An off-handed comment in the 1970s about how he would like to teach a course on Thomas Merton led Msgr. William H. Shannon to begin studying the Trappist monk, who became famous for his writing at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Ky.
After journeying many times to the abbey to work on a number of Merton’s unpublished works, Msgr. Shannon became the founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society.
"He really introduced American Catholics to the life of contemplation," Msgr. Shannon said of Merton’s importance.
The retired priest-professor has written many books on Merton and edited numerous other volumes of Merton’s writing, including five volumes of his letters. He most recently coedited A Life in Letters: The Best of Merton’s Letters, which will be published in October.
"He has a marvelous pen," Msgr. Shannon said. "He says it so well that he really moves people. Also he realized in the monastery that he had a responsibility to the world. He realized that he brought the world in with him."
In addition to being a Merton scholar, Msgr. Shannon has written several books on spirituality, with the most recent being 2005’s Here on the Way to There: A Catholic Perspective on Dying and What Follows. He also has served as chaplain at the Sisters of St. Joseph Motherhouse in Pittsford since 1980.
Msgr. Shannon grew up in Irondequoit’s St. Salome Parish, attending its school as well as St. Andrew’s and St. Bernard’s seminaries in Rochester. He was ordained on June 5, 1943, by Bishop James E. Kearney at Sacred Heart Cathedral, and was named a domestic prelate (monsignor) in 1966.
He initially served as assistant pastor at Sacred Heart Cathedral from 1943-45, then was appointed in 1946 as professor of religion at Nazareth College in Pittsford. He was named a full professor in 1958 and remained at the college until retiring in 1982, when he became a professor emeritus. He served as the college’s chaplain from 1949-75.
He earned a doctorate at the University of Ottawa, Ontario, and did post-doctoral studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He has received honorary degrees from St. Bernard’s Institute and Nazareth College, and will receive another honorary degree from St. Bonaventure University at the school’s 2008 commencement May 11.
Msgr. Shannon also has the distinction of having an endowed chair in Catholic studies and a lecture series at Nazareth College named in his honor; the endowed chair was made possible by a gift from the Chester and Dorris Carlson Charitable Trust.
"It’s a wonderful thing to be able to teach and in the process to see changes taking place in students and see growth and feel that you have a part in that growth," Msgr. Shannon said.