Time Machine: Iowa's priest admiral, the extraordinary life of Maurice Sheehy
Maurice S. Sheehy — friend of presidents and football coaches, beloved parish priest and Vatican insider, best-selling author and world traveler, a decorated World War II veteran and the first priest to become a Navy vice admiral — grew up and went to school in northeast Iowa, before returning to guide two churches in Cedar Rapids.
It was an exceptional life, by any yardstick, and it began in 1898, when Sheehy was born in Irwin, Ill. A short time later, his family moved to an Iowa farm near New Hampton, where Sheehy grew up with four brothers and two sisters and an extended family that included his cousin Arch Ward.
At age 13, Sheehy began attending Columbia Academy in Dubuque, graduating from Columbia College in 1918.
Probably influenced by Ward, who would become sports editor of the Chicago Tribune, Sheehy was sports editor of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald and wrote freelance articles for The Gazette in 1916 and 1917.
Sheehy’s calling, however, was the priesthood.
He entered St. Paul Seminary in Wisconsin in 1918 and was ordained in 1922. His first assignment was to return to Dubuque and his alma mater, which would become Loras College, named after the school’s founder and first president, the Most Rev. Bishop Mathias Loras.
At Loras, Sheehy was both a teacher and the athletic director.
He hired football players Eddie Anderson and Elmer Layden to be Loras coaches. Anderson, who would later build the “Iron Men” team at the University of Iowa, coached at Loras for three seasons beginning in 1922. Layden, who coached 1925 to 1926, would become the NFL commissioner.
Sheehy later told his friend George Halas, the famed owner/coach of the Chicago Bears, “When Eddie Anderson was coaching at Loras, he used to play for the Chicago Cardinals at the same time. I used to go to Chicago with him for games and serve as head linesman. Do you know all they paid Eddie in those days? A hundred dollars a game!”
Halas, with a sly grin, replied, “A good man was worth that.”
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In 1927, Sheehy became a faculty member of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees.
Ten years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Sheehy to the board of visitors — like a board of trustees — of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He also accepted a commission as a Navy chaplain.
Sheehy and Bishop James Ryan of Omaha made a tour of friendship of South America in 1939 as unofficial ambassadors of President Roosevelt.
In February 1941, Sheehy was assigned to active duty. He spent the next two years — during World War II — as senior Catholic chaplain at the Navy air station in Jacksonville, Fla.
From there, he served on the USS Mississippi and the USS Saratoga. He was promoted to captain in 1944 and was assigned as district chaplain at Pearl Harbor.
By the end of the war, Sheehy had served 33 months in the Pacific and had been awarded six battle stars, a Bronze Star and a citation.
After the war, Sheehy returned to his duties at Catholic University. Along with heading the religious education department, he wrote seven books. Three of them — “Head Over Heels,” “Six O’Clock Mass” and “The Priestly Heart” — became best-sellers.
During his 30 years in the nation’s capital, Sheehy met and befriended many famous people, including the family of Joseph Kennedy, the father of the future president.
In 1948, Sheehy was named domestic prelate and given the title of right reverend monsignor by Pope Pius XII.
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In 1957, at age 59, the monsignor became pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Cedar Rapids, the city’s oldest Catholic congregation. He arrived in time to deliver a sermon for the dedication of the new St. Matthew’s Catholic Church on May 30. He was installed as Immaculate Conception’s new pastor on Aug. 8.
Sheehy’s connections in Washington resulted in a special tour for the last senior class at Immaculate Conception School. The new Regis High School would absorb I.C. students in the fall of 1958, but I.C.’s final graduating class was treated to six days in the nation’s capital. The tour included a visit to the Washington Post and Times Herald, a White House tour and a meeting with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Sheehy’s competitive spirit and his sense of humor became well known in Cedar Rapids.
At one dinner party, he was asked to say grace. “Dear Father,” he began, “teach us to live so that when we die, even the undertaker will cry at our funeral. And I challenge any Protestant minister to do it this fast. Amen.”
In June 1958, Sheehy, as a veteran with more than 20 years in the Navy and the naval reserve, became the first chaplain in U.S. armed forces history to achieve the rank of three-star vice admiral. He had asked to go on the retired list on May 1, and while the Navy honored that request, it said he might be called to active duty if needed.
Sheehy had become acquainted with President Eisenhower while he was in Washington. When Eisenhower, a former Army general, came to Iowa in October 1958 for a corn-picking contest, Sheehy said to him, “You know, Mr. President, the Army may have brought you out here in a helicopter, but the Navy arranged this weather for you.”
Eisenhower, in turn, teased Sheehy for not being in a Navy uniform.
In 1959, soon after a visit to Cedar Rapids by Sheehy’s friend, Alfredo Cardinal Ottaviani of Rome, Sheehy was named a protonotary apostolic by Pope John XXIII. The elevation in ecclesiastical rank identified him as a “member of the papal family,” allowing him to participate in functions in much the same way as a bishop.
About a year later, Sheehy resigned as pastor of the Immaculate Conception parish to concentrate on his new parish, St. Pius X. A school there was formally blessed on Sept. 3, 1961, with plans to build a church, convent and rectory in the future.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963, Sheehy flew to Washington for the state funeral.
The monsignor was 67 when he took a leave of absence in 1965 to visit his friend Navy Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz on the West Coast, attend a family reunion in New Hampton, reunite with shipmates from the USS Saratoga in Florida, and fly to Rome for the final session of the Ecumenical Council.
While overseas, he spent five days in the Holy Land, where he planted a tree in honor of Rabbi Isaac Neumann of Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids.
“Now Rabbi Neumann says he’s going to plant some potatoes in Ireland in honor of the Sheehys,” he joked.
Sheehy retired in 1966, citing health reasons. He died at Mercy Medical Center in Dubuque on Feb. 10, 1972. He was 74.
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