ANDREW BEECHER/THE OBSERVER
We sat down for a (not so) quick conversation with Fr. George Quickley, S.J.
You’ve lived in many interesting places; what is it like living in McMahon?
Over the last year, I’d become comfortable with is a quiet life. One of my concerns was that it was going to be noisy; I’m surprised that it’s not. I get to bed early, except when I’m up late for the masses that we have in the resident halls. I thought that the students’ reaction to a Jesuit priest was going to be negative. I was surprised by how generous and how kind they are. I really love living there. Now, if they get noisy, it might be something a little different. But I really am enjoying living in McMahon.
How did you become a Catholic? Why did you become a priest? What attracted you to the Jesuits?
When I was 10 years old, my Presbyterian family lived in an all-black neighborhood in Baltimore named Cherry Hill. Both of my parents were middle-class working people, but my dad was always interested in his two sons having a good education, which was not always possible. So they worked to move to a neighborhood where the education would be much more promising. In 1956, we moved to a northern part of Baltimore. There were two Presbyterian churches, but they did not allow us to come and worship. My parents and my brother continued to go to church in Cherry Hill, which required them to take a long bus ride. I was a little on the radical side, and I started going to the Catholic Church, Blessed Sacrament, which was one of the only churches that allowed African-Americans to attend service. And so I started going there, I was about 11 years old. I continued to go on my own until I was about 14. I was received on April 16, 1962. While I was learning about the Catholic Church, I read a book called “Obedient Men” about the Jesuits. It’s about a young man who goes through 15 years in formation as a Jesuit. I knew I wanted to be one of them, but I never actualized that until after I graduated from high school in 1974.
I studied philosophy at Fordham after I entered the Jesuit formation in 1974. I’d lived in Murray-Weigel, which was the house where the Jesuit seminarians lived while they were doing philosophy. So I knew Fordham then; I came back on sabbatical from Africa in November 2011. I spent nine months at Spellman, and I was offered the opportunity to work in Campus Ministry. I am a member of the African Province of Jesuits in West Africa, and so after the sabbatical I was to return. But there was a parish in Oakland, CA, that was looking for an African American Jesuit that could speak Spanish. I couldn’t speak Spanish, but I was African American. So I was asked to go there by my provincial, who gave permission for me to stay for two years, it ended up being six years. I was having a routine checkup and the doctors discovered some issues with my heart and suggested that I wait a little while. They eventually said that I should not go back to Africa. Because I sat on the Board of Trustees and because of the sabbatical, Joe McShane asked if I could be a presence at Fordham Lincoln Center. I think he was concerned about the Jesuit presence here. Since I knew I wasn’t going back to Africa, I said no problem. So Fordham has really been in and out of my life for some years now.
What does it mean to be the Resident Minister and Chaplain?
You see Jesuits in many different positions — from the president to professors — doing all kinds of things, wearing all kinds of clothes. I think part of why I’m here is because I was asked to be a support to Campus Ministry in terms of spiritual needs, counseling, celebration of the Sacrament, but it also means that I am to enhance the witness of Jesuits in this university. So you see Fr. DeCola, who is the vice president. That’s a Jesuit. You see Fr. Burke, who teaches philosophy; that’s a Jesuit. I represent another aspect of what it means to call this the Jesuit University of New York City.
I believe there are multiple Jesuits living on campus at Rose Hill, are you the only Jesuit living on campus at Lincoln Center?
I’m not the only one. Fr. Vin and I are the only two Jesuits. Living on campus is a tradition for Jesuits and a special part of how we minister in universities. We may have been professors or administrators, but having Jesuits living in the residence hall is an important presence and an important need. There’s something about having a person whose life in some way is all about the greater power who is there for the students. Until I came, Vinny was the only Jesuit living at Lincoln Center. He’s on one of the high floors, which is too high for me. I’m on the fourth floor because I like to keep my feet as close to the ground as possible.
What do you hope to accomplish in your first year?
I want to be a presence. I want to assist what Campus Ministry is doing: good work and good outreach. I want to bring about an awareness of things bigger than just studies and academics. I celebrate Mass quite frequently, and I also hope to be involved in other Sacraments as well. I sit in my office everyday from Monday to Friday for confession or if students want to come and talk. I have a lot to learn, as I’ve done a lot of different things as a Jesuit priest, but I’ve never worked in a university environment. I’ve sat on the Board and I’ve sat on other boards of academic institutions, but this is very different. And even having sat on the board, I’m seeing Fordham in a different way.
How do you perceive the Fordham community so far?
The students are very friendly, but everyone always has their headphones in and so when you say hello, they can’t hear you. In general, I find the community to be friendly and generous. The first program I was involved in was Urban Plunge, and I found an attentiveness among students. These freshmen come early to be sent out into the neighborhood to look at the needs. And that’s what Jesuits are about, what Ignatius was about: Go out and set the world on fire. Ignatius did two things: he developed a spirituality for those who were going to work in the world and a spirituality that enabled people to not only pray better, but also change the world. Jesuits primarily minister in cities, which have a way of articulating the needs of the people. If you live in a campus way out in the country, you’re not as likely to be attentive to social issues to issues of suffering or injustices or prejudices. You can’t get on the subway or the bus and not see people in suffering. To me, the students have the requirement that you want from a Jesuit student: they’re looking at the world around them. You cannot be unaware of the needs and the injustice when you’re living in the middle of New York City. Students here seem to be more attentive to what’s out there than what commonly true of students in a university.
Prior to coming to Fordham Lincoln Center, what did your theological career entail?
I was ordained in 1980. My first assignment was assistant pastor at St. Aloysius in Washington D.C. I taught Latin at Gonzaga High School. Then for three years I taught at McCann High School. I taught religion, English, and I was also in charge of the social service program. Then I came back to Gonzaga as the chaplain for three years. Then I served as the Catholic chaplain for Norton Reformatory for seven years, which was the prison system outside of Washington D.C. in Norton, Virginia. Then from 1996 to 2011, I was sent to Nigeria in West Africa. I came back here for sabbatical and then I was assigned to be the pastor at St. Patrick’s in Oakland, and I was also on the faculty at Our Jesuit School of Theology overseeing two seminars. Then after a year of recovering from some health issues, I’m here at Fordham. So, that’s almost 47 years of experience.
You were in Nigeria when 9/11 happened. What was that experience like?
I will never forget it because of a number of things. One of our novices had just died on the 8th of September. He died of liver cancer and died within two months after it was detected; it caught all of us off guard. We were preparing for his funeral for the following Saturday, the 14th of September. I was the director of novices; that’s our beginning of our formation of our program as Jesuits. Nigeria is about six hours ahead of time. September 11 is the birthday of the owner of one of the big radio stations in Benin City, Nigeria. He’s very arrogant and very wealthy. On his birthday, he makes a grand exhibition on the air. I love his station — he plays a lot of rock music and rap music, and I love that, but I got tired of all of these accolades to this owner. So I turned on the BBC, and they were talking about this horrible incident in New York. The radio was all the communication I had so I drove into the city, where our parish had a satellite television to see what was going on. When I came back, the first thing I became aware of when I said that there had been this bombing, was the indifference of the novices. They could care less. No one said it like this, but there was this sense of “You deserve what happened.” Not that it was justified, but that somehow, you deserved this and I was shocked by it. I was beginning to see my country in a very different way as a result. I thought that Americans, we’re so generous, we give to everybody, from military to finances, and for the first time in my life, I thought, we’re not what we think we are.
I noticed that you have your resumé hanging outside of your McMahon apartment. But, you don’t have the resumé one would expect from a Jesuit.
It’s an old resumé; I did all of those things as a Jesuit, but it was a long time ago. Once I went to Africa, as much as I loved to sing, there was no more time to do any of that. So that’s really of my past, but I put it there because Fordham Lincoln Center is the center for arts and culture.
How did you get into performing?
In high school, I remember seeing “You Are Sixteen, Going On Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music” and I fell in love with the movie and the song. In some ways, it was why I wanted to become a Jesuit. I knew that they were in the arts, so I thought I could be an artist but also be a Jesuit priest. All throughout the Society, I studied voice, I took dance lessons with Arthur Mitchell, I sang with the Washington Opera Company — just the chorus — and the Baltimore Opera Company. When I entered the Society, my novice director allowed me to continue to study voice. Mattiwilda Dobb was my voice teacher for 15 years. I studied with her from when I arrived in Washington until I left. She was the third black woman to sing at the Met. We developed a wonderful relationship; she died a couple years ago. She was the one who said you need to do something with your singing. I wasn’t doing anything except singing at Mass. In prison, my schedule and the demands of my full time ministry just didn’t allow for me to do that. She was a teacher at Howard University, and I knew about her from my knowledge of black opera singers. When I was doing my theology in Berklee, she did a performance and I fell in love with her. I think she may have been the only adult woman that I ever fell in love with. When I came to Washington, I was looking for a voice teacher, and I knew I could find one at Howard University. I knew I wanted an African American voice teacher, and I was wandering around the music department at Howard, and there her name was on the board. So I left a little note to her saying that I’m interested in studying voice, and wondered if you would have time to work with me. She called me back and I studied with her for fifteen years.
How did you manage to balance your career as a priest as a performer?
It was easier in the sense that I could do it, but when you love things you find a way. I love singing because it’s Ignatian. Ignatian spirituality is about visualization; creating what Ignatius says “another world in which you find God.” You find God in not in another world, but with the images you’re creating in the art itself. I just love that, so in some ways it was similar to own spirituality and to my love of the arts that I was involved in.
Favorite color: Blue
Favorite movie: Rear Window (1954)
Favorite book: “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin
Favorite Bible verse: The Lord is my shepherd, nothing I shall want. (Psalm 23)
Favorite opera: “The Magic Flute”
Favorite saint: St. Ignatius
Funny Mass story: I started saying the introduction to my homily instead of my introduction to the Mass
Favorite ice cream flavor: Neapolitan
Is a hot dog a sandwich? Yes