IN MEMORIAM for Monsignor William Sears
January 8, 2005
Bill Sears passed from this life to that of total spirit on January 8, 2005, knowing that for some time he had lived a fragile existence with his declining health, his weakened heart, and his injuries sustained in Vietnam. (He had remarked in earlier letters to Marists All: "I'm ready but the Boss ain't.") Maybe his attitude toward life, his exuberance, his caring for others, was affected by an event in Nam when he, for the first time, almost made that same transition close to four decades earlier.
Four marines were seriously injured out in the steaming jungle, and a Presbyterian minister was on call to go out to them. Bill, a Marine Corps chaplain, knowing the minister was married with children, volunteered to go. In their APC, Bill and the other marines successfully found the wounded. On the return, the APC hit a mine; the wounded marines were all killed; medics rushing to the scene, started to attend to the survivors, one of whom was Bill. One medic remarked: "Get a bodybag for this one (meaning Bill)." But another medic said he's still alive and Bill just pulled through. (Years later after that medic graduated from medical school, Bill officiated at his wedding.)
Bill is known to me through clear memories, long conversations and reminiscences lasting on into the night, and then during the days I spent with him at my house in Virginia and at his in Florida. For me it was a privilege to talk with him and have him share so much of his interesting life, what he called his "monk-ey and priestly stories." A born raconteur, Bill reveled in a myriad number of stories of his helping others, shaking up the clotted arteries of one institution after another, and still exemplifying his patience with those who were even more frustrated than Bill.
To convey something of this man whom I got to love so much, I, too, can only recount a number of stories. Through each of them a wonderful, generous and yes, holy man shines through, a totally unselfish man with strong opinions, with muted iconoclastic tendencies that remained impatient with the personal and organizational obstacles that stood in the way of helping people.
I probably rubbed shoulders with Bill unknowingly as early as 1948, when he as a freshman and I, as an eighth grader, moved through that maelstrom of 1200 teenagers that was the yard at St. Ann's Academy. In 1949, Bill left for the Juniorate in Esopus and in 1950, on September 2nd, I made that same trip. As a newcomer I was assigned to an "oldtimer," B. Pat McNulty, and was just glad that I didn't draw Bill Sears who seemed to be hard to figure out, a little crusty and somewhat intimidating.
But Bill was an integral part of the place, a hard worker there. He still was when I caught up with him in Tyngsboro, I as a postulant and him as a novice, Brother William Mary. Then I moved on to the Marist College and he was a junior. He was never chary at speaking his mind, not even to B. Paul Ambrose. He graduated in 1956 and was sent to Resurrection-Ascension Grammar School in Queens and from there made the decision to go into the priesthood in the Brooklyn diocese and was duly ordained in 1962.
Bill had little patience with the bureaucracy. John Noone saw him as a Christ-like figure who would readily chase today's brand of money changers from the temple. In the aftermath of Vatican II, he started implementing many of the changes on his own timetable, not the diocese's. As they say someone dropped a dime on him to the chancery. Father Sears was called in and admonished by the bishop. Not to be cowed by this usually imposing figure, and buttressed as he saw it by the decrees of Vatican II, Bill demanded to face his accusers. Upon being told this was not possible for their names had to remain confidential, Bill threatened to have his Jewish lawyer sue the diocese for he told his Excellency, that he had a right to confront them. On that note, the brouhaha was terminated. (Later when he retired, it was this same close friend, this same Jewish lawyer from Brooklyn who helped Bill finance and build his retirement cottage.)
But Bill wasn't through with challenging the diocese. Vietnam heated up, and Bill felt that the marines needed a few good men, and priests could apply. The diocese nixed the idea, until Bill threatened to enlist as a "grunt" the next morning. He got his approval that day.
He spent five years ministering to his marines, half of that time under the most demanding conditions in Nam, returning wounded but recovered. For the rest of his priestly career he was in Florida as part of the Venice diocese. (Brooklyn probably figured that he would be more of a problem after his USMC experiences.) He taught religion at Cardinal Mooney High School in Sarasota for a number of years, served and helped out in different parishes, and finally retired because of his health ("severe heart and spinal problems, back, side, and legs") to live simply in a small cottage on Padre Lane in Englewood showing a kindness that touched all that he did, and all that he met. He was still "padre" to everyone for you'd hear it echo down the aisles as you walked with him to dinner in a nearby restaurant. His flock was everywhere and his simple influence and his uplifting personality permeated the area.
Even in retirement he went out to a private island off the coast to say Sunday Mass. He was made a monsignor in 2000, an honor he only accepted because using the title he could throw more weight around in good causes. (In a Marists All letter he commented that his elevation "showed where our church is headed" and spoke of himself as the Ir-reverend Monsignor Willie Sears." Furthermore, he commented that the change of Padre Lane to Monsignor Lane would cost $5000 and he preferred to keep the former.) He was always "padre" to the toughest of the marines under the worst of conditions. Semper fi was not only a marine motto, but one which characterized his work for those young people whom he taught, his network of friends around the country, and for flocks of people in and around Englewood.
One Saturday, high in the Blue Ridge Mountains where we lived for ten years, running our consulting business and a b-n-b, I checked on our post office box which was a room in an old general store. As I walked in, a bearded guy said to me: "How the hell can I find the Wild Geese Inn (the name of our b-n-b)?" I looked and running through the mental rolodex file of names and faces saw something familiar in the eyes, but the beard hid the rest from me.
It was Bill who drove up into the mountains to visit us. We were expecting some good friends from Texas and they arrived just after Bill in his Bronco followed me back on the meandering roads to our place. Before dinner, he asked Mary if he could say Mass. "Sure," she replied, "We can have it in the living room or the den." Bill declined those locations and said he'd say it right there at the dining room table. "It's a Sears mass, and it won't take long" as the aromas from the kitchen swept into the room.
With his wooden chalice, from memory he spoke so very reverently the words of his Mass. The five of us held hands at the Our Father. Then at the Communion, he asked our friends if they were going to receive. Les said he was a fallen away Catholic, having been told years ago that he had done something wrong. Bill inquired: "Do you really love God? Do you love your neighbor?" With positive answers from Les, Bill said no problem. He asked the two questions of his wife, a Presbyterian. She answered yes to both, and she received her first Holy Communion just before dinner. After dinner Bill spent over two hours sitting in the kitchen talking with Les, who acknowledged later that it was one of the most extraordinary experiences in his life. Mary and I both echoed Les' comment; it is a memory that still remains fresh with both of us.
At least through the 1990s Bill crisscrossed the country, touching his network of friends, former students, sons and daughters of former brothers, and former marines to officiate at marriages and baptisms when there were some tiny bureaucratic obstacles presented by pastoral authorities who refused to allow weddings and baptisms to take place.
And therein lies another tale. After staying with him in his cottage in Englewood on two occasions where every possible corner and shelf was loaded with nautical mementoes, and in the aftermath of that weekend on a mountain top in the Blue Ridge, Bill learned that Mary and I had been married in 1980 before a justice of the peace in Tallahassee, because her first husband was still alive. (Mary remarked that she married the non-Catholic in a Catholic church and the Catholic before a J.P.) After Abe (her first husband died), I asked Bill about the chances of regularizing our marriage. No problem.
Our trips to Florida were quite frequent because of the police training down there, and on our next trip Bill promised to work things out. As we prepared to go out to dinner, there at his kitchen table Bill went through the marriage liturgy, somewhat truncated according to his style, and we went out for our wedding reception at one of the local restaurants where the diners did everything but give him a standing ovation.
In the latter half of the 1990s at Marist College there was a luncheon gathering to honor Marist's first two presidents: B. Paul Ambrose and Linus Foy. Bill had this event coincide with riding the circuit for a couple of marriages and was present in his green clerical shirt and white Roman collar. At one point all the B/brothers were invited up to sing the "The Holy City" led by the incomparable Rich LaPietra. After close to 35-40 years without practice we combined to turn out a wonderful rendering of that song, so much a part of our tradition. I felt so close to those who sang alongside me, and I know that Bill was truly uplifted also. You could see it on his face when he gave the blessing before the meal.
Something that Bill yearned for was somewhat satisfied that day. He was with the men he called "my brothers." Every letter in Marists All had that request to spend time with his brothers. There was such a longing as he promised "prayers and mass for all of you," and "whether I know them or never got to meet them, I feel close to all of them, my brothers because Christ is in us all."
Every letter also asked for his brothers to call, to write, to stop by, leading myself and John Noone to agree that Bill "experienced a good deal of loneliness regarding his retirement years in Florida even though they seemed to be full of spirit and devilment." I think if there was anything he missed, it was the closeness of those years with his brothers.
I don't know whether or not he was buried with full military honors in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx, but somehow I know that his heart will always remain with those Marists who lie side by side in Esopus and with all those who at any time wore the cassock, and called Marcellin Champagnat their model. Bill rejoiced with all Marists when as he said: "his former boss was raised to the honors of the altar."
Bill evinced what could only be called an extraordinary love of the Marist Brothers, for everything Marist shone through in all his talk and his letters to Marists All. In those eight letters, he never forgot "his Marist roots," and he admitted: "Everything I've learned in and with the Little Brothers of Mary has stood me in good stead through my forty years in the priesthood." He spoke always of "my brothers" and he longed to get together with his brothers at the September reunion to reminisce, to retell the old stories, and to laugh so heartily with the group about those events of years gone by.
In his last letter in mid-2004, he repeated a quote he had included once before: "The tide recedes but leaves behind bright seashells." For this navy man, this former marine, for this priest, for this man of the spirit and spiritual man, for this truly Marist brother, the tide went out on January 8, 2005 but left behind are the beautiful, bright seashells, thousands of them, one for each of the people that Bill touched so intimately.
in tribute and memory to a really good man and true Marist,
euology by: Patrick Gallagher ‘53