The Reverend William "Bill" J. Flaherty, STL, served as the pastor of St. Nicholas Parish (one of the two legacy parishes that merged to form St. John XXIII Parish) from 1977 - 1988. During his tenure, Fr. Bill was instrumental in the formation of Pope John XXIII School, which was founded through the merging of the St. Nicholas and St. Mary Schools. On January 4, 2024, Fr. Bill passed away at the age of 97. Parishioner Barb Pawlikowski, at the urging of Fr. Bill's successor, Fr. Bob Oldershaw, and in conjunction with other parishioners who knew Fr. Bill, remembers him in the piece below.
Rev. William J. Flaherty, STL
A Good and Blessed Man
If we want to get the full measure of someone’s life and accomplishments, it has to first have been lived. The January passing of St. Nicholas Parish’s seventh pastor, Reverend William J. Flaherty, at the prodigious age of 97 offers such an occasion for remembrance. In retrospect, it can be said that Fr. Flaherty lived not just a long life, but a Godly life, overflowing with love and joy and kindness.
Fr. Bill, as his friends so fondly called him, was a kind, good, and moral man. He had a sense of justice that spurred him beyond words. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s and founded the Association of Chicago Priests in the 1970s, which, among other objectives, works to promote peace and justice in the Chicago area and attends to the needs of the poor and alienated.
The last quarter of his life was spent at Ss. Faith, Hope & Charity Catholic Church in Winnetka where he continued to perform his ministerial duties. But it was in Evanston, as pastor of St. Nicholas Parish from 1977-88, that he truly made a mark... at least for those lucky enough to have had him living among us for those nearly dozen years.
If you ask anyone who knew Fr. Bill, there will most likely be a smile on their face as they remember his personal touch, so often seasoned with an Irish sense of humor and a disarming twinkle. One of his greatest strengths was the way he could empower others. He had a way of persuading a person to volunteer for various parish boards, committees, fundraisers, and outings that brooked no refusal. He made one feel as if the job that awaited was tailored to their particular strengths. So, who could say no? Not many.
Getting others, even preoccupied people, engaged in parish life was Fr. Bill’s superpower. Busy people became a bit busier by dint of knowing him. People found themselves drafted into new projects because of their respect and affection for Fr. Bill. He was easy to love and difficult to disappoint.
When Fr. Bill wrote an original play for St. Nicholas in 1982 and wanted to produce it for the whole community, he proceeded to draft a cast of actors, stage hands, set designers, a choreographer, and a lyricist from among his parishioners. Many with stars in their eyes, or past experience, were willing volunteers. The rest, with no theatrical know-how and even less talent, were convinced by our pastor that our abilities were bountiful and would carry us along. Somehow they did. And it was thrilling. Fr. Bill had a way of making things fun.
Don Brown remembers that first play well. It was a sendup of the upcoming mayoral primary in Chicago. “Fr. Bill asked my wife, Donna, to write original lyrics based on the music from Oliver. He wrote an original script and asked me to play the role of Richie Daley,” said Don. “Fr. Bill just came up with the idea out of whole cloth. He was a true artist.”
Fr. Bill also had a way of getting things done. Even the difficult things. When it became clear that our parish school was beginning to struggle financially, as was nearby St. Mary parish school, Fr. Bill and Fr. Donald Cunningham, St. Mary’s pastor, faced the issue of merging head on. In 1985, each pastor chose six parishioners to serve on a transition school board. For the next year-and-a-half, the board worked tirelessly, often past midnight, under the prayerful guidance of both pastors. When egos were bruised or sides were being taken, Fr. Bill and Fr. Don calmed the waters.
Of course, even the best of us display a chip or two. With soulful savvy Fr. Bill persuaded Don Brown to take the lead on announcing the school merger to a roomful of overwrought parishioners from both parishes. “Fr. Bill didn’t want to run the meeting. He said he couldn’t take the heat,” Don chuckled. It was a masterful sleight of hand.
With just enough good will, the rough waters were navigated; in 1986, Pope John XXIII School successfully opened it doors with a joyous celebration.
St. Nicholas was also one the the first parishes in the Archdiocese to allow girls to be altar servers at Mass. As normal as that may seem now, the decision was not without controversy. But, Fr. Bill stood firmly behind the young girls asking to take their rightful places upon the altar. This was many years before the 1994 decision by the Congregation for Divine Worship gave approval for both male and female servers.
While in grammar school, Becky Janssens Hegner recalls bending Fr. Bill’s ear several times over the issue of female altar servers. “To his credit, he would allow me to come into his office and plead my case,” said Becky. “When the decision was finally made to allow this, he called and asked me to be the first altar girl at St. Nick’s. By then I’d changed my mind, but I appreciated him reaching out. Even more so now.”
Fr. Bill embraced those among us struggling to find our footing. He showed the best quality of our faith without disapproving of those in difficult circumstances.
“In August, 1980, I moved to Evanston with my husband and 3-year-old son Tim,” recalled Mary Franklin. “Within days, my husband announced that he was leaving. I was at a loss, and each day was a struggle. I needed to share my feelings with a neutral individual. And Fr. Bill Flaherty seemed to check all the boxes. While he didn't give me a total respite, he listened, and we prayed. I had made a friend for life. Through the years, he watched out for Tim and me. He made me realize that with my faith and strength, both of us would make it. He was the priest that I needed so many times. Tim and I will never forget him.”
Rita Swarczewski remembers Fr. Bill as a man of deep faith. He was “an approachable pastor who lovingly brought the parishioners together. He was a happy, caring individual.” When he was leaving St. Nick’s, Rita recalled Fr. Bill was concerned that his successor feel welcome, so he asked Rita to write a letter of welcome to Fr. Bob Oldershaw. “That was Fr. Bill, a truly giving individual.”
The list of achievements he guided through St. Nick's was long: the Peace & Justice Committee, Christ Renews His Parish Retreats, Renew Groups (later called Vision Groups), Marriage Enrichment, the Tower Drive (fundraiser to repair the church), the soup kitchen, and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA). Those are only part of a much longer tally.
Fr. Bill was a fisherman, a skier, a world traveler, a lover of theater and of milkshakes. He was also an accomplished potter who freely gifted his artworks to others. He was a consummate family man with a large sprawling clan that he loved dearly and who loved him utterly in return. But above all, he was our shepherd who ministered to those of us when we needed a loving, guiding light in an often confused and contradictory world. He was our touchstone. And he is remembered.