Remembering William Birmingham

September 25, 2015 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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As baby-boomers like me get older, we increasingly suffer the loss of dear friends and beloved mentors. Of course, it’s not only in the later decades of life that these things happen; one of the Grail women who influenced me most, Eleanor Walker, died in 1979. But it certainly gets more frequent.

Two members of the generation ahead of mine whom I loved dearly were Bill and Mary Louise Birmingham. Life-long New Yorkers and Catholic intellectuals, they encouraged me to pursue the post-working-class life of reading and writing that I yearned for. Mary Louise died four years ago, just short of her ninetieth birthday. Bill followed recently.

The following is a memorial for Bill that I wrote for Gumbo, the newsletter of the Grail in the U.S.

I first met Bill Birmingham and his wife Mary Louise at Grailville in the late 1960s. They were there leading a program; I don’t remember the theme, but I definitely remember them. I still have a copy of a contrapuntal reading that Bill put together for that program or one soon after, about the Holocaust. One side of group read aloud “And praised be the Lord,” and the other side responded “Auschwitz.” And then the first side said again “And praised be the Lord,” and the second side responded, “Buchenwald.” And so on. I can still hear it.

When I moved back to New York from Ohio in 1983 I began going to visit Bill and Mary Louise at their apartment in Stuyvesant Town, on the East Side of Manhattan. They had moved back to the city from New Jersey after their five kids were grown. We became good friends. They were both enormously kind to me. And interesting. And funny.

What I would like to remember about Bill, in particular, today, however, is that he was a significant Catholic intellectual, something that had a major impact on me. Nobody in the working class world I grew up in was editing a major Catholic journal as Bill and his good friends Joe and Sally Cunneen were doing when I knew him. Next to me on my desk here is a volume of articles that had been published in that journal, Cross Currents, between 1950 and 1990. Edited by Bill, the collection includes articles by Karl Rahner, Martin Buber, Jürgen Moltmann, Leonardo Boff, Thomas Berry and others. Under the editorship of Bill and Joe and their predecessors, Cross Currents introduced American Catholics to a wide range of distinguished intellectuals and theologians. I remember how thrilled I was the first time one of my articles appeared in Cross Currents; Bill said that it had “narrative drive.“ I have rarely felt more honored.

In the four years after Mary Louise’s death I also felt deeply honored to be included in the monthly dinner gatherings held by the Birmingham sons, daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews at Bill’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town. Even as he aged, Bill was still unfailingly warm, thoughtful, and welcoming. It saddened me when he finally had to move out of the apartment where I had visited with him and Mary Louise for so many years. But I also rejoiced that he was able to spend his final months in the home of his oldest daughter Moira and not far from one of his other daughters, Meg.

How blessed we all were to have had Bill Birmingham in our lives.

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3 Comments »

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  1. Marian, I am so sorry. You valued both these friends very much, and your loyalty was rewarded with a great big family, though no substitute for the wisdom of these elders themselves.

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    • Thanks, Regina. Dear of you to find the time to respond when you’re so busy.

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  2. Thanks for this beautiful tribute, Marian. I, too, learned a lot from (and was published in, once) Crosscurrents, though I did not know Bill.

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