Saturday, September 08, 2012

In memoriam: P. James A. Sadowsky, S.J.

Jesuit Father James Sadowsky died yesterday morning in New York at the age of 88; I don't have any good pictures of him, so I decided to illustrate this post with the above photo, which I'll explain later. A longtime professor of philosophy at Fordham University, Father Sadowsky never achieved great fame as an academic: he published relatively little and never earned a doctorate, having started his teaching career at a time when such things mattered much less than they do today. Even so, Father Sadowsky came to enjoy a notable following among partisans of the Austrian School of economics thanks to some of his writings as well as his collaboration with libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, leading one online tribute to acclaim him as an "exemplary anarcho-Catholic."

Though I never had Father Sadowsky as a teacher, I did get to know him while I was at Fordham. Father Sadowsky was an extraordinary vivid character, the sort of person whose actions and comments produce long-remembered and oft-retold stories. Some of the most memorable stories about Father Sadowsky focus on his concern for linguistic precision and strict literalism in speech. When he got his first telephone answering machine, he took a long time crafting the right message; openings like "this is Father James Sadowsky" or "this is the voice of James Sadowsky" were rejected as factually inaccurate and lingustically imprecise before Father Sadowsky finally produced a text that began, "You are listening to a recording of the voice of Father James Sadowsky." Directed to "go through those doors" to reach the elevator in an unfamiliar building, Father Sadowsky replied, "I don't have a resurrected body; I can't go through doors."

Though he had officially retired in the 1990s, Father Sadowsky was still a notable presence on campus when I was at Fordham a decade later. Well into his eighties, he continued to serve as an examiner for the De U (short for De Universa Philosophia), the comprehensive oral examination that Jesuit scholastics must complete at the end of philosophy studies. In that capacity, he was known for asking very pointed questions ("Did God know that Judas would betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and not twenty-nine?") and for telling examinees to read certain of his own articles (like "Why Create Hitler?"). In my time, Father Sadowsky also regularly offered a semester-long tutorial in logic for Jesuit scholastics; though Sadowsky often asked me when I would finally take the tutorial (as I sometimes promised that I would), I regret that I never took him up on it.

Finally, some words about the photo that illustrates this post. The doors seen here are found at the entrance of St. Michael's Russian Catholic Church on Mulberry Street in Manhattan. Father Sadowsky was a parishioner at St. Michael's for several years in the 1940s; the son of a Russian Orthodox father and an Episcopalian mother, he had found his way to St. Michael's sometime after he was received into the Catholic Church in 1939 and attended services there regularly until he entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1947. Father Sadowsky stayed away from St. Michael's for the next sixty years - somewhat incredibly, I'd say, given that he spent most of those years in New York - until I and another scholastic took him back there for a Sunday liturgy. We arrived fairly early, so the doors seen above were still closed and not propped open, as they would be closer to the beginning of services. I knew that the doors were unlocked - the deacon and others were inside setting up - so I simply opened the door at left and started to enter the building; at that point, Father Sadowsky drew my attention to the sign on the door at right and said, "Why didn't you ring the bell?" Explaining why I chose not to do so was of no avail - Sadowsky took the sign at its word, even though I had come to regard it as redundant.

Earlier on the trip to visit St. Michael's, Father Sadowsky gave me another unforgettable lesson in linguistic precision. To get from the Bronx to the East Side of Manhattan, I chose to take the Triborough Bridge because that was the route that I knew best. Seeing me do this, Father Sadowsky asked, "Why didn't you take the Third Avenue Bridge?" Unfamiliar with this alternative route, I innocently responded, "Where does it go?" "To Third Avenue," Sadowsky answered, in a tone of voice that suggested that I should have known better than to ask. As an unforgettable Jesuit crosses the bridge to the next life, I pray that his memory may be eternal. AMDG.


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