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Issue Date:  May 5, 2006

Jack Deedy, writer and editor


In 1971, when I first met the Commonweal editors, Jim O’Gara, Jack Deedy and Ed Skillin, what stood out was their civility (another word for humility), clear-sightedness and courage. Jesuit Dan Berrigan described Jack, a significant figure in Catholic journalism who died at 82 on March 28, as a man of “great integrity, who saw truth clearly and wrote that way.” Jack came to his clear-sightedness through a life of study, travel and more pain than I had suspected.

Born into a large, poor, Irish, Democratic, Catholic family in Worcester, Mass., in 1923, he was drafted into the Air Force out of the College of the Holy Cross in 1942 before he could start senior year. Discharged within a year as disabled with ulcerated colitis, he withdrew from Holy Cross again, at the point of death, to submit to the first successful illiostomy -- the first of three operations over the years that saved his life. Studying at Trinity College in Dublin in 1948-49, he wired his Worcester good friend, Mary Noonan, whom he had dated only a few times, to come over and marry him in Cork. She did. In Paris, he wrote for The Boston Globe under the pseudonym of “Paul D. Vincent.” In Ireland he had met the traveling Bishop John Wright, who in 1959 bought him away from the diocesan Worcester Free Press, of which in 1951 he was founding editor, to edit the Pittsburgh Catholic.

Jack covered Vatican II and edited Eyes on the Modern World (1965), one of his 32 books, on Schema 13, “The Church in the Modern World,” with essays that dealt with contraception and nuclear arms.

Jim O’Gara brought Jack to Commonweal in 1967 to shore up the Catholic identity of an influential magazine that younger editors, who soon left, sought to direct to a more secular audience. The two big issues of the 1970s were Vietnam -- a Commonweal 1968 editorial had called the war a “crime and a sin” -- and Watergate. Edward Skillin told historian Rodger VanAllen that Jack was “more liberal” than either O’Gara or Peter Steinfels, the associate editor whom I replaced in 1972 and who returned later as editor. But Jack’s liberalism was a liberalism of love -- as if the church was a relative or friend who kept letting him down and deserved a good scolding.

At the end of the day Jack and I would walk down Madison Avenue to Grand Central Station and talk. Two walks stand out. The day Nixon resigned, and we walked on air. And the day Jack told me he was retiring to an old house in Rockport, Mass., to write.

Every few years I made a pilgrimage to Rockport, swam in the cove, relished the rustic beauty of the house, a living gallery of Catholic Irish political and literary history. In 2000 Mary had suffered a stroke, and Jack’s enormous tenderness was poured out in caring for her. I went home almost ashamed to be a celibate. After 33 years of performing weddings I saw most clearly what love to “death do us part” really meant. When I saw him last summer, Jack had faded. We cooked a rack of lamb and I had my martini and we talked about Commonweal, the church and the world. And as I left I thought I might not see him again.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth, a Commonweal associate editor from 1972-79, thanks Jack’s younger brother, Tom, for help on this essay. Schroth’s e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2006

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