Father Thomas Shelley’s avuncular presence, his inquiring mind, and his priestly solicitude for me and for so many around me was a potent witness of the goodness of old Catholic New York. Though he always wore clerical clothing in professional situations, there was never anything “clerical” about him, if understood as a sense of superiority due to his ordination. It is faddish to talk of “servant leadership,” but he embodied it.

Everybody, including me, always called him Father Shelley when I was at Fordham University (though he was named a “monsignor” at some point). Also, the German title for the director of a doctoral dissertation is doktorvater, or “doctor father”—and he was mine. Nevertheless, I always thought of Thomas J. Shelley, priest of the archdiocese of New York, Professor of Church History at Fordham, and prolific writer of histories of American Catholic institutions, as a kind of intellectual uncle, ready to give you wisdom certainly but never heavy-handed and certainly not harsh.

In fact, in my mind, Tom (as I eventually learned to call him years later) is always leaning in, his head tipped to the right, a twinkle in his eye and a raised, slightly crooked forefinger gently wagging as he gets to the punchline. After the punchline, there will be a slight pause before he winks and leans back to let you enjoy the joke. I can still hear his voice, pure old-school Bronx, the genial and not abrasive variety.

It would be a delight to hear and see that sight again, but Fr. Shelley—I am still not quite in the habit of calling him “Tom”—died last November at the age of 86. Still active even in his mid-eighties, by the time of his death, he had largely finished his final book, a treatment of his own doctoral dissertation director, the legendary John Tracy Ellis. It was released earlier this summer by Catholic University of America Press. He may have been an avuncular character, but there was nothing of the layabout in him.

Fr. Shelley had only been full-time at Fordham for about two years when I got there in January 1998. Born in the Bronx in 1937, he discerned his vocation to the priesthood early. He attended Cathedral College in Manhattan, earning his B.A. in philosophy, and then returned home to the Bronx, where he earned his M.A. in theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary and College and was ordained in 1962. Fr. Joseph McShane, S.J., a younger cousin who later became president of Fordham, recalled the respect Tom was given in the family for both his education and priesthood. Perhaps even more so for his devotion to the family: Fr. McShane recalled that when as a deacon, Tom was assigned to the Midnight Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the Bronx, he chose to spend the night across the street at his grandmother’s rather than stay in the rectory.

Despite his intellectual prowess, there was always something almost blue-collar about his demeanor. Fr. Shelley was very much like the old-school parish priests he loved, who cared for their parishioners no matter who they were. In fact, his career as a teacher started at the high school level where he labored for several decades at Cardinal Spellman and Stepinac High Schools before teaching college seminarians at Cathedral College. One commenter on his obituary remembered both his care for students and his detailed five-question quizzes on the daily reading from his teaching days at Spellman in the 1970s.

In fact, neither his care for students nor his methods ever changed much. Even in graduate classes in my time and into the 2000s, Tom’s lectures were accompanied by hand-written transparencies that he had prepared and would add to in the course of the class. His lectures were themselves very old-fashioned. They were meant to give a coherent narrative of the material, with due attention to the areas that were uncertain. Though he wanted the Church to be more intellectual, he thought the teaching of history had become too abstract and dominated by theory. I don’t know if he fully subscribed to the Great Man Theory of history, but he refused to go along with the trends by which “forces,” economic or otherwise, explained our past. Human motives were multifarious things that were a big part of the story. Contingency was part of the story since people don’t simply act according to scripts.

Good teacher (and writer) that he was, Tom understood that if anecdotes are not data, they are nevertheless both important evidence that help us suss out motives and the way in which history attains color and sticks in our mind. One of my other professors described him as a “front porch historian.” This was not a slight. Tom’s version of history had stats and figures but also, you know, actual stories in it. I’ll never forget him recounting the supposed comments of England’s King Charles II about his brother, James, Duke of York, the future James II. He said, Tom recounted (with that lean in and the wagging finger), that the Catholic convert’s mistresses were so ugly that he believed they were penances imposed by James’s confessor.

Though he kept abreast of the big picture questions and coedited the large Encyclopedia of American Catholic History with Michael Glazier, his own scholarship was largely on a more local level. He wrote a history of St. Joseph’s parish in Greenwich Village, a history of Most Holy Trinity parish and Catholic Slovaks in the Bronx, histories of Dunwoodie Seminary and Fordham University itself (the latter prudently covering right up to the time his younger cousin became president of that institution), and a biography of Paul Hallinan, the liberal Catholic Archbishop of Atlanta.

One of the things about Tom that was truly admirable was that he was not bothered by people’s disagreements with him, including my own, on many topics. He held the old-fashioned and increasingly rare view that truth could be pursued by people of good faith bringing their best arguments to the table. I did not admire figures such as Hallinan as he did, nor did I have the same thoughts about what Catholic educational institutions needed to do. I have maintained a skepticism about the analysis and the good effects of his mentor John Tracy Ellis’s famous 1955 essay, “American Catholics and the Intellectual Life.” He was always ready to discuss things and answered with a soft tongue my sometimes fiery opinions. I never thought he quite appreciated how his old-school liberal openness to debate and inquiry differed from the more dogmatic and closed qualities of the liberal Catholics who had come to dominate most of Catholic academia.

In fact, the last time I saw him in person was when I finally defended my doctoral dissertation thirteen years ago. He offered to get me a room in the rectory at St. Thomas More Church in Manhattan where he served for many years. I was there for about three days to prepare for the defense and fix up my manuscript according to the strict requirements. Each night he would invite me to his book-lined quarters and we would have a nightcap and talk about the big picture-questions facing Catholic faith, scholarship, and higher education, always punctuated by the odd and humorous stories in which he and I both traveled.

We corresponded many times over the years via email, but the one time I stopped in New York I was not able to get a visit in. I wish I had. His avuncular presence, his inquiring mind, and his priestly solicitude for me and for so many around me was a potent witness of the goodness of old Catholic New York. Though he always wore clerical clothing in professional situations, there was never anything “clerical” about him, if understood as a sense of superiority due to his ordination. It is faddish to talk of “servant leadership,” but he embodied it.

His sister Mary testified in her eulogy for him that he wished to be remembered simply as “a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.”  So he was. A man who dispensed the sacraments, the long view of Catholic history, and a humor and kindness that bespoke the humility and love that ought to characterize those who are known as “other Christs.”

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