Cloud of Witnesses: William Liguori Nolan

At the age of eight, the prodigy William Liguori Nolan (1916-2000) played the piano for Paderewski. He continued his studies at the Boston Latin School and outshone another musical classmate, his friend Leonard Bernstein. The class of 1935 elected their wunderkind its president and captain of the debate team.

Paderewski’s heart has a gilded home in the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Pennsylvania. Nolan’s heart was always in New Hampshire, where he loved living 37 years as Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth. Paderewski went back to the piano after his premiership of Poland, but “Father Nolan” knew he had left the keyboard forever in 1943 when he was ordained a Redemptorist priest at Mount St. Alphonsus Seminary in Esopus, New York. For three years he taught homiletics and then, like his brother, preached missions around the country. He prayerfully left his order to incardinate in the Diocese of Manchester, becoming a curate in the New Hampshire parish of St. Denis in Hanover. His pastor suspended him for providing a keg of beer to undergraduates, but the bishop, by a mystical intuition, cheerfully decided that “Father Bill” should become Catholic chaplain to the college in 1950.

Dartmouth then was as Anglo-Saxon Protestant as it was possible to be without casting anchor on the Mayflower. In its remoteness, it was not traumatized during the revolution against King George III, who had granted its charter and for whom some of its sons kept fugitive sympathies. It was the only colonial college not to suspend commencement ceremonies during that confusion. Although its school color was green, it was not Irish green and certainly not Irish-Catholic green. Nolan’s establishment of an Aquinas House caused a minor tremor in the old-boy network, but President John Sloan Dickey, a man of vague Erastian philosophical principles, befriended him. So began a chronology of youth shaped by his spiritual lights. And when the college became the last of the Ivies to admit students who were not male, he guided them, too. They now roam the girdled earth, taking their faith with them in all the arts and sciences. Some wear black and purple in the clergy; more than one skeptical student is now a professor of theology, and a granddaughter of General Patton is a Benedictine nun. But only he, always called Father Bill even after Paul VI made him a Prelate of Honor, could count them, as he kept pictures of them all.

A baroque achievement in 1962 was the dedication of the Catholic Student Center at the end of Fraternity Row and within chanting distance of the president’s house. Not a Catholic then myself, it was the first time I had seen a statue of Mary placed—inappropriately, I thought at the time— over an altar. For all his gentle dignity, Father Bill had the panache to place a stained-glass window of Cardinal Cushing next to Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman. Aquinas and Newman gave much from the treasury of saints, but Cushing gave negotiable currency. Father Bill told me how he was kept waiting for several hours in an antechamber of Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office where he had gone to ask for help in completing the building, only to be dismissed as a bothersome acolyte. Of course, the senator, a Catholic, had attended an alien school to the south. Nelson Rockefeller, a Baptist of sorts but an alumnus, was a congenial font of munificence.

In 1973, the modern papist missionary was laurelled an honorary Doctor of Divinity by the institution founded by a Congregationalist missionary to the Indians of the northern wilds. Mr. Chips was a character in fiction, but as this real Mr. Chips died he was able to see with eyes closed so many young faces pass by calling him Father.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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