Thirty years have passed since the sudden death of Fr. Bill Toohey, the first director of Campus Ministry at Notre Dame, and friends and former colleagues said during his time at the University, he played a dynamic role in the spiritual life of the student body.
“His preaching was powerful and charismatic,” former Walsh Hall rector, Jane Pitz, said. “He used language that students could understand and were drawn to.”
Toohey, who died of encephalitis in 1980 at the age of 50, wanted to bring students to a larger consideration of what was at stake in their development as a people of God, she said.
“He taught me to respect each person and see in them the life of God,” Pitz said. “He showed that we should love unconditionally all those we meet.”
Pitz said during his time as director of Campus Ministry, Toohey was the celebrant at the 12:15 p.m. Mass every Sunday in Sacred Heart Basilica.
“The place would be packed,” she said. “I think everybody saw him as a man of prayer who had a deep commitment to preaching the Gospel.”
Fr. Tom McNally, graduate of the class of 1949, said he first met Toohey in the Holy Cross novitiate in Jordan, Minn., in 1955.
“We were very good friends from the novitiate days until his death,” McNally said. “In fact, he was my best friend.”
When Toohey became the head of Campus Ministry, he invited McNally to join him as an associate.
“Those days on Campus Ministry were wonderful days for all of us,” he said. “There was lots of creativity, occasional run-ins with the higher-ups and a great emphasis on social justice concerns. Bill was our leader in every way.”
McNally also introduced Br. Joe McTaggart to Toohey.
“Bill was a gentle soul who wrote with a powerful pen and preached with a magnificent effectiveness,” McTaggart said. “He drew many to a deeper understanding of the Gospel and society.
He said Toohey’s life and witness taught him to stand up for what he deeply believed and experienced in the spiritual life.
“Bill was humble and unassuming,” McTaggart said. “That is what I saw and experienced in him as he led our staff for 10 of the most growth-filled years of my own life.”
John Fitzgerald, a 1965 alumnus, worked with Toohey as a member of the Campus Ministry staff. Toohey also taught Fitzgerald preaching for three years in the graduate seminary.
“Along the way he also became my spiritual director and mentor,” he said. “A whole generation of Holy Cross priests learned from Bill that we had no business stepping into the pulpit unless we were passionate and on fire about communicating the Gospel.”
Fitzgerald said Toohey always preached with passion and fire.
“When he stepped into a pulpit, he became a living sacrament of God’s word,” Fitzgerald said. “Those of us who were privileged to hear him will never forget the thrill.”