Msgr. Francis J. Weber: Still curious (and writing) after all these years
Angelus News May 5, 2016
If he heard it once, he heard it 100 times: “Why are you so nosy?”
Today, Msgr. Francis J. Weber can chuckle at the words of his mother, which he recalls well (as any good historian would). She didn’t know her boy would grow up to become one of the Catholic Church’s, and Southern California’s, most noted archivists and prolific authors — all because, he smiles, “I wanted to know how things came to be.”
“Being a historian is like being a detective,” continues Msgr. Weber, seated in his Archival Center office at San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, where he has served for more than three decades. “You’re asked to get to the bottom of things, and I was always interested in history, rooting out what took place, and why. And,” he adds with a smile, “making sure it was accurate.”
That avocation has resulted in more than books, large and small, to his credit. Some 200 are massive, multi-volume or multi-edition tomes that profile the history of the Catholic Church in California (and California itself, including Disneyland and the Goodyear Blimp); another 130 are tiny, very limited-edition miniature works on subjects from Norman Rockwell to Angel’s Flight.
His subjects have included the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the first two cardinal-archbishops under whom Msgr. Weber served, and numerous elements of the local Church, including its newspaper, The Tidings, for which Msgr. Weber contributed 1,874 consecutive weekly columns over the course of 33 years.
As a priest for 57 years, Msgr. Weber also has been a pastor and administrator at, fittingly, two California missions located within the archdiocese (San Buenaventura and San Fernando). Today, as archivist emeritus, he still celebrates Sunday Mass for those who come to San Fernando Mission. And, while not nearly as prolific a writer as he once was, he retains that ever-present curiosity and interest in researching, and chronicling, “how things came to be.”
From Indiana to L.A.
Born and raised in the suburban Indianapolis community of Valley Mills, Indiana, the future historian moved to California at age 12 with his family in 1945. Settling in Hollywood, where his father operated a plumbing business, the Weber family attended Blessed Sacrament Church.
“Our church in Valley Mills seated maybe 200 at most,” Msgr. Weber says. “And Blessed Sacrament was just enormous, with such an impressive choir and music program. It was quite a change.”
When his family moved, young Francis transferred from Bancroft Junior High to St. Brendan School in Hancock Park, where he first became interested in priesthood. He attended Los Angeles College, the old junior seminary, and completed theological studies at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, where at one point the rector assigned him to write its history (then less than 20 years old).
“I was fascinated by looking through the records, learning about the people who had built this local church,” he says. “But I didn’t know that’s what I’d be doing years later.”
He was ordained a priest in 1959, by Cardinal James Francis McIntyre (of whom Msgr. Weber later authored a two-volume biography, “His Eminence”). On the day the ordinands received their new assignments, young Father Weber was told he would need to wait.
“That’s because I was a ‘W,’ the end of the line,” he laughs. “And when I told my mother I didn’t have an assignment yet, she said, ‘You mean you’re already in trouble?’”
Within a few days he was assigned to St. Victor Church in West Hollywood, legendary both as a parish for numerous movie and TV stars of the era (Vincent Price, Jane Wyatt and more), and for its pastor, Msgr. John Devlin, who headed St. Victor’s a record 45 years, and who seemed quite unimpressed with his new associate.
“I called him up to introduce myself — ‘Hello, I’m your new associate’ — and Devlin said, ‘Well, goody goody,’ and he hung up. I was a little miffed, so I called him back and asked, ‘Look, I’m supposed to report for work, what do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘We’re hearing confessions from 4 to 5, come on over,’ and he hung up.
“Well, he really was a wonderful man, one of the finest priests I ever met, a great influence on me. He taught without teaching, by example, and I loved serving with him.”
Evangelists as archivists
After 18 months Father Weber was sent to Catholic University in Washington, D.C., “and they hinted it was for the purpose of making me archivist.” One of his professors was Msgr. John Tracy Ellis, the dean of modern Church historians, who impressed Father Weber with his approach to the subject.
“Ellis said that the evangelists who wrote the Gospels were the first archivists of the Church because they saw it was their duty to record what had happened and circulate it to the community. Remember, the Lord said we need to do two things: teach the Gospel, and then baptize. That’s important, and that’s why we need more teachers.
“So when I got the job to write for The Tidings, that’s what I was trying to do.”
That was in 1962, when Msgr. Patrick Roche, the editor, asked Father Weber to write a regular column on California history in The Tidings. Thus was launched “California’s Catholic Heritage,” which became (before it ended in 1995) the longest-running column in the newspaper’s 121-year history.
Over the course of the 11 years that he wrote while Msgr. Roche was editor, “only five or six times did he question what I wrote,” Msgr. Weber says. “One time he said, ‘You could do better on this one, rewrite it.’ It made me a little mad, but he was right. And we had a good relationship.”
During this period, Father Weber also was in the process of building and organizing the archdiocesan Archival Center, which Cardinal McIntyre had formally established in late 1962, initially at the archdiocese’s old headquarters on Ninth Street downtown. Due to the vast and rapidly increasing collection and accumulation of documents, photographs, artwork and artifacts of importance (and, in some cases, of curiosity), the center in early 1981 moved to larger quarters adjacent to San Fernando Mission.
“The Archival Center,” Msgr. Weber asserts, “is a measured response to the Church’s obligations to collect and preserve those documents and other records associated with the human activities comprising California’s Catholic heritage. The need for such a repository is clearly demonstrated in contemporary times when the quantity of knowledge is increasing so rapidly.”
‘A wonderful idea’
In early 1973, as Msgr. Roche was nearing the end of his 16-year tenure as editor, Father Weber was invited to join Archbishop Timothy Manning for the trip to the consistory in Rome where Manning (whose life Weber chronicled in “Magnificat”) was to be created a cardinal. On the flight, the archbishop called Father Weber over and asked, “Now tell me, Francis, what is it you see in your future?”
“Well,” Father Weber replied, “I think I’d like to be editor of The Tidings.”
“Oh, that’s a wonderful idea,” Manning replied, and the subject didn’t come up again until later in the year, when Al Antczak — a veteran of 26 years at the newspaper — was named editor.
“I was annoyed,” Msgr. Weber remembers, “so I went to Manning and said, ‘You indicated I’d be the editor, and instead you put a layman in, and I thought I’d have that chance.’ I could tell he was uncomfortable, but finally he said, ‘You want to know why I chose Al?’ Yes, I said. ‘Because Al will do a better job than you would.’”
“Well, I was upset, of course, but on the way home I felt something amazing, like an inspiration from heaven that came to me, telling me to accept Manning’s decision. And he was absolutely right, because Al did a marvelous job, and we became great friends.”
And Msgr. Weber did, in fact, serve as interim Tidings editor for 16 weeks after Antczak retired. He also taught history at the former Queen of Angels Seminary High School adjacent to San Fernando Mission, and served as pastor of San Buenaventura Mission (1975-80), not knowing that four decades later he would attend the canonization of the mission’s founder, Father Junipero Serra (of whom he authored “Life and Times of Fray Junipero Serra” in 1987).
“I think Pope Francis, as a Jesuit, knew that the Jesuits were in Baja California long before the Franciscans,” Msgr. Weber observes. “When King Charles III evicted the Jesuits in 1767, Serra was among the Franciscans waiting to enter the country. So Pope Francis saw a connection between the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and he singled out Serra as a model for evangelization — a teacher of the faith — for future generations.”
The popularity of “California’s Catholic Heritage” in The Tidings, combined with his work building and maintaining the Archival Center, gained Msgr. Weber inroads and respect within the local historical and archival communities.
“You can’t tell the story of California without telling the story of the Catholic Church,” he asserts. “And in reader surveys, my column was at the top of the list of what people liked about the paper.”
The weekly column ended in 1995, during a restructuring of the newspaper’s content and format, but it hasn’t stifled his desire and ability to produce historical books about and for the local Church, including “A History of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles” that features its parishes, schools, organization, buildings and small profiles of some of its important historical figures (clergy, religious and lay).
“There were people I never got to meet or know very well that I would like to have written about,” he says, “like Daniel Murphy (who died in 1939, and whose foundation was the major contributor, 60 years later, to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels). Among other things, he invented the refrigerated railroad car to ship oranges back east, so he could have fresh orange juice at a New York hotel. He also headed California Portland Cement, which was used for most of the sidewalks in the U.S., as well as Hoover Dam and L.A. City Hall.
“And Fritz Burns, a keystone to California growth. He started laying out cities after World War II for all the veterans who were returning so they could buy houses on the GI Bill, and oversaw the development of Playa Del Rey, Westchester, Windsor Hills, Panorama City, parts of North Hollywood and other areas in Los Angeles. He and Bill Hannon, who I did know well, were pioneers in the development of the community and the Church, and both very philanthropic.”
He feels privileged to have met Countess Carrie Estelle Doheny, the wife of oil tycoon and philanthropist Edward Doheny, on several occasions, the first time while he was still a seminarian. It was near St. Vincent Church downtown, close to her mansion (now part of Mount St. Mary’s Doheny campus).
“She was blind, but she was out walking with the pastor,” Msgr. Weber recalls. “So I introduced myself, and when she learned I was a seminarian, she was delighted. ‘Oh, how nice,’ she said, and she wanted to know more about me. She and her husband, in my view, were the first family of Southern California, for all the good work they did and supported.”
Having turned 83 in January, Msgr. Weber still comes to work regularly, often accompanied by his seventh Sheltie to keep him company. “At my age, I’m not looking to do that much more,” he chuckles, “but I am codifying those 1,874 weekly installments as the Encyclopedia of California Catholic History.”
He’s also written a well-received book on “the characters of the Gospels,” as well as homilies for the three-year liturgical cycle, “for priests who don’t have time to really prepare them because they’re so busy doing so much else. So I’ll be able to preach vicariously,” he smiles, “even after I’m tucked away at the cathedral.”
And a third edition of his autobiography, “Memories of an Old Country Priest,” is in the works, for which he does not need to do nearly as much research as on some of his other books. But, like his others, it is an opportunity for all readers to learn “how things came to be” in the life of the one whose penchant for “being nosy” has given them both knowledge and appreciation of their Catholic heritage.
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