Nov. 5, 2020 – Fr. James Skehan, SJ, was born on April 23, 1923, in Houlton, a prosperous town in eastern Maine on the St. John River and the Canadian border, an area known for its potato crops. Fr. Skehan was the oldest of seven children of James and Mary Effie (Coffey) Skehan. His father held several jobs dealing with railroad communications systems, eventually managing a Western Union office, where he met Fr. Skehan’s mother who was a telephone operator there.
Fr. Skehan attended the parish grammar school, where he had Sisters of Mercy as teachers, and then the public high school. There was not much in the way of organized sports for the grammar-school kids but everyone skated (on a pond named for his grandfather Coffey) and Fr. Skehan hiked and camped and skied. In high school he played several sports; he was especially good in track-and-field events. He remembered that when he came to Boston to be interviewed for the Jesuits he seized the opportunity to buy a heavy shot-put ball in an athletic-goods shop near North Station, and then had to carry it around all day until he got to the province offices and his interviews. Later, in the novitiate, he even sent home for his vaulting pole.
Fr. Skehan had first encountered Jesuits when two of them gave a weeklong mission in his parish, and later through the pamphlets of Fr. Daniel Lord, SJ. In senior year of high school, he applied to the Society and on July 30, 1940, he took a train to Boston and from there, with several other would-be novices, to Pittsfield, a few miles from the Shadowbrook novitiate. He loved the outdoor parts of novitiate life, clearing brush and hiking the Berkshire hills on holidays. When it came to Latin and Greek, though, he felt way behind his B.C. High contemporaries.
Through the novitiate and juniorate he was convinced he was a mediocre student until, at Weston—where he did philosophy studies from 1944-1947—Fr. Tom Quigley, a Jesuit who taught physics at Holy Cross and was recuperating at Weston from a heart attack (Jim said that his idea of recuperating was to offer courses in advanced math), spotted Jim’s talent, noticed that he liked working outdoors, and encouraged him to think about geology. Under Quigley’s mentoring, Jim’s grades shot up and at the end of philosophy studies superiors decided that he should apply to a doctoral program in geology at Harvard.
After four years at Harvard he returned to Weston for theology studies. At the time the Boston College seismology observatory was constructing a new building on the Weston property; Fr. Skehan and other scholastics spent afternoons clearing the site of trees. He was ordained a priest in June of 1954 and, as was customary then, a year later he did tertianship at Pomfret, Conn. (1955-1956).
Fr. Skehan returned to the Weston observatory for a sort of post-doctoral year, though mainly he was working on Fr. Daniel Linehan’s geophysics projects. Fr. Skehan was trying to get established in the field of “hard rock geology” and the observatory work in seismology was not really his field of interest. Still, for the next 50 years or so of his professional life he had one foot, as he put it, in the observatory’s work, serving as director for some 20 years, and the other foot in geology at B.C.
At B.C. he was asked to create an undergraduate geology program (there already was a graduate degree program in seismology). At first Fr. Skehan was the only geologist teaching in the new program, but he quickly hired two new faculty members. The geology major grew as the number of students increased and new faculty with diverse fields of specialization were added.
Fr. Skehan was highly regarded by his students and, with time, many of them took significant jobs in the oil and mining industries and many pursued careers in the academic world. But whether they continued on in the world of geology or not they had fond memories of his classes and of him personally. A good number of his students were not scientists, but they had to fulfill the college’s core science requirement. His introductory course was sometimes described as “the gentleman’s way to avoid science.” Fr. Skehan liked nothing better than taking these students on field trips around New England and across the country, converting them to a love for—or at least an appreciation for—the hard-rock world.
With all this teaching Fr. Skehan still made time to publish his own research, resulting in promotion, eventually, to the rank of full professor. His bibliography eventually included over a hundred articles in the area of geology. Many of them concerned plate tectonics, the theory that the lithosphere—the outer crust of the earth’s surface—was formed by the movements and convergence of several large and smaller plates. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, and mountain-building could all be linked to the meeting of such plates.
Plate tectonics was probably the most significant development in the field of geology in Fr. Skehan’s lifetime; it affected his teaching, the geology curriculum, and his research. More than once he gave fellow Jesuits a lesson in plate movements on the rocks of the retreat house at Gloucester, showing them how the dyke formations at Eastern Point lined up precisely with similar rock formations on the Atlantic coast of Morocco.
Perhaps the field trip that he most enjoyed was a month-long expedition that he and a colleague organized in 1970 with a grant from NASA. They took 30 younger scientists from different specializations to Iceland and the small island of Surtsey, which had recently popped up from the sea, twelve miles from the coast of Iceland, because of unanticipated volcanic activity. Also unanticipated was the pastoral dimension of the trip. Jim said the first Mass ever on Surtsey and was asked to baptize one of the scientists and the two children of a scientist couple who had brought their family with them. The baptisms took place at a Mass in a nearby Lutheran church, to the delight of the pastor there.
These accomplishments in his professional field barely hint at the number of workshops and conferences he was involved in, especially in the areas where religion and science intersect.
In the early 1980s Jim found a whole new ministry. A chance conversation in the faculty dining room with a colleague who mentioned that he would like to become a “lay Jesuit” led Jim to wonder how he could introduce Ignatian spirituality to lay colleagues at B.C. Retreats, of course, had long been available to students and to those who could make time for a weekend or several days at a retreat house, but Jim developed a way of offering the Spiritual Exercises to small groups, 12 or 14 participants, over a 24-week period, which faculty and staff could commit to without interrupting their professional work. As these retreats grew Jim produced a book for retreatants to use: Place Me With Your Son: Ignatian Spirituality In Everyday Life, a greatly expanded version of a book originally published by Georgetown University Press. Jim offered these retreats to faculty and staff colleagues for fourteen years.
A series of conversations about science and religion with a friend who was an Episcopal priest resulted in their offering a six-week retreat based on Teilhard de Chardin’s work. These conversations also initiated a multi-year seminar at B.C.’s Jesuit Institute, which resulted in a collection of essays, published in 2005, The Dialogue between Science and Religion: What We Have Learned From Each Other.
Fr. Skehan’s work was recognized in multiple ways by his colleagues. In 1975, the National Association of Geology Teachers gave him their Teacher of the Year award.
In 2005 he received a medal representing the highest award of the National Institute of Professional Geologists. He received three honorary degrees. He even got a genus of trilobites named after him. Trilobites are a primitive life form, scavengers on the ocean floor some 500 million years ago, preserved in fossil form. One is now the genus Skehanos. And he became a character in a mystery novel set in Antarctica, In Cold Pursuit.
The bit of biography that his non-scientific acquaintances seem to know about Fr. Skehan is that he was a consultant on the digging of the second tunnel that carries metropolitan Boston’s water supply from Wachusett Reservoir east to Boston. And two of his late publications may even find a popular audience, contributions to the Roadside Geology series, the volumes dealing with Massachusetts and with southern New England.
In 2005 Fr. Skehan officially retired from Boston College and moved into the health facility at Campion Center. As he entered his tenth decade his mind was alert and he happily welcomed visitors, but his energy and mobility declined. People said that he was just tired. His strong constitution, however, kept him going. He died peacefully in the early morning of the Feast of All Saints, Sun., Nov. 1, 2020.
At the end of the oral history that he completed some years before his death, Fr. Skehan placed Teilhard’s “Prayer for the Grace to Age Well.” Its final lines are:
Grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibers of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.