This Man in Black: Why did they love him? Why did they fire him?

A religious life.

Father John Aherne
  • Father John Aherne

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.

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.

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

Father Joe Aherne

Father Joe Aherne

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Bill Mahedy

Bill Mahedy

“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.

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