection of 199 poems drawn from his earlier works).

Aherne wrote regularly in the monastery at Merrimack but often found a writing sanctuary in an unlikely place. “The 99 Restaurant is very casual,” says Jim Greeley, who frequently joined Aherne for lunch. “It used to be called the High Spot, a big gathering place in the old days [for] a lot of the faculty and administration at Merrimack.

“Even if he wasn’t dining with me or some other friend,” says Greeley, who helped raise money to publish Aherne’s poems, “he would go there…in the afternoon and get a little corner section, and he would write poetry and have his lunch. You know, two or three martinis, and he would spend two or three hours there.”

Aherne’s style was to make full-blown assault on virtually all forms of poetic expression. By his own count, the poems of Testament contain 56 different rhyming patterns. The volume also contains 57 poems in blank and free verse. He proudly wrote in the forms used by Dante, Keats, Chaucer, and others. TO the modern reader, many of his poems are difficult tests of attention and understanding.

“His poetry was too heavy for me,” says Robert Griswold, the former Augustinian priest who teaches English in Walnut Creek, “I couldn’t understand some of his plays. I liked him, but his plays were so didactic.” Webster defines didactic as “designed or intended to teach; intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.” In other words, too heavy for many readers seeking light amusement.

If there was any doubt that Aherne was serious as a writer, consider that between 1975 and 1990, the years between his dismissal form Merrimack and his death, he wrote more than 260 pages of autobiography (in two volumes), 14 volumes of poetry, the 1018 entries he contributed to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, and, in 1985, for good measure, he published Serendipity, an 87-oage series of extended essays on six Catholic authors.

In 1978, Aherne issued what amounts to a challenge and a plea to readers of his poetry:

  • Strangers search out the secret buried
  • In my cryptic scrawlings on an insentient page
  • Tracings of a journey that hides and reveals
  • The pilgrimage of a hear more eager than sage

(Prologue to The Seasons of the Heart)

Aherne’s poetry reveals glimpses of his inner self fascinated with the idea of love. “I acknowledge without apology,” he wrote in the preface to Testament, “the prominence of love poems in my work and the…theme of the mysterious character of love itself,”

Aherne acknowledged a bond with those he loved: “Of those I have known and loved over a long lifetime, shadowy presences in the poetry, I say only that I shall not break the seal of secrecy protecting them and me.” He was admitting, he wrote, “their pull upon the heart that soared and dipped wing in troubled skies of mortal longing.”

Aherne wrote frequently of death, occasionally in terms explained by a mysterious figure, Michael. This was a code name he gave himself.

In “Michael’s Dream: A Flowering of Three Gardens,” the surrogate Michael wanders into Eden:

  • Encountered under the Tree of Knowledge,
  • With darks eyes and halo of tumbling hair
  • The woman teaches love to an unschooled Michael
  • Shackled still by chains of fettering fears
  • The pious long ago had grimly forged
  • For the halt to limp away from random adventure,
  • The crippled psyche persuaded that human love
  • Not failure of divine corrodes the soul of bound or free.

Aherne’s use of Michael was well known to Richard O’Hara, a North Andover physician, and his wife, Mary Ellen, who came to know the poet in 1976, a time of poor health for the priest.

In a poem dedicated to O’Hara on his 50th birthday, Aherne recalled:

  • And I who brought you a whitened face
  • In a time of fear precluding wan hope
  • Remember now the gentle hands that probed
  • The mysterious landscape of the surgeon’s scope.

(The O’Haras became two of Aherne’s staunchest supporters and friends. Staging a party for him in 1988, they supplied guests with hand masks bearing his photos. As he entered their living room, he encountered more than a dozen identical images of himself. A bemused Aherne is visible in pictures of the party, which celebrated his 50 years as a priest.)


Despite his overwhelming size and often glowering appearance, Aherne had a special relationship with women and children. Raised in a family of women, including four aunts and three sisters, he seemed at ease in their company.

In San Diego, he became a close friend of Jackie Carter, the sparkling, dark-haired wife of Tom Carter, a former Notre Dame player whom Aherne recruited to be the St. Augustine football coach.

“We both loved opera, and Tom, ah, more of less tolerated it,” she laughs, recalling that Maria Callas was Aherne’s favorite female singer. The two would listen to Aherne’s records, the priest always sitting in clerical white collar, occasionally in a short-sleeved black shirt.

“He decided that each of the children needed to be called a particular kind of animal,” Carter said, “Chris was a tiger, Julie was a lamb.” Aherne usually gave them books for presents, but on occasion he bravely chose dresses for the Carters’ daughters at Christmas.

Aherne’s poetic skills appear to have had an impact on Andrea Brady, the granddaughter of his sister Jeanne. She is currently a graduate student in poetry at Cambridge University in England. In 1990, at age 15, she wrote of her Uncle Jack:

  • …When he spoke of us, I felt myself a creature of poetry to be placed in
  • the hallowed white halls of lines and verses,
  • incased by some magic of his design. To my
  • childish ears, he turned phrases like a
  • glassblower perfecting his wares, creating an
  • entire glass menagerie—Look but don’t touch

In 1968, Aherne walked into a restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and met 22-year old Natalie Talbott Blaney, a Kentucky-born summer waitress. They struck up a conversation about a Civil War novel of Kentucky. In a summer of weekly meetings, he persuaded her to complete her college education at Merrimack, where he helped her find a job supervising younger dorm students.

Now a lawyer in Manhattan, Blaney recalled his affinity for women: “He was the most amazing person, the most interesting person. Whether he as a priest or not, he was determined not to deny himself the feminine relationship.” After Blaney married, Aherne would visit the couple in New York. “We always had dinner,” she said, “He loved to eat n grand places. He used the Edwardian Room of the Plaza Hotel as his local place, [and] he was quite, quite disturbed when he learned [it] had closed…”

Another Merrimack student, Sharon Broussard, who later joined the college staff with her husband, recalled Aherne's fond, fatherly kiss on her graduation day. “I received an award, and I went back [to his office] and he said, “I would really like to give you a kiss if that would be appropriate.’” Aware of today’s tensions over displays of affection between administrators and students, Broussard said: “”That’s the way he was; in those days, that stuff was pure and simple, [and] he was just the most loving” person.

Mary Ellen O’Hara, whose physician husband nursed Aherne back to health, found him enormously appealing: “I loved this man. I loved everything he did.”

Aherne viewed friendship with both men and women as a form of love, he wrote in A Kind of Fidelity, and while he was wary of being misunderstood, he spoke forthrightly of his male friendships: “In a world given to prurience…one hesitates to speak of the love of man for man, fearful of being branded a homosexual. The perfectly normal affection among men has been degraded.” He said. “I will not be intimidated by this form of ignorance. I hold in heart many of my own sex, loved over my mature years.”

Said his sister Jeanne, “What’s his legacy? Unlimited love. I never knew anybody who loved so many people. I never knew anybody who had that capacity.”

In 1986, Aherne attended our 30th class reunion in San Diego. The organizers rented a paddle wheeler at the Bahia Hotel on Mission Bay. Aherne mingled with the guests. Speeches were made and dinner was served as the boat moved quietly back and forth in the darkness between the Bahia and Catamaran Hotels. I still remember the last there words of his brief talk to the assembled Class of 1956: “Use critical judgment,” he implored us, ever the headmaster searching for ways to arm his students for the life ahead.

Despite smiles, he still seemed stiff and remotely distant to me, even as we sat across from each other at dinner. But a mild glow of satisfaction crossed his face as he puffed on a cigar and looked around the room through his thick glasses.


Four years later, on June 4, 1990, John Aherne died in North Andover, Massachusetts. His death certificate lists the “immediate cause” of death as “carcinoma of lung, metastatic,” occurring over a six-month period.

According to John Glynn, his former deputy at St. Augustine, one day, as word spread of his illness, a friend called Aherne from California. It was Anthony Wasco, an Augustinian who had serves as one of Aherne’s successors at St. Augustine High (1975-1983). He reached Aherne at Merrimack. “Father Wasco told me this story several times,” says Glynn. “After a short conversation, Aherne said, ‘Well, Tony, I’m gonna say good-bye,’ and died not long afterward.”

There were memorials at both Merrimack and Villanova/ John Sanders, the St. Augustine High principal, flew in from the West Coast. “I just went; I know it was important,” he said. Patrick Rice attended both services and delivered eulogies. Rice repeated the story of the two men visiting Emily Dickinson’s house and grave 28 years earlier. “It was the start of a great friendship that was the blessing in my life,” he said.

John Aherne is buried a few miles outside the Philadelphia city limits, in Calvary Cemetery, operated by the Catholic archdiocese in a wooded area of West Conshohocken. On one hillside, a section contains the graves of more than 40 Augustinian priests and brothers. “That’s where they all go,” said the caretaker when I asked directions. Their names call the roll of immigration: Kelly, Ryan, Conroy, Cone, Hurley, Gilligan, Griferty, Flaherty, McNamara, Tuohy, McFadden.

Simple flat stones identify each of the deceased. Aherne shares a grave with Henry Greenlee, a teacher, administrator, and parish priest. Exactly 29 steps away, a marker identifies the grave of James Donnellon, who transferred Aherne from San Diego to North Andover. Both now rest beneath Pennsylvania soil.

On a clear Saturday afternoon last July, I stood at their graves and heard the sound of bagpipes. A hundred yards away, a line of cars was pulled up beside a shiny gray casket. People stood and watched as a priest moved to bless the coffin.

The sun shone brightly and from the distance, barely audible notes of music swirled in the air, drifting to the stones at my feet. For several minutes, I listened. But not until I sat behind the wheel of my car and began to drive away, did I recognize the melody of “Amazing Grace.”

—John Martin


  • John Martin joined ABC News in 1975 and has been a national correspondent since 1983. He reports for World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Nightline, and other ABC News broadcasts.
  • Mr. Martin covers government waste in a regular feature, It’s Your Money, on ABC’s World News Tonight.
  • For a series of reports on nicotine for ABC’s newsmagazine Day One Mr. Martin shared the 1994 George Polk Award and a Gold Baton from the 1994 duPont-Columbia awards. He shared the 1994 reporting award from the National Association of Black Journalists New York Chapter for a Day One report on cigarette marketing.
  • Mr. Martin shared an Emmy Award for his 1992 profile of Ross Perot; and he was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1988, for a series on Pentagon fraud, and in 1982, for a profile of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. He shared the 1992 duPont Columbia Award for the ABC News special “Line in the Sand: War or Peace?”
  • Mr. Martin currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Katherine Fitzhugh. He has two daughters, Sophie and Claire.
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There’s nothing left inside him to justify an enthusiastic awakening.
As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me.  He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure.
As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me. He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure.

On a bright October day in 1962, two men stepped from the street into the front yard of a large brick house in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Except for the fact that both wore black (and the house was not for sale), they might have been mistaken for a real estate broker and his client, pausing as they did to gaze at the exterior, the taller man speaking in low tones, the smaller one listening mostly in silence.

By the autumn of 1962, John Aherne’s career was in shambles. A few months earlier, on June 18, he had been summarily replaced as principal of St. Augustine High School.

After a few moments, they rang the doorbell, spoke to the smiling woman who answered, and were invited inside the former home of Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century American poet who spent most of her 55 years of life in the house and wrote all her poems in a single upstairs room.

Bill Mahedy: “Then, at a safe distance, four or five guys would step into a line and walk right behind him with the same big steps.”

As they mounted the stairs, it was clear that the taller one, John Aherne, priest and poet, had come to pay homage.

At six feet five inches and 240 pounds, Aherne filled the room, a shock of jet black hair crowning his broad forehead, tiny scars pocking his cheeks, chin, and neck. (Some never forgot their first sighting: “the beast,” said a fellow priest; “an avenging angel,” said the father of a student; “Frankenstein!” said a former seminarian.) Aherne stood and looked out the window from which the poet had gazed across a field to the house of Austin, her brother, then he turned and looked around the modest room where Dickinson had expressed much of what she valued, verses from which he had taken drafts of pleasure.

Father Aherne in his youth

Later at the cemetery, standing inside an ornate iron fence surrounding the Dickinson family gravesite, he leaned and placed a bouquet of roses, staring down at the headstone:

  • Emily Dickinson
  • 1830-1886
  • Called Home

“He proceeded to have sort of a conversation with her,” recalled his companion, Patrick Rice, a fellow priest working with Aherne in Boston.

A middle-aged Father Aherne

“He recited many of the poems that were his favorites. A few tears were shed, then we headed back to Merrimack College.”

By the autumn of 1962, John Aherne’s career was in shambles. A few months earlier, on June 18, he had been summarily replaced as principal of St. Augustine High School in San Diego, directed, after 20 years, to leave the city in less than two weeks.

Father William Sullivan: One cause for the vote of no confidence was Aherne’s remoteness. He saw Aherne submerged in civic duties, leaving him isolated from many men in the monastery.

Much of San Diego’s establishment was in shock. Over the span of two decades from his campus on Nutmeg Street, Aherne had become good friends and confidant of the establishment, joking and commiserating over drinks and dinner, most often within the sanctum of the Grant Grill. His companions were a male elite, which controlled commerce and politics in a city growing far beyond its roots as a Spanish Mission and American port.

Father John Sanders: "The student body numbered perhaps 350 within five years of Aherne’s arrival. At its height during Aherne’s tenure, it approached 800 students."

With affection and humor, the cigar-smoking Aherne had forged many bonds. His allies came from city government offices, labor temples, corporate boardrooms, newspaper desks, even a bookmaker’s sidewalk. He befriended Protestants and Jews. Although not an athlete, Aherne was nevertheless respected in the sports community, a close friend of the city’s beloved Jack Murphy, the sports editor of the San Diego Union Tribune and a man whose daily column nurtured the city’s dream of major-league sports maturity.

Father Harry Neely: "As a teacher, he was marvelous. He was the master of the put-down, and the kids enjoyed that. He would sink you.”

Because he moved in all these circles, by 1962, with the exception of the bishop, Charles Francis Buddy, John Aherne was the most respected and best-known Catholic in San Diego.

As a teenage student at St. Augustine High from 1952 to 1956, I saw Aherne almost daily, yet he remained a mystery to me. He was aloof, austere, a huge dominating figure (the same height and almost the same weight as home-run hitter Mark McGwire) moving across campus in full black regalia, his giant strides straining the buttons that ran down the center of his cassock.

Jackie Carter recalled that Maria Callas was Aherne’s favorite female singer.

Bill Mahedy, a smiling, energetic upperclassman who was later ordained an Episcopal priest, recalls that despite the fear and awe with which Aherne was held, his demeanor was sometimes the object of adolescent scorn.

“You’d see Big John walking these giant steps,” said Mahedy, now a chaplain at Veterans Hospital in San Diego. “Then, at a safe distance, four or five guys would step into a line and walk right behind him with the same big steps.” In short, Aherne was fun to mock, but not to his face, which often held a strained expression of purpose and sourness.

On occasion, Mahedy and his classmates were willing to incur Aherne’s wrath. Once, convinced that their assignments were too rigorous, members of one of Aherne’s class turned in their homework on sheets of toilet paper. Aherne was flustered. A debate ensued. “We called it the tissue issue,” laughs Mahedy.

Others were not so brave. When Aherne called on me in senior English lit, I held my breath. It’s not that I was a poor student. In fact, I enjoyed English Composition, taught by a tall, wiry priest named William Sullivan. In his hands, I found myself writing essays and, in a class competition, winning a tiny two-volume set of Shakespeare’s comedies.

Sullivan, gentle and soft-spoken, encouraged me to write about sports for the school newspaper and convinced me that I had a talent as a writer.

But in Aherne’s presence (he sat at a desk on a raised platform, staring down at students arrayed across five rows), my confidence drained away, and I often froze, uncertain of what to say, especially when I had not fully prepared for the day’s lesson.

In one sphere, however, Aherne proved surprisingly solicitous and friendly. He recruited me to perform in two theater productions. One, Come Slowly, Eden, was an original play that he wrote and directed. The other was a full-scale staging of Hamlet.

Both plays held starring roles for my boyhood friend, Victor Buono, who performed at the Old Globe Theatre while we were still in high school and later became the extremely gifted Hollywood television and screen actor.

Not long after we began rehearsing Hamlet, I realized Aherne had cast me in both plays for a broader purpose; to assure that Victor, who could not drive, would be delivered home to Mission Beach each night after rehearsal. Seeing that I drove a car and lived in nearby Pacific Beach, Aherne concluded that I was uniquely qualified to play the role of Rosencrantz.

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.”

Upon his transfer back to St. Augustine High, Griswold became the school’s financial officer, or procurator. The institution was about $40,000 in debt, he says. “All I did was raise tuition.” This solution had been strongly opposed by Aherne’s adversaries in the monastery. But on the heels of Aherne’s ouster, Griswold and Patrick Keane, Aherne’s successor as principal, were given more latitude. The tuition hike was accepted and the school’s finances were restored.

In the end, more than a few who knew him agree that Aherne was not skilled at directing the budgetary operations of the community. Aherne himself recognized his limits in 1981: “Mathematics was—and is—my nemesis.”

“He wasn’t good at handling money,” says Griswold. “He had no interest [in finance]. He was interested in why you couldn’t understand his plays.”

“He wasn’t a grubber,” says John Glynn, a startlingly spry 85-year-old who teaches four Latin classes a day at Villanova Prep in Ojai. Glynn attended seminary with Aherne and knew him for more than 50 years. “He didn’t enjoy the things you have to do to raise money.”

Thirty-six years later, the seeds of dismissal are still delicate, too private for Aherne’s successor, Patrick Keane, to discuss fully and openly with and outsider.

White-haired, wearing black trousers and a black-gray pullover, Keane sits in a chair beside a gray metal filing cabinet in the rectory at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ojai. It is night in the mountains above the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles north of Ventura.

Aherne arrived in Ojai in 1939, a tall, skinny new priest sent west after her ordination and a year’s study at Catholic University in Washington D.C., where he received a master’s degree in English. His three years at Villanova Prep, a small boarding school, were his first taste of teaching.

In 1942, he was transferred to San Diego, where William Sullivan and Patrick Keane were among his first students, “He looked like Lincoln,” says Sullivan, “He was so painfully thin.” Ultimately says Keane, Aherne helped him become a priest. Working behind the scenes, Aherne overcame objections to Keane’s poor eyesight, which threatened to prevent his acceptance by the religious order.

Keane has a relaxed air. His life has taken interesting turns. After serving a principal of St. Augustine High for 13 years, he moved to various positions within the religious community, finally becoming assistant general for the North American provinces at the Vatican, one of the top worldwide positions within the Augustine order.

“John, of course, was a great man about town,” says Keane, choosing his words with care. “Now that’s a hard role to play, a hard role to drop into the midst of a religious community.”

Keane parries questions about the reason for the ouster. Keane’s job, upon succession, was to heal the rift within the monastery. “I think there was a sense that John had been had,” he says. “And the faction that got him was still in the house.”

One day in 1979, on the campus of Merrimack College, John Aherne chatted with John Sanders, an earnest young historian and priest who was teaching at Villanova Prep in Ojai. Sanders, who became a principal of St. Augustine High nine years later, was researching the story of the Augustine order in California. A tape recorder was rolling as they talked.

“The man who really had the ultimate authority,” said Aherne of the 1960s, “was…Donnellon. [He] had no sympathy whatever for the independence of California. As a matter of fact, I think he kind of thought it was a personal affront that we were trying to operate somewhat independently of him.”

Aherne insisted that Donnellon, his superior in the Augustinian order and one time president of Villanova University, had reneged on an arrangement to help finance the San Diego school. “There was an agreement,” Aherne told Sanders. “For four years we were to receive [a] $25,000-a-year subsidy from the Eastern province,” Only the first two installments were made, then nothing. “They were ignored,” Aherne said. “That was under Jim Donnellon.”

Seventeen years later, Aherne was still irate. “I protested, but it didn’t do any good. There was no possibility of expansion. We were undermanned for the places we had. It would have been folly to have taken on anything.”

Aherne’s despair was well founded. The order, headquartered at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, was investing heavily in the East but neglecting the West. The small vice province of California, which Aherne was assigned to head as provincial superior in 1959, was left to struggle. It encompassed only three parishes, three elementary schools, and two high schools, yet it was engulfed by a growing population. The 1950’s Southern California real estate boom was in full swing.

“We needed men. We needed them desperately, “There was no real belief in the future of California,” said Aherne. Meanwhile, he noted, dozens of newly ordained Augustinians, some from the West, had been assigned to teach at two eastern high schools run by the order in Philadelphia and Washington D.C.

Of the Augustine order’s approach to burgeoning California, said Aherne to Sanders: “it was just indifference. They didn’t give a damn.”

As I listened to Aherne’s voice, I thought back 40 years to the quiet conversations I’d had as a senior at St. Augustine High. Several priests gently tested my interest in a “vocation.” This was the term used to describe a decision to pursue a life in priesthood.

Several classmates answered the call and entered the seminary. But most did not. It was a trend that accelerated after our departure. And it explains an effort Aherne undertook in sheer desperation—to his lasting regret.

“I did something he [Donnellon] didn’t like,” Aherne conceded to Sanders, “And this is very important, because it had a lot to do with my future.”

As Aherne described it, he was determined to replenish the dwindling supply of teacher-priests, so he took an audacious step: “I went to Europe,” he said, “to Ireland, Spain, and Holland, looking for volunteers to work in California.

“I didn’t succeed at anything in Holland,” Aherne’s voice rose slightly, broken by an occasional cough. “The Irish province sent us one. Now the Spanish province would have sent us four. But in the meantime, Donnellon blocked the thing.”

Aherne summed up: “That was kind of the crossing of the Rubicon with Donnellon.” After that Aherne knew there was little hope and assumed, he said, that at Donnellon’s hand, his days were numbered as leader of the California vice province.

Those final days in California were also clouded by a rebuke from his fellow priests on Nutmeg Street. Aherne’s budget from the high school, ordinarily approved without question by the members of the monastery, was rejected. Aherne was deeply offended.

One cause for the vote of no confidence was Aherne’s remoteness, suggests William Sullivan. The son of a Brooklyn-born Colorado cowboy, Sullivan became one of San Diego’s first native-born priests to teach at St. Augustine High. He saw Aherne submerged in civic duties, leaving him isolated from many men in the monastery. Sullivan was not the only one to notice.

Harry Neely, a favored student of Aherne’s before Neely’s graduation in 1945, returned to the classroom as a priest in 1957.

"As a teacher, he was marvelous,” says Nelly. He was the master of the put-down, and the kids enjoyed that. “He would sink you,” Nelly recalls, meaning Aherne would find an appropriate sarcasm to fit the tone or thrust of a student’s remark, then submerge him with gentle ridicule.

‘When I came back to Saints as a priest, he was the boss then. He affected a very…gruff, lordly manner. Imperious. He’d stride around with that cigar. Frightened people. Kids were scared of him.”

Neely says he believes Aherne was hiding his true feelings, convinced that he needed an authoritarian image to deal with students. Before, says Neely, “with those who liked him—you know, he had favorites—he was very charming and soft spoken, just affectionate.”

But there had been a clue to the new Aherne. It emerged shortly before young Neely’s departure from seminary in 1945. “I was surprised. One day he asked me to wait after school. We just walked the patio for an hour. He was kind of sharing some of his feelings, you know. I was dumbfounded. He was talking about the disappointments of being friendly.”

Neely says Aherne told him, “ ‘You befriend somebody, and the befriended one lets you down.’ And he said something to this effect: ‘I’m not going to be that way anymore.’ And I said, ‘Aw, no, you can’t.’ ” To Neely, Aherne was steeling himself against future displays of friendship.

On a breezy spring afternoon in 1953, a few months before the end of the Korean War, two crew-cut young men in white shorts and skintight T-shirts warmed up on a dusty gray tennis court at St. Augustine High School.

The court was in poor shape: cracks ran across lines, weeds appeared inconveniently. A dozen or so young men crouched and leaned against the chain-link fence. Most wore Khaki pants and cream warm-up jackets trimmed in purple and gold, the school colors.

Leonard Burt, the school’s chain-smoking tennis coach, announced, “We are honored today to have two of the country’s finest players visiting our campus.”

Indeed, within a few months, one of the players, the muscular Tony Trabert of Cincinnati, would win the national tennis championship at Forest Hills. His opponent this day, Herbie Flamm of Beverly Hills, scrawny by comparison, was a top player in Southern California and nationally ranked. By the grace of Pentagon personnel officers, both were assigned to Navy units in San Diego.

Trabert, with pinpoint serve, won the exhibition, but it was a freewheeling match, and the students applauded ferociously. Coach Burt, wearing a tan cap and peering through wire rimmed glasses, was visibly pleased. He had arranged the appearances of two superstars from a sport which St. Augustine had a truly outstanding team. (Later that year, led by six-time Ink Tournament champion Franklin Johnson and Jack Movido, the team reached the Southern California Interscholastic Federation playoff semifinals, competing against teams from much larger schools in Long Beach, South Pasadena, Beverly Hills, and San Marino.)

For Trabert, whose career ultimately led to victory on Centre Court at Wimbledon as well as to royal pavilions and posh country clubs all over the world, it must have been one of the odder exhibitions.

In 1953, the St. Augustine campus on Nutmeg Street, surrounded by an ocean of small residences, was a jolt of urban reality; an old football practice field, scarred and slashed from the previous season’s scrimmages, sat across from a gleaming new gymnasium; to one side, two long, white, single-story classroom buildings sailed forth on a sea of newly laid black asphalt. A sunken dirt field had been scarped level and was awaiting assignments to intramural sports.

If Trabert looked south, he could see students crossing a city street that cut imperiously through the heart of the campus, established in 1922. Carrying books, some wearing purple and gold beanies, they sauntered on to a quadrangle with a flagpole. On one side were classrooms for mechanical drawing, chemistry, and physics. Directly across sat a long white chapel. A small library and a clutch of administrative offices formed another side of the quad. Across from them, a broad walkway led past the flagpole to the street.

These precincts were the ambit of students and faculty. Only a favored few students were admitted to the monastery, a long, two-story white building to the east of the chapel. Today only a few priests live there, but in the 1950s, it housed nearly a dozen clerics. It was their refuge from the rigors of the classroom.

The monastery was a nerve center: a series of simple bedrooms, a few small offices, a large kitchen, a dining area, and an upstairs meeting space that medieval monks would have called a cloister, which was simply the living room of the establishment. Here the faculty would assemble and discuss the business of teaching several hundred young men growing up in the age of Elvis.

Inside these monastery walls, John Aherne’s life took a remarkable turn of fortune on a late summer evening in 1953. An act of God catapulted him from a gangly 41-year-old English teacher and dean of studies to the leader of the school and its community.

That night, within hours after arriving by car from Philadelphia, the school’s newly appointed principal, John Sparrow, a scholarly man with white hair, died peacefully, sitting in a chair.

“We had just watched the Pabst Blue Ribbon Fights,” said John Glynn. “I think it was a Friday night.” Glynn had bid the newcomer Sparrow good night and walked down the street to a house he shared with his mother. Forty-five minutes later, about 8:30 p.m., he said, “There was a knock on the door. I answered it.” A fellow priest, David Ryan, reported: “Father Sparrow is dead.”

With classes starting within a few days, there were hurried consultations with Augustinian headquarters in Villanova, Pennsylvania. By November, “Aherne was picked,” said Glynn, his eyes seeming to settle in the distance of 45 years. “He was the clear choice. Scholar. Competent.”

Aherne accepted the task with customary directness. In their yearbook, he wrote to graduating seniors: “Providence, which the ignorant call destiny, placed me in the position of leadership.”

Glynn became his vice principal and remained the school’s disciplinarian. For nine years, the two men guided the school’s fortunes in tandem. Aherne was the public face and big-picture advocate, Glynn the nuts-and-bolts inside operations man.

Aherne took charge of St. Augustine at the end of an expansion engineered by his predecessor, John Gallagher, a troubleshooter who had resolved a difficult financial situation at Villanova Prep, the Augustinian boarding school in Ojai.

After coming to San Diego in 1947, Gallagher settled a feud between the Augustinians and the Diocese of San Diego, whose leader Bishop Charles Francis Buddy, had restricted Augustinian fundraising in a dispute over the order’s property holdings. Within months of Gallagher’s arrival, the issue was resolved.

“Gallagher was more of a public relations guy,” says Fred Kinne, a retired San Diego newspaper editor who was friendly to the school. Kinne, city editor of the Evening Tribune in 1956, conducted afternoon tennis clinics at Morley Field for many St. Augustine players. When tennis coach Burt suddenly decided to leave the priesthood and move to San Francisco, Kinne, aware that the departing priest had no savings, pulled money out of his pocket to help Burt relocate.

Kinne watched both Gallagher and Aherne operate as the school’s principal. Gallagher “got everybody on his side through his personality. He was a glad-hander type. Aherne was more of a dominant figure,” says Kinnne, “and people enjoyed being around him for his intellectual capacity. He could talk on any subject.”

As principal, Aherne moved center stage, joining boards and commissions, gaining the school entry into city sports leagues, taking a key role on the Chamber of Commerce committee that lobbied the University of California regents to establish a campus in San Diego.

While Aherne was raising the school’s (and his) profile in the community, he was also raising academic standards in the classroom. On campus he created an Academic Excellence Committee, developed a seniors’ course in Western Civilization, wrote a syllabus for an honors course in English, and directed more than a dozen plays on a vast portable stage he had constructed and installed in the gymnasium.

Ahearn’s actions expressed a vision of scholars dedicated to the search for truth, a concept that brings smiles to the faces of his successors.

In the 1940s, says Patrick Keane, Aherne’s successor, St. Augustine High School “was a rinky-dink operation out there on the edge of town, and [yet] for him [Aherne], it was Cambridge and Harvard.” Keane smiles, then begins to laugh: “And you had the sense that what he was involved in passing on was the grandeur of Rome and Greece.”

The contrast between students in ragged clothes and the school’s demanding standards was stark: “This was a nondescript batch of kids that would show up there every September,” recalls Keane, who numbers himself among them.

But whatever he thought of their station in life, Aherne treated their scholastic resources as a top priority. On his arrival in 1942, the library collection consisted, by Aherne’s own count, of 356 books locked in a cabinet. “When I left,” he told an interviewer proudly, “there were over 7000.” The St. Augustine High School library (renamed the father John. R. Aherne Library in 1980) became the envy of larger public high schools. Tragically, a fire has destroyed portions of the collection.

The size of the growing library paralleled the growth of the school itself. According to John Sanders, the order’s historian and current St. Augustine principal, the student body numbered perhaps 350 within five years of Aherne’s arrival. At its height during Aherne’s tenure, it approached 800 students. “It was way too overcrowded,” says Sanders, “you wouldn’t want a school that size.” Today, St. Augustine High shares the territory with University High and admits about 600 students.


The Perkiomen valley is about 25 miles northwest of Philadelphia, a leisurely drive up Highway 29, winding through the rural townships of Rahns (population 800), Graterford (870), and Schwenksville (1320).

To the Southwest lies Valley Forge National Historic Park. To the east, across U.S. Highway 476, Bucks County reaches the banks of the Delaware River as it flows south to its date with history. On Christmas night, 1776, George Washington and his troops crossed the River in a Snowstorm at McKonkey’s Ferry (now called Washington Crossing) and marched south. Within nine days, they defeated Hessian and British troops in the battles of Trenton and Princeton, which turned the tide of the Revolutionary War.

Outside Zieglersville, Pennsylvania (population 900), under a blue-gray sky, cornfields stretch toward the horizon, a jumble of golden stalks bent and broken, then neatly trimmed rows of brown stubble lead toward a green line of cedars announcing a creek.

On Little Road, at a one-story green shingle house, a tall, casually dressed man answers the door. Henry Ockershausen, a retired pharmaceutical-company engineer, is helpful, and curious. I have called to ask for directions to a nearby farmhouse where his mother, Nettie, lived with her family in the 1920’s.

As we ride north along a country road, I ask Ockershausen if his mother ever spoke of her friendship with a young man named John Aherne. “No, I don’t recall,” he says. But soon, after pointing out his mother’s former home and hearing more about the Aherne family, which lived nearby, he remembers: “I believe I went with my mother to a reception for him many years ago.” It was to celebrate Ahern's 25th anniversary as a priest.

Ockershausen’s mother, Nettie Hertl, was a twin. She and her sister, Hattie, and their three brothers were the children of Otto and Amelia Hertl, a Pennsylvania Dutch couple whose property adjoined Cedar Crest Farm, owned by John and Anna Dolores Aherne.

Ahern’s parents settled in the Perkiomen Valley in 1911, a year before his birth, on July 18, 1912. But their fledgling poultry business suffered two disadvantages: Neither husband nor wife was experienced at farming, and it was a long journey to market, too far to deliver fresh eggs and chickens and return to the valley in a day. There were no automobiles, only horse-drawn carriages.

When Aherne was four, the family moved into the city. “I think it was so he could attend good schools,” says his oldest sister, Consuelo Maria, who was a year old at the time. “I think it was more that they were not doing well on the farm,” said Jeanne Aherne, one of his two younger sisters. Jeanne and Maria, were born in the city and never lived at Cedar Crest.

But young Jack, as the family called him, traveled back to the valley every summer to stay with the Hertls, beginning when he was ten years old. “I retuned with the reverence of a pilgrim visiting a holy place,” he says, “Every field in the valley was lined with cedars,” he wrote in 1978, “and their scent to this day carries me back to childhood with an immediate sense, not memory.”

The Hertl farmhouse, a two-story, white stone structure (its first section was built in 1795), sits at the end of a curved gravel driveway that has been lightly rutted by the wheels of tractors and pickup trucks.

As we pull up along the main road above the house, Henry Ockershausen points to the small black mailbox perched on a tree stump. White letters read: “Sims-Young.”

Later, after dropping Ockershausen off at his house, where he promises to look for a picture of his mother, I drive back to the Hertl property. She lives with her grown son, Robert, a financial-services-company employee, and his five-year-old daughter Shaliesha.

A disastrous fire destroyed the Hertl barn and several out-buildings years ago, before her father became the owner, Rosalie Young explains. “It’s all changed,” she says, unwilling to show a visitor the upstairs rooms.

“I can still remember,” wrote Aherne, “waking up on my first morning at the farm with a feeling that the wood-slatted white ceiling was the roof of heaven.”

As a summer and weekend guest, Aherne seems to have led a charmed existence. The Hertls welcomed him for weeks at a time, and, by his account, partially exempted him from the workaday chores of farm life.

“He was a terrible tease,” recalls Betty Barr, a white-haired neighbor whose house is up the road. But even by his midteen years, she says, “everybody knew he was going to be a priest, he was always carrying his prayer book or a Bible.”

Still, this presumed religious calling did not stop him from harassing Barr, a few years younger. Once, she says, he drove a small flock of pesky peacocks to the door of her family’s outhouse, trapping her inside.

“I said, ‘How can you expect to be a priest and do that!’” she smiles, sitting at her kitchen table wearing a ribbed beige turtleneck sweater streaked with attractive narrow lines of blues and reds. “I don’t think I was aware that he was fond of Nettie,” she says, “but I was younger.”

As we sit at the table, I hand Barr a thin paperback copy of A Kind of Fidelity, Aherne’s autobiography, published in 1978. I have opened it to a section in which Aherne describes the sisters.

“Hattie was vivacious, loud, mischievous. She had dark eyes and hair, a pronounced jaw, and dark skin. Nettie was fair, with delicate features and blue eyes which always seemed sad to me. She was quiet, grave, shy.”

At age 14, Aherne professes, “I loved them both but in very different ways. Hattie was a dominant force in my pre-adolescent days; Nettie would be an introduction to the new life.”

Young Jack Aherne, self-described romantic and dreamer, falls slowly and deeply in love with Nettie. “I worked alongside [her] in the fields, fed the stock beside her, watched her move quietly about the kitchen and listened to the soft voice…”

As the summer of 1926 progressed, the two found themselves growing closer and closer: “When it was that the new feeling stole into our lives I do not know,” he writes. “I have no recollection of how I knew that she loved me with the same ardor as that which possessed me. But I knew.”

Around them, the Hertl farm was alive with cows, chickens, field-workers, and the children—four young men and women—now approaching maturity.

“It was not easy to achieve privacy…but somehow we found moments to share; a touching of hands, a long look where soul cried out to soul. And on the tossing hay wagon swaying high above the ground I found the lips I loved and the opulent sweet breasts. No word of love was spoken, only what an embrace said. I remember the sad blue eyes searching mine at such moments. Sometimes I think they were pleading: don’t ever deceive me or I’ll die.”

Aherne describes the joys of two budding young lovers: “Foolish children, neither of us knew life with its burden of sadness and loss. We huddled together, locked in our little world of love…. Though Nettie was several years older, she knew no more of the world of men and women than I did. Perhaps that is why we brought to our passion the freshness of a new creation, another Adam and Eve untouched by the knowledge of good and evil.”

At summer’s end, Aherne returned to Philadelphia and the two began writing “anguished letters,” he says, looking toward reunion at Christmas or the following June. ‘The separation, painful as it was, made the day of return a gift of God, and the moment when we were free to hold each other once more seemed a new discovery of all those things we had learned to cherish in each other.”

One sunny Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1928, the two were alone in the house for several hours. A strange stillness settled over the second floor. He writes: “I sat in my room, acutely aware that in her part of the house Nettie was alone too…. Not only was I conscious that I wanted to be with her in a way I had never been, but my instinct told me that she was contending with this notion too.”

But then, in a moment of pain and uncertainty, Jack Aherne faced an epiphany: “My feelings were in turmoil, but I knew that renunciation was my course.”

To describe his renunciation of physical love solely in these bare terms, as I am doing here, is to deprive it of its sweetness and poignancy, yet a reader of his autobiography understands his decision.

“Was it fear of possible consequences?” Aherne asked himself. “Perhaps,” he answered, “but there was more than fear. Long moral training and an unarticulated but real feeling for the place of God in my life played a part. Beyond these was an inchoate, only half understood, conviction; the fulfillment of love was not for me.”

Within a year, Aherne says, “I had made the essential decision of my life and started out on the long road to the priesthood.”

But he never forgot his first love and the Hertl family. In 1929, Otto Hertl committed suicide, when, in devastating succession, disease destroyed his herd of pigs, fire decimated the farm, and his finances gave out. Learning of his death, Aherne, 17, and his parents returned to the farm to offer condolences. It was the last time he and Nettie saw each other for 34 years, until he celebrated his 25th anniversary as a priest, in 1963.

Ten years later, when his sister Jeanne told Aherne that Nettie had died: “I went into another room,” he wrote, “where the tears could flow unnoticed for the woman I loved so long ago.” Aherne fantasized in poetry about the road not taken. In one poem, called “Omaha Beach, I Owe You a Death,” he speaks of “the landscape of love remembered” and writes:

  • I recall the abashed young
  • Man now a stranger,
  • Who waited as she moved
  • In white splendor
  • Up the aisle to meet me at the altar steps
  • Sparkling like ruby of the wine of Cana

“Someone might call him a religious freak,” says Sister Marion Aherne, his youngest sibling, looking back on their childhood. “At 15 or 16, he was arrested for breaking into a school and saying a pretend Mass.”

Sister Marion and her sisters tell the story as we sit in the paneled dining room of Jefferson House, a dimly lit restaurant on the edge of a small pond in a suburb of Philadelphia. The sisters are devoted admirers of Jack, as they call their brother. They delight in recalling family theatrical productions he staged with them as willing actors, their parents the willing audience.

Today, Sister Consuelo, now 83, and Jeanne, 80, remember that one night their brother entered a boarded-up building at St. Francis of Assisi High School, which had been closed. He and two friends (both later became priests as well) set up a makeshift altar.

“People saw a light and called the police,” says Sister Marion, 77. After their arrest, the three young men were taken before a judge at the town hall police station. When Jack explained their mission, says Marion, “the judge told them never to enter someone else’s property.” They were sent home to their parents.

“He also went to Mass at almost every Catholic church in the Philadelphia area,” said Jeanne some weeks earlier. “He was interested in the different parishes.” His curiosity, she says, was about how different orders of priests within the Catholic faith approached worship. Aherne was searching for a religious home, suggests Jeanne.

Early in this century, the City of Brotherly Love was an incubator of religious vocations. It was filled with Catholic churches and a zealous spirit of dedication to spiritual matters. This was not unrelated to the struggle of the sons and daughters of Irish immigrants to move upward in life. As in many cities, three reliable paths to prosperity for young Catholic Irish-American men in Philadelphia were the police, politics, and the priesthood.

The Augustinians were established in the United States in Philadelphia by Irish priests who arrived in the 1790s. Once in the New World, the Augustinians placed their headquarters in Villanova, not far from where the Ahernes lived.

The order was a major influence in the Catholic life of the region. Founded in Italy in 1244, the Augustinians are one of four major communities begun in the Middle Ages whose members renounce ownership of property and rely on charity. (Among other so-called mendicant orders are the Carmelites, Dominicans, and Franciscans.)

The Aherne family abounded with priests and nuns. Four maternal aunts were nuns. Two cousins, James and Joseph Flaherty, were priests. Two of Aherne’s sisters were nuns (Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia). Religious dedication and service were family values for the young Aherne children.

Aherne’s father, John Sr., was the son of an Irish immigrant. Aherne’s mother, Anna, was the granddaughter of Irish immigrants. The Ahernes were among tens of thousands of Irish ancestry drawn to Philadelphia in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. According to Jeanne Aherne, her parental grandfather had worked as the chief gardener for Lord Midleton in the Irish town called Midleton, about 125 miles southwest of Dublin, in County Cork, where her father was born.

The Philadelphia neighborhoods to which they moved are long changed with blight and decay. Walking and driving between addresses in the Germantown section, a visitor gets a partial glimpse of the modest circumstances in which the Ahernes lived.

At 5036 Wade Street, a plywood board blocks a view inside the front window. The porch displays the results of improving fortunes: above two Adirondack-style chairs and a green trash bin, a pointed arch rises over what was the Ahernes’ doorway. It is covered by a fresh coat of pale green paint.

As I open my car door and stand to take a snapshot, a loud voice sounds behind me: ‘Hey, what you doin’ takin’ a picture of my house?” I click off a shot and turn to face an angry expression. A young black man, hands on hips, glares at a neighborhood intruder. “I’m taking the picture of the house where a Catholic priest who later became a college president lived when he was a boy,” I say, the words bursting out. “Oh, really?” the young man says in a tone of surprise and delight. The moment passes. I drive away.

Nearby, I look inside the gate of the Germantown Cricket Club, for 150 years one of the city’s hallowed sports grounds a d the site of a yearly national senior grass-court tennis tournament. The club is an island of gentility, its manicured lawns filling a vast compound of privilege that the Ahernes could not afford. “We did not go there,” says Sister Consuelo.

At 4613 Greene Street, a narrow wooden house presents a fading beige façade crowned by a white-framed bay window and a twin-pillared porch. A hedge runs along the sidewalk. The shades are drawn over the past and present. Traffic streams along Green Street, winding toward central Philadelphia, passing churches, grocery stores, a library.

To the east, the Aherne house at 2116 Haines Street has vanished. The state tore down the entire row of houses recently and erected a long gray cement-block building. A red-and-white sign proclaims job services for the inner city under a program sponsored by more than of dozen community groups as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“I remember men standing around smoking in the morning there,” says Sister Consuelo, who admits to picking up discarded butts at age three and pretending to take a puff. Jack Aherne started school while the family lived on Haines Street, which was in the heart of a densely populated section of Philadelphia.


One Sunday afternoon in the fall of 1979, a tall, bespectacled nun with rosy cheeks sat alone watching television in a room in the mother house of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia. The house sits on the campus of Chestnut Hill College, a small liberal arts school on the outskirts of the city.

On the TV screen was a program featuring Pope John Paul II. “At one point,” recalls Sister Consuelo, “the Holy Father, stood up, and there, on a desk, were three thick volumes bound in white. I said, ‘Ohhh! He’s using it in the papal office.’”

Soon, the phone began to ring. With sparking eyes, Sister Consuelo, now a retired history professor and editor, remembers the voices and excitement of nearly a dozen callers. “They asked: ‘Did you see the Holy Father?’ ‘Did you see the dictionary?’” Most were colleagues who had helped her compile a reference work over a 13-year period. “We were so happy. We couldn’t get over it.”

The dictionary was the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, a monumental compendium of more than 20,000 entries. Filling 3815 pages, in three volumes, it weighs a staggering 14 pounds. All but one of the 5000 printed copies were bound in red. Sister Consuelo had placed a papal copy bound in white leather in the hands of Pope John Paul II at a special audience in Rome that summer.

What makes the publication remarkable beyond its size and scope is that it is the product of an intense collaboration between three members of the Aherne family: Sister Consuela Aherne, who served as coeditor; Jeanne Aherne Brady, the managing editor; and John Aherne, an associate editor and one of the dictionary’s prime contributors. Between 1975 and 1979, Jack Aherne wrote an astonishing stream of articles.

His entries begin with a concise 63-line history of Belgium (“The Concordat of 1801 brought temporary truce, but Napoleon’s insistence on making fidelity to the empire a religious duty lost him ultimately the favor of the Belgian bishops and people….”) and end with a terse 11-line sketch of Frederick James Zwierlein (1881-1960), a Rochester, N.Y., priest-historian and author of “…a pioneer work in the field of American church history.”

In 1018 entries, the most of any contributor, Jack Aherne covered an extraordinary eclectic mix of subjects and topics. He wrote biographies, from the obscure: (Swiss novelist Heinrich Federer) to the exalted (De Gaulle, Flaubert, Lenin, and Spengler). He summed up the literary achievements of Anthony Trollope and Ben Jonson. He described a master work of literature, the celebrated Gilgamesh Epic (“…most ancient epic known to man, dates to 3d millennium…long narrative centers on hero-king Uruk…brooding man whose preoccupation with mortality and a search for immortality reflects a society long buried and forgotten…”). About the Canterbury Tales, he was analytical (“one of the great poems of the English language…distinguished by poetic power, humor, compassion, and, above all, a realism that accepts good or bad for what they are”).

In a series of brief entries, Aherne defined dozens of terms of religious practice, especially nomenclature, including, for example, the Holy See (“…a term used to designate the residence and the authority of the Pope”) and First Friday (“…an observance based on the promises of Our Lord…that unusual graces would come to those who received communion on nine successive first Fridays of the month”).

There are glimpses into the history of ideas: “The word Utopia,” Aherne wrote, “was the creation of St. Thomas More in the 16th Century and means literally ‘no place’ but can also designate ‘good place’.’” He walked the trenches of religious conflict: “Recusant Poets,” he wrote, were “the large group of English Catholic poets and dramatists” who contributed to English literature in the 16th and 18th Centuries “when to profess Catholicism was to draw down disapproval of society, and in many instances, persecution, exile or death.”

“Jack would suggest…his own assignments,” says Sister Consuelo, sitting in a conference room at St Joseph Villa, a modern retirement home in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, a small community about a mile east of Chestnut Hill College.

Aherne was one of 591 contributors whose words were edited and prepared for publication by a staff that eventually totaled nearly 60 nuns, Aherne’s youngest sister, Sister Marion Aherne, worked as a teacher in the same community of nuns.

The dictionary was begun in 1966 at CTHOLIC University in Washington, D.C., where Sister Consuelo had been an assistant editor for medieval church history on another reference work, the New Catholic Dictionary. By 1973, its funding exhausted, Corpus Publications, staffed by dozens of priests and nuns, was on the verge of disbanding. Sister Consuelo persuaded her order’s superior general to accept the dictionary’s working manuscript (already comprising about 11,000) entries) as a gift. The Sisters of St. Joseph moved the work to Philadelphia, where a new cadre formed to finish the project.

Sic years later, “The [completed] books arrived on Good Friday,” says Sister Consuelo. There were in hundreds of brown boxes, and the mother superior immediately seized the moment: “Good,” she told Consuelo, “we have the perfect excuse not to observe our Friday evening vow of silence.” This set off animated dinner conversations about who had written what and where and how the books would be distributed.

“We sold them for $69 a copy,” says Jeanne Brady. “We covered our costs,” says Sister Consuelo, “which eased certain, ah, anxiety in the community.” Many had doubted the order would be able to complete the work or assumed that its publication would create financial disaster.

With the Aherne crew at work, they need not have worried. The 5000 copies of the dictionary, renamed the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, sold out almost immediately, finding their ways to parish rectories, convent libraries, and colleges and universities.

To scan its pages today is to take a rare glimpse into John Aherne’s rigorous scholarship. Still, the grind took its toll. He mistakenly believed (and wrote) that he had published “more than 1300 articles” in the dictionary. ‘Though I strove for accuracy in all that I wrote, I must confess,” wrote Jack Aherne, “the quality of my writing varied.”

While many of Aherne’s contributions are incisive and sharp, some seem pedantic. Of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938), he wrote of his major work: “…Canto Nuovo demonstrated the qualities of pagan sensuousness, not to say decadence, which would mark his later work.”

Aherne described the French composed Claude Debussy (1862-1918) as “…a man of volatile character and numerous love affairs…” And Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) believed, wrote Aherne, “the one important thing was the creation of beauty in writing.” The novelist wrote “…a consuming hatred of bourgeois mind, not only middle class but all mediocrity, [which] cast him often in an anti-religious role, but sun an astute Catholic critic as Francois Mauriac regarded him as a mystic manqué.”

Some of his measurements of political figures are merely conventional: “John F. Kennedy…brought the presidency wit, intelligence, and grace.” His estimation of Linin (“…the most influential political thinker and statesman of the 20th Century…”) has b en overtaken by history. His description of Andre Malraux (“”…a life of high adventure…”) seems merely ordinary, but his portrait of Charles De Gaulle hits a chord (“Irritation as he was to English and American leaders, he exhibited an almost mystical sense of French greatness and destiny”).

Among his specialties, Aherne wrote a 323-line historical review of the Catholic Church in Latin America. But his heart seemed most deeply committed to the artists. He described the lives of many poets, including his beloved Emily Dickinson (“…she deliberately clothed herself in mystery, out of which came only unsatisfactory hints of three overpowering loves, her gnomic, brief utterances condense a vision that see the world, death, immortality in almost shocking clarity. Her poetic vision has a gait that at first disturbs but ultimately fascinates…”).

He could reel off lines of blunt description. Of G.K. Chesterton: “as a student C. displayed a curious mixture of indolence and brilliance… [He] wrote more than one wishes he had attempted, but in that mass of published work, there lies the unmistakable track of a man of genius.”

Not only was Aherne the most prolific writer for the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, he helped recruit many religious scholars who agreed to tackle subjects. One of the most remarkable entries, however, came from his sister, Consuelo.

In a six-page history of the papacy, she described the turmoil within the modern church over birth control, celibacy, obedience; and the right of free inquiry, then concluded: “The prestige of the papacy has suffered a sharp decline…the Church in the late 20th Cent. Faces cruel dilemmas: more anguish than certitude, more losses than gains, more hope than happiness.”


Now, I beseech you, brethren by the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. —St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:10)

Thirteen years after leaving San Diego, Aherne found himself removed again from a position of authority, this time from the presidency of Merrimack College, to which he had been assigned in 1962 as academic vice president. He was chosen president in 1968 and helped enlarge and run the small college, which today has about 2800 students.

Founded by Augustinians in North Andover, Massachusetts, in 1947, Merrimack was still a raw place with few trees when Aherne arrive in 1962, according to John Obert, a former student who manages the school’s alumni relations office.

Today, its 220-acre campus is graced by stately trees and ample greenery, a sculpture of Robert Frost, a reflecting pool traversed by the replica of the first iron bridge in America, and a brace of modern structures, including a large library and a huge sports activity center.

At one end of Aherne Avenue rises a redbrick church, its white steeple announcing a cluster of smaller buildings. At the other end of the avenue, the street empties into a vast parking lot for the sports center, named for Peter Volpe, a benefactor with who Aherne worked to raise money...

“If John Aherne had had a fabulous development staff, “says Jim Greeley, a former student, “he’d have been president for many, many years.” Greeley was a student president during Aherne’s tenure and worked in business before returning to direct Merrimack’s Career Services and Cooperative education program.

Looking back at Aherne’s failures as a fund-raiser, Greeley concludes they were not entirely Aherne’s fault. College president Aherne’s staff consisted of a secretary, a pert-time alumni director, and a development officer. Today, the school employs 30 people to do the work of soliciting money for projects and new buildings and finding extra funds to help run the campus.

“You want your president to go after the big donors,” says Greeley, “not the smaller ones. He should not be dealing with people who might contribute a few thousand dollars.”

Finances were always difficult, but Aherne and staff managed to keep the college afloat until 1975, when a sudden doubling of energy costs threw the school’s budget into the red for a second year. Even though rising costs were not unusual amid shortened fuel supplies, Merrimack’s board demanded his dismissal.

The school’s shaky finances were the prime reason for his departure, but not the only factor, according to several friends. Aherne was popular with many students and had a circle of admiring adult friends in the North Andover community, but he had made enemies on the faculty, where he was seen by some as arrogant and elitist.

“He didn’t mind letting individual members of the faculty know when he didn’t think they were qualified,” says Patrick Rice, the close friend who served as a Merrimack treasurer, and later trustee, for several years during Aherne’s presidency.

“He didn’t suffer fools,” laughs Jim Greeley, “at least not gladly.”

Aherne also had a well-deserved reputation for spending precious money on arts projects, which earned the school artistic acclaim but little financial return.

Symphonic groups, including the Boston Pops, operatic stars, Birgit Nilsson among them, and a Hollywood actor, my old friend Victor Buono, were brought to campus in well-publicized appearances that dazzled the North Andover community, which lived in the intellectual and cultural of the exclusive Phillips Academy in adjacent Andover.

The two campuses sit barely two miles apart, connected by winding, tree-lined streets, but the prep school’s financial resources dwarf the college’s, and when the economic crunch caused by the energy crisis took hold in the mid 1970’s, it was Merrimack that blinked. The giant, cigar-smoking Aherne was removed at a stroke.

“It is with heavy heart that I write,” he informed his sister Jeanne Brady on July 15, 1975: “A bloc among the trustees, without notice to me, has asked for my resignation—as far as I can see on the grounds of our two-year deficit.”

When the board demanded that he leave the campus monastery and sever his ties with the school, Aherne bristled: “I shall insist on residing here,” he told Brady, asking her to “inform Consuelo and Marion” but adding: “I prefer that no one else know the forced situation. Just say I’ve had it with the job.”

After this second great upheaval in his career, Aherne was again crushed: “The dynamic of my life, teaching and administration, is gone, and in their place a great emptiness prevails,” he write in in memoir, A Kind of Fidelity.

Nearly a decade after his dismissal, he remembered the event with poetic sadness:

  • So fragile the fabric of my
  • Merrimack time
  • Who sought to weave texture
  • Of learning
  • Where warp of leadership
  • With woof of faculty
  • Entangled in a web gossamer
  • As spiders filament
  • Dismaying the dreamer who
  • Saw the fabric rent

(Final stanza, “A Letter to Some Who Would Mourn My Death,” A Late Winnowing, 1985)

Aherne bemoaned the “savage injustice” of his removal and was thrown into despair. “Those were dark days,” recalls Greeley.

Of course, Aherne had fallen down these stairs before, and a full three years after his dismissal in 1962 from St. Augustine High School, he was still suffering from it. In 1965, he confided to a friend that he was thinking of leaving the priesthood. “He felt the church had let him down.” says Darwin Dapper, a former student and business who remained a close friend until Aherne’s death.

“When he told me at lunch at Lubach’s one day that he might quit, I said: “You’ve gotta be kidding me. What the hell do you think you’re gonna do?’” Dipper’s reaction may have sobered Aherne. His contemplation of resignation “didn’t last very long. It was so ridiculous.”

In 1975, at Merrimack, Aherne faced the same abyss. But after 22 numbing years of administrative duties, he began to feel the stirrings of a new pursuit. Ultimately, it was to take over his life. “It was the writing that saved him, “says Greeley.

  • Irish poets, learn your trade
  • Sing whatever is well made.

—Yeats

(Handwritten note found among Aherene's papers)

As a poet, John Aherne was endlessly observant, attentive to his craft, and remarkably uncertain that he could sustain his artistic vision. In a preface to his second volume (Murmur of Times Past), published in 1979, he wrote; “[T]he force which drove me to write verse has spent itself. I am unlikely to write poetry further. A minor voice…exhausts itself after brief utterance.”

It was a false alarm. In the following decade, Aherne was prodigious: he wrote 11 additional volumes of poetry. (In all, he published at least 626 poems.) Between 1978 and 1989, the year before his death, he produced a volume of poetry every year save one and published two volumes each in 1984, 1985, and 1986 (a year in which he also published Testament, a collection of 199 poems drawn from his earlier works).

Aherne wrote regularly in the monastery at Merrimack but often found a writing sanctuary in an unlikely place. “The 99 Restaurant is very casual,” says Jim Greeley, who frequently joined Aherne for lunch. “It used to be called the High Spot, a big gathering place in the old days [for] a lot of the faculty and administration at Merrimack.

“Even if he wasn’t dining with me or some other friend,” says Greeley, who helped raise money to publish Aherne’s poems, “he would go there…in the afternoon and get a little corner section, and he would write poetry and have his lunch. You know, two or three martinis, and he would spend two or three hours there.”

Aherne’s style was to make full-blown assault on virtually all forms of poetic expression. By his own count, the poems of Testament contain 56 different rhyming patterns. The volume also contains 57 poems in blank and free verse. He proudly wrote in the forms used by Dante, Keats, Chaucer, and others. TO the modern reader, many of his poems are difficult tests of attention and understanding.

“His poetry was too heavy for me,” says Robert Griswold, the former Augustinian priest who teaches English in Walnut Creek, “I couldn’t understand some of his plays. I liked him, but his plays were so didactic.” Webster defines didactic as “designed or intended to teach; intended to convey instruction and information as well as pleasure and entertainment.” In other words, too heavy for many readers seeking light amusement.

If there was any doubt that Aherne was serious as a writer, consider that between 1975 and 1990, the years between his dismissal form Merrimack and his death, he wrote more than 260 pages of autobiography (in two volumes), 14 volumes of poetry, the 1018 entries he contributed to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Religion, and, in 1985, for good measure, he published Serendipity, an 87-oage series of extended essays on six Catholic authors.

In 1978, Aherne issued what amounts to a challenge and a plea to readers of his poetry:

  • Strangers search out the secret buried
  • In my cryptic scrawlings on an insentient page
  • Tracings of a journey that hides and reveals
  • The pilgrimage of a hear more eager than sage

(Prologue to The Seasons of the Heart)

Aherne’s poetry reveals glimpses of his inner self fascinated with the idea of love. “I acknowledge without apology,” he wrote in the preface to Testament, “the prominence of love poems in my work and the…theme of the mysterious character of love itself,”

Aherne acknowledged a bond with those he loved: “Of those I have known and loved over a long lifetime, shadowy presences in the poetry, I say only that I shall not break the seal of secrecy protecting them and me.” He was admitting, he wrote, “their pull upon the heart that soared and dipped wing in troubled skies of mortal longing.”

Aherne wrote frequently of death, occasionally in terms explained by a mysterious figure, Michael. This was a code name he gave himself.

In “Michael’s Dream: A Flowering of Three Gardens,” the surrogate Michael wanders into Eden:

  • Encountered under the Tree of Knowledge,
  • With darks eyes and halo of tumbling hair
  • The woman teaches love to an unschooled Michael
  • Shackled still by chains of fettering fears
  • The pious long ago had grimly forged
  • For the halt to limp away from random adventure,
  • The crippled psyche persuaded that human love
  • Not failure of divine corrodes the soul of bound or free.

Aherne’s use of Michael was well known to Richard O’Hara, a North Andover physician, and his wife, Mary Ellen, who came to know the poet in 1976, a time of poor health for the priest.

In a poem dedicated to O’Hara on his 50th birthday, Aherne recalled:

  • And I who brought you a whitened face
  • In a time of fear precluding wan hope
  • Remember now the gentle hands that probed
  • The mysterious landscape of the surgeon’s scope.

(The O’Haras became two of Aherne’s staunchest supporters and friends. Staging a party for him in 1988, they supplied guests with hand masks bearing his photos. As he entered their living room, he encountered more than a dozen identical images of himself. A bemused Aherne is visible in pictures of the party, which celebrated his 50 years as a priest.)


Despite his overwhelming size and often glowering appearance, Aherne had a special relationship with women and children. Raised in a family of women, including four aunts and three sisters, he seemed at ease in their company.

In San Diego, he became a close friend of Jackie Carter, the sparkling, dark-haired wife of Tom Carter, a former Notre Dame player whom Aherne recruited to be the St. Augustine football coach.

“We both loved opera, and Tom, ah, more of less tolerated it,” she laughs, recalling that Maria Callas was Aherne’s favorite female singer. The two would listen to Aherne’s records, the priest always sitting in clerical white collar, occasionally in a short-sleeved black shirt.

“He decided that each of the children needed to be called a particular kind of animal,” Carter said, “Chris was a tiger, Julie was a lamb.” Aherne usually gave them books for presents, but on occasion he bravely chose dresses for the Carters’ daughters at Christmas.

Aherne’s poetic skills appear to have had an impact on Andrea Brady, the granddaughter of his sister Jeanne. She is currently a graduate student in poetry at Cambridge University in England. In 1990, at age 15, she wrote of her Uncle Jack:

  • …When he spoke of us, I felt myself a creature of poetry to be placed in
  • the hallowed white halls of lines and verses,
  • incased by some magic of his design. To my
  • childish ears, he turned phrases like a
  • glassblower perfecting his wares, creating an
  • entire glass menagerie—Look but don’t touch

In 1968, Aherne walked into a restaurant in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and met 22-year old Natalie Talbott Blaney, a Kentucky-born summer waitress. They struck up a conversation about a Civil War novel of Kentucky. In a summer of weekly meetings, he persuaded her to complete her college education at Merrimack, where he helped her find a job supervising younger dorm students.

Now a lawyer in Manhattan, Blaney recalled his affinity for women: “He was the most amazing person, the most interesting person. Whether he as a priest or not, he was determined not to deny himself the feminine relationship.” After Blaney married, Aherne would visit the couple in New York. “We always had dinner,” she said, “He loved to eat n grand places. He used the Edwardian Room of the Plaza Hotel as his local place, [and] he was quite, quite disturbed when he learned [it] had closed…”

Another Merrimack student, Sharon Broussard, who later joined the college staff with her husband, recalled Aherne's fond, fatherly kiss on her graduation day. “I received an award, and I went back [to his office] and he said, “I would really like to give you a kiss if that would be appropriate.’” Aware of today’s tensions over displays of affection between administrators and students, Broussard said: “”That’s the way he was; in those days, that stuff was pure and simple, [and] he was just the most loving” person.

Mary Ellen O’Hara, whose physician husband nursed Aherne back to health, found him enormously appealing: “I loved this man. I loved everything he did.”

Aherne viewed friendship with both men and women as a form of love, he wrote in A Kind of Fidelity, and while he was wary of being misunderstood, he spoke forthrightly of his male friendships: “In a world given to prurience…one hesitates to speak of the love of man for man, fearful of being branded a homosexual. The perfectly normal affection among men has been degraded.” He said. “I will not be intimidated by this form of ignorance. I hold in heart many of my own sex, loved over my mature years.”

Said his sister Jeanne, “What’s his legacy? Unlimited love. I never knew anybody who loved so many people. I never knew anybody who had that capacity.”

In 1986, Aherne attended our 30th class reunion in San Diego. The organizers rented a paddle wheeler at the Bahia Hotel on Mission Bay. Aherne mingled with the guests. Speeches were made and dinner was served as the boat moved quietly back and forth in the darkness between the Bahia and Catamaran Hotels. I still remember the last there words of his brief talk to the assembled Class of 1956: “Use critical judgment,” he implored us, ever the headmaster searching for ways to arm his students for the life ahead.

Despite smiles, he still seemed stiff and remotely distant to me, even as we sat across from each other at dinner. But a mild glow of satisfaction crossed his face as he puffed on a cigar and looked around the room through his thick glasses.


Four years later, on June 4, 1990, John Aherne died in North Andover, Massachusetts. His death certificate lists the “immediate cause” of death as “carcinoma of lung, metastatic,” occurring over a six-month period.

According to John Glynn, his former deputy at St. Augustine, one day, as word spread of his illness, a friend called Aherne from California. It was Anthony Wasco, an Augustinian who had serves as one of Aherne’s successors at St. Augustine High (1975-1983). He reached Aherne at Merrimack. “Father Wasco told me this story several times,” says Glynn. “After a short conversation, Aherne said, ‘Well, Tony, I’m gonna say good-bye,’ and died not long afterward.”

There were memorials at both Merrimack and Villanova/ John Sanders, the St. Augustine High principal, flew in from the West Coast. “I just went; I know it was important,” he said. Patrick Rice attended both services and delivered eulogies. Rice repeated the story of the two men visiting Emily Dickinson’s house and grave 28 years earlier. “It was the start of a great friendship that was the blessing in my life,” he said.

John Aherne is buried a few miles outside the Philadelphia city limits, in Calvary Cemetery, operated by the Catholic archdiocese in a wooded area of West Conshohocken. On one hillside, a section contains the graves of more than 40 Augustinian priests and brothers. “That’s where they all go,” said the caretaker when I asked directions. Their names call the roll of immigration: Kelly, Ryan, Conroy, Cone, Hurley, Gilligan, Griferty, Flaherty, McNamara, Tuohy, McFadden.

Simple flat stones identify each of the deceased. Aherne shares a grave with Henry Greenlee, a teacher, administrator, and parish priest. Exactly 29 steps away, a marker identifies the grave of James Donnellon, who transferred Aherne from San Diego to North Andover. Both now rest beneath Pennsylvania soil.

On a clear Saturday afternoon last July, I stood at their graves and heard the sound of bagpipes. A hundred yards away, a line of cars was pulled up beside a shiny gray casket. People stood and watched as a priest moved to bless the coffin.

The sun shone brightly and from the distance, barely audible notes of music swirled in the air, drifting to the stones at my feet. For several minutes, I listened. But not until I sat behind the wheel of my car and began to drive away, did I recognize the melody of “Amazing Grace.”

—John Martin


  • John Martin joined ABC News in 1975 and has been a national correspondent since 1983. He reports for World News Tonight With Peter Jennings, Nightline, and other ABC News broadcasts.
  • Mr. Martin covers government waste in a regular feature, It’s Your Money, on ABC’s World News Tonight.
  • For a series of reports on nicotine for ABC’s newsmagazine Day One Mr. Martin shared the 1994 George Polk Award and a Gold Baton from the 1994 duPont-Columbia awards. He shared the 1994 reporting award from the National Association of Black Journalists New York Chapter for a Day One report on cigarette marketing.
  • Mr. Martin shared an Emmy Award for his 1992 profile of Ross Perot; and he was nominated for Emmy Awards in 1988, for a series on Pentagon fraud, and in 1982, for a profile of Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev. He shared the 1992 duPont Columbia Award for the ABC News special “Line in the Sand: War or Peace?”
  • Mr. Martin currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife, Katherine Fitzhugh. He has two daughters, Sophie and Claire.
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