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Bernard Law's early years -- much travel, a close-knit family

By Anne Wyman, Globe Staff, 1/26/1984

First of three articles

 The series
Part One
In early years, a close-knit family

Part Two
Calming factor in tense '60s Miss.

Part Three
In Mo., working to build bridges

he only child of a flier whose career in the Air Force and commercial aviation took the family to at least six locations during his growing years, Bernard F. Law had no permanent home until he made one in the church.

He was born on Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, an industrial town where his father was working for a small Mexican airline that later went broke during the Depression. By the time he attended high school in the Virgin Islands, his family's travels had taken young Bernard to New York, Florida, Georgia and Colombia, South America.

His father, Bernard A. Law, a Pennsylvanian, and his mother, Helen, from the state of Washington, met and married in Torreon when his father was 40. His mother, who was visiting an uncle and aunt, was then in her early 20s.

During most of Bishop Law's childhood, his father was in and out of the Air Force, barnstorming in airplanes and running small airlines or airports, he recalled yesterday in a telephone interview. There was so much travel during those days that "it is really too hard to recall," he said. "There was a lot of moving, but they were very happy years. My mother and father and I were a very close-knit family."

His father was Catholic and his mother Presbyterian, but she converted to Catholicism while her son was at Harvard. "It was not a particularly church- going family," he noted.

He admired his father for his love of flying, his ability to write, his sense of humor and his love of people. Bishop Law said he felt his parents' greatest legacy to him was "their love of people and places and their willingness to be part of whatever place they were in."

At the time he entered Harvard in 1949, he said, his closest ties outside his family were with classmates and teachers in the Virgin Islands.

Even though that three-year period in St. Thomas was interrupted by a year with his parents in Panama, high school classmate June Lindqvist, now a librarian on St. Thomas, said the young man made a strong impression on his classmates. "It seemed as though he'd been here all his life; that's the way everybody regards him here," she added.

Vivian Anduze, a teacher during his senior year at Charlotte Amalie High School, remembered that Bernard Law, though one of only two off-islanders in the class, "was unanimously elected class president; that shows something about his ability to get along."

Bishop Law recalls that he did not feel like a minority, although the population of St. Thomas was predominantly black. "That positive experience of racial harmony remains a tremendous sign of hope to me," he said, a force that would later draw him to work in the South.

It was a teacher on St. Thomas who had done graduate work at Harvard, Eldra Schulterbrandt, who encouraged Bernard Law to apply and go to Harvard in 1949.

It was a dramatic change of climate, scenery and lifestyle from semitropical St. Thomas to Cambridge.

Harvard during the 1950s was not quite the silent generation. Each year the Crimson ran a feature on academic freedom. The Young Republicans were offset by the John Reed Society and Tom Lehrer was writing songs about nukes and planting ball bearings under the World Tree outside Harkness Hall.

In his freshman year in Cambridge, Law roomed with Robert Wayne Oliver, a Southern Baptist, and two Jewish students.

Now an attorney who works as an adviser to Oregon's Gov. Victor Atiyeh, Oliver said that although he and Law became close friends and roomed together for four years, "He did not try to proselytize me. . . At the same time, he gave me a very good understanding and appreciation of the nature of his church and manner in which he practiced his faith.

"He had a great sense of humor. He was firm in his faith, but in no way was he a zealot. He respected other people's divergent views. He was not provocative. Nor did he make anyone feel he was a lost sinner."

Oliver recalled that as an freshman, Law already "was toying with idea of becoming a priest. . . No one who knew him well was surprised by his decision."

Nevertheless, Bishop Law, who studied Medieval European intellectual history, said he did not finally became convinced of his vocation until his final semester at Harvard.

"It was not a foreign idea," he said. He used to make a retreat every year, and as the time to make a decision came closer, "this pull toward the priesthood and toward service in the church" became something he felt he could not give up.

Having made the decision to enter the priesthood, Law headed for Mississippi to begin his training.

He decided he wanted to study in a Southern diocese, he said, "partly because it was warm" but also because he wanted to work in the United States, in a place needing priests, and where he could put his experience of racial harmony to work.

By that time his father had retired from a job in commercial aviation in Panama, and Law's parents moved to be near their son in Jackson, Miss. When his father died of a massive heart attack two years later, his mother stayed on and taught school there until her retirement. She is now in her 70s and has been living near Bishop Law's residence in Springfield, Mo.

It was Bishop Richard Oliver Gerow of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese who sent him to St. Joseph's Seminary on the outskirts of New Orleans to begin training for the priesthood, and later to the Pontifical College Josephinum in Ohio.

Fr. David Melancon, the rector of St. Joseph's, recalled this week, "When he came here, he had graduated from Harvard, and here we had only a junior college. You can understand as a graduate coming back this wasn't anything academically significant. It was rather the religious experience the seminary offered. The man was deeply religious. A very humble person. . ."

From St. Joseph's, Law traveled in 1955 to Columbus, Ohio, for six years of studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum that led to his ordination as a priest.

The seminary, the only one in the country directed by the Vatican, was very rigid, Bishop Law recalled. "I'd moved out of an environment that was not at all rigid, so I wanted to enter a way of life that would be demanding." His biggest problem, he recalled, was that the number of required courses left him not enough time to think and write.

Fr. Dennis Schroeder, a fellow seminarian and now pastor at St. Joseph's Parish in Tiffin, Ohio, recalled that of 20 seminarians, only 12 finished the rigorous program.

The rising bell rang at 5:40 a.m. and lights out was at 10 p.m., with little free time in between. Seminarians wore cassocks every day and were forbidden to hike into Westville, five miles away, without permission.

Msgr. Frank Mouch, who was there at the time and now directs the seminary, confirms that view and recalls how during some now-forgotten controversy, "Law got the facts out so they could be dealt with. He came forward and was very level-headed."

As Law headed for a post as associate pastor at St. Paul's in Vicksburg, Miss., his interest in ecumenical affairs had not yet formalized. Yet he believes now that it was all there -- in his life of interlaced relationships in childhood, in the islands, at Harvard and at two very diverse seminaries.

But his goal as he left Columbus was to be a parish priest.

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 1/26/1984.
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