Died 18 October 2016
Jesuit Father Paul A. Messer died peacefully during the morning of Oct. 18, 2016. He was born in Boston, on Jan. 16, 1936, and grew up in St. Mark’s parish in the Dorchester section of the city. He was one of six sons and one daughter of his father, Edward, a family doctor, and his mother, Anne Murray Messer. He attended parish schools and, in 1949, entered Boston College High School, then in the South End of the inner city.
When he graduated from BC High, he enrolled at Boston College but, after his first year there, entered the novitiate of the New England Province at Shadowbrook, in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on July 30, 1954. His novitiate was unexpectedly interrupted when the building burned to the ground on March 10, 1956, and Fr. Messer was one of the group of novices and juniors sent to Wernersville, Pennsylvania, the novitiate-juniorate of the Maryland Province. He took first vows and spent two years in juniorate studies there.
In 1958, he began philosophy studies at Weston College and then spent regency teaching at Boston College High School (1961-1964). He returned to Weston for theological studies (1964-1968), and also pursued graduate studies in English at Boston College, receiving a master’s degree in 1966. He was ordained a priest in 1967. The following year he was assigned to Fairfield Preparatory School in Fairfield, Connecticut, to teach English but after a year was moved to the newly founded Bishop Connolly High School in Fall River, Massachusetts. A year later, in 1970, he began doctoral studies in English at the University of Utah but interrupted his program there after only one year. He spent a year (1971-1972) as a campus minister at the University of California Berkeley, and then returned to Bishop Connolly High School for another year of teaching English.
In 1973, Fr. Messer went to St. Beuno’s in Wales for tertianship, a year he regarded as a decisive one in his Jesuit life. His instructor was the charismatic Fr. Paul Kennedy, SJ. The house and the Welsh countryside deepened Fr. Messer’s love of the poetry of Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ. His prayer confirmed his desire to teach both theology and English literature. When he returned to the U.S., he responded to the need for a campus minister and a theology teacher at St. Francis College, in Biddeford, Maine. After a year there he was assigned to Boston College, where he was to spend most of the rest of his active life as a Jesuit. From 1975 to 1981, he taught theology and English, served for a time as assistant chair of the theology department, and then pursued graduate studies in English full-time for a year.
With the strong encouragement of colleagues in the B.C. English Department, he resumed doctoral studies at the University of Utah in 1981, receiving the doctorate in 1984 with a dissertation on the American novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder. In a tight job market, with no open slots at B.C., Fr. Messer was hired by Salve Regina College, in Newport, Rhode Island, where he spent two happy years. But he didn’t like living outside a Jesuit community and moved to B.C. in 1985. Over the next four years he taught in the theology and English departments and was twice drafted to fill vacant slots as associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. From 1989 on, he taught full-time in the English Department and in the Evening College. He was a much appreciated, witty, and thoughtful member of the B.C. Jesuit community, going out of his way, for example, to welcome Jesuit graduate students from abroad. In 2009 a worsening neuro-muscular condition, eventually diagnosed as Parkinson’s, required that he move to Campion Center.
Fr. Messer loved poetry, Boston Symphony concerts, Renée Fleming’s voice, and—whenever he could manage it—excursions with a Jesuit friend to New York City for opera and ballet. He had always received rave reviews for both his high-school and college teaching and one of the delights of his final years was keeping in touch with former students and having them visit. His medical condition gradually limited his mobility, weakened his voice, and dimmed his bright smile.