Beloved Edmundite Fr. Ray Doherty dies at 91
Campus community mourns, honors memory of former Marine and gentle longtime campus minister; funeral is scheduled for Thursday, June 17 at 11 a.m. in the College chapel
Fr. Raymond Doherty ’51 — good and faithful servant to God, his country and his College — died peacefully in his sleep on June 7. He was 91.
His brother Edmundites said the immensely popular former Marine went to bed the evening of Sunday, June 6 – the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), and also a significant day in military history as D-Day – and did not appear for breakfast in the Edmundite campus residence, Nicolle Hall, the next morning. They checked on him and discovered he had died in the night.
Said his brother Edmundite Fr. Brian Cummings ’86 in a note to the community with the news, “He always said that passing in one’s sleep would be a blessing as you would wake up in heaven.” A funeral is scheduled for Thursday, June 17 at 11 a.m. in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel on campus. Presiding will be Fr. Marcel Rainville, SSE ’67, with Fr. Cummings reading the Gospel and Fr. David Theroux, SSE ’70 as homilist. Interment will be at Merrill Cemetery, and family and friends are invited to a reception in the Green Mountain Dining Room in Alliot Hall afterward.
In his years of ministry, Father Ray, a onetime Purple Knights varsity baseball pitcher with a legendary gift for remembering the names of nearly everybody he met, became known and respected campus-wide for his gentle and personable humility, steady wisdom and toughness, and unwavering devotion to preaching and living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of a homilist at his 50th anniversary of Edmundite vows celebration in 2004, Fr. Ray was a much-loved “spiritual compass” to generations of Saint Michael’s College students.
In September of 1954, Ray Doherty vowed poverty, chastity and obedience in the Society of Saint Edmund, embracing a vocation born and cultivated during his four years as an English major and athlete at Saint Michael’s from 1947 to 1951. After two years in the Marines as a public affairs writer, the Newton, Mass., native worked for a summer with handicapped children before entering the order’s novitiate in Putney, where he assented to his life-defining vows.
Four years of intensive seminary study followed at Fairholt in Burlington, leading to his ordination as an Edmundite in 1958. Following a short period on the Saint Michael’s English faculty and as a secretary to the society’s superior general, Fr. Doherty worked vigorously as vocations director at the order’s St. Edmund’s Novitiate in Mystic, Conn., until 1967 — the year he became Saint Michael’s second official chaplain to students, a role he largely continued as a campus minister in some capacity except for brief breaks for other important assignments in subsequent decades.
Many lives changed
The loss of this beloved priest on campus and in the wider Saint Michael’s community Monday was felt deeply and profoundly as news spread – a fact made clear in the social media outpouring of fond remembrances and respect from the countless souls whose lives he had impacted for the better. By Tuesday, more than 800 people had expressed sadness, caring, affection and love with “emoji” responses to a post of the news from the College Alumni office, with 155 comments, ranging from those who had known him all their long lives through milestone moments – baptisms, weddings, funerals where he officiated.
Fr. Ray’s friends and admirers through the years included everybody from campus food service and maintenance crews to his fellow Marine and alumnus, the onetime Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford ‘77. Fr. Ray and the general maintained a friendly correspondence right up through this year, reconnecting warmly in person when Dunford was the Saint Michael’s Commencement speaker in 2017.
Sen. Patrick Leahy ’61 also attended that ceremony, and in 2017 made this statement appearing in the Congressional Record about Fr. Ray as “a fellow Michaelman and a pillar of the St. Michael’s College community.” Sen. Leahy continued in his statement, “Father Ray, as he is warmly known, exemplifies so many of the qualities we Vermonters hold dear. His compassion and leadership have contributed to a vibrant college campus and has inspired those beyond its borders. As a member of the Society of Saint Edmund, whose members founded the college in 1904, Fr. Ray has embodied a commitment to social justice throughout his lifetime of service.”
Fr. Ray had many identifies for the Edmundites through the years: priest, preacher, pastor, chaplain, retreat master, leader, director, administrator, counselor, editor, writer, baseball pitcher, avid basketball and tennis player plus formidable in cross-country skiing and cycling. For a time he was posted at Burlington’s St. Joseph’s Co-Cathedral where, as at Saint Michael’s, he had a chance to put to use his talent at singing and preaching. Some of his other work through his career included a year as chaplain and religious studies teacher at Rice High School in South Burlington and two years at St. Edmund’s Parish in Whitton, England.
On his return to the Saint Michael’s campus from England in 1985, he assisted the admissions, alumni and public information offices. He coordinated a parent volunteer admissions program, assisted in the Scholar’s Bowl program, traveled within Vermont representing the college at alumni events, and wrote articles for campus publications.
His writing skills developed in his student days under the mentorship of John Donoghue, founder of the journalism program and longtime college public relations director. Fr. Doherty wrote both for student publications and local dailies during his studies, later using and developing those skills in the Marines and on behalf of the college.
A birthday to remember
Last year, on the beloved Edmundite’s May 4 birthday during the pandemic in 2020, his friends organized a mobile 90th birthday party of nearly 50 vehicles that drove by Nicolle Hall on the Saint Michael’s College campus to help Fr. Ray have a fitting birthday celebration despite the challenging times. Fire trucks, balloons, shouts, honks, colorful signs and even a tall and bright Dr. Seuss hat were among the props that well-wishers brought to the party.
According to a report by the Edmundite publicist Lynn Monty ’09 from August 2019, the Saint Edmund’s Medal of Honor was presented to Fr. Ray at Enders Island in Mystic, Connecticut in October 2019. This event celebrates “the lives of those who reflect the legacy of Saint Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury and patron of Enders Island and Saint Edmund’s Retreat.”
The report notes that College alumnus Jerry Flanagan ’71, longtime director of admission and VP for enrollment and marketing at the college, said he first met Fr. Ray in the fall of 1967 when he was just starting his position as Director of Campus Ministry. He has served in campus ministry and on the board of trustees at the college for half a century.
“I have always considered him my spiritual adviser and continue to meet with him,” Flanagan said. “He was and has always been a great role model for me. We consider him a part of our family and I am certain that others would say the same. We all are better people for having known him during his life of service to God, Saint Michael’s College and country.”
In that interview, Fr. Ray talked about being semi-retired in recent years but still quite active. “I am on the board of trustees, the board of the fire and rescue squad and the advisory board of the college magazine. I take a couple of weekday Masses every week. I help out any way I can,” he told his interviewer Monty. “I am not quite as strong as I used to be, but I do what I can. I directed campus ministry for 13 years. I made it a point to get to know the students by name. I got to know some of them just by walking to the dining room. I took the time to stop and talk to them. The LEAP program loosened me up a little bit.” LEAP is a Christian group at Saint Michael’s that sponsors retreats at Saint Anne’s Shrine.
Fr. Ray also explained the appeal of the Edmundites for him in that interview: “I think the Edmundites are really good at not putting on airs, not striving for honors. We all like to be honored but generally we are simple in our lifestyle and down to earth with the people we work with. People come to our Masses because they like the liturgies. They are well done. We open up our dining room on Christmas Eve and people get to know us. It’s a good thing. We seem to be well-liked.”
Fr. Ray said he “had a religious upbringing. My parents practiced the faith. We would go to church every Sunday. My father was the head usher in the parish. My mother would walk us up to the front pew. We were always late for Mass. We had one bathroom for six people so it was a struggle to get everybody organized and out. My oldest brother liked to sleep in. They were strong in the faith. They weren’t likely to sit around and talk about holy things but they were faithful. As for Jesus’ love, I took it for granted. I just knew it was there for me.”
“We were not much for throwing the word ‘love’ around. It’s very common now. I knew my parents loved me by the way they treated me,” he said in the interview. “They went through tough times but there was always food on the table. My father had a good business but the Great Depression wiped him out. WWII and Korea got our family back on our feet.”
He spoke of his military service in the Marines: “I was a Staff Sergeant in the Marines during the Korean War but it was my education that I received from Saint Michael’s College that saved me from having to go to Korea. I got into journalism. I was editor of the college newspaper. Thank God for John Donoghue. He was a beautiful man and a mentor to me—a second father. He trained me in journalism well. The Marines needed a public information officer. I was promoted to combat correspondent but never saw combat, thank God.”
“It’s not too complex,” he said of his decision to become a priest as a young man. “Growing up in a parish school every boy thought about the priesthood at one time or another, which I did. In college I had a few steady girlfriends but it was when I was about to leave the Marine Corps that I started thinking seriously about my future. I was living in a Quonset hut with 15 other Marines and it was a blessing that just outside the hut was a Chapel. I got into the habit of going to daily mass. I got to know the chaplains there. So the thoughts were coming back to me about becoming a priest and one night when I was in my bunk I felt the call. You know how they say vocation is a call, well I felt that call in that bunk. It felt so strong.”
“The Edmundites were special for me because I had never known priests that well until coming to Saint Michel’s College where I got to know them personally,” he said. “When I started thinking seriously about priesthood, I naturally thought of the Society of Saint Edmund. When I was released into inactive service I wrote to Father Eymard Galligan who was the vocation director for the Society of Saint Edmund. I had known him as a student. It was a hard letter to write and I was nervous about it because I didn’t know Latin. Masses were in Latin back then. After a long period of not hearing anything, I got a phone call at the last minute that he was coming to see me. He stayed for dinner and then overnight at my home with my parents. It was nice. He sold me that I should give it a try. Here I am today.”
Fr. Ray said for him the best part of his ministry had been “working with the students when I was director of campus ministry. Celebrating the Eucharist. Getting to be the director of the LEAP program for seven years. I didn’t want to get involved initially but I often feel that way about things where I lack confidence. Then I do get involved and they work out great. Directing the LEAP program was such a turning point in my life. It gave me a chance to know students at a different level than on campus. Some of the students had never had a religious experience in their life. It’s an important program and good to have.”
“People tell us that Edmundites are very hospitable, I got into this to serve the poor and I appreciate the vow of poverty. We are pretty middle class in our lifestyle. We have three meals a day. People go on vacations. We share a common life and share what we have. Whatever we earn we turn in to the general fund. That to me is religious life and I like that.”
He said that though he “doesn’t like to be overly pious about these things” – that is, seeing divine intervention in nearly every life occurrence, “I do think sometimes it is the case that the Holy Spirit intercedes. I got into college at the last minute. I got saved in the Marine Corp at the last minute by getting an assignment that didn’t take me into Korea. I got into the Edmundites at the last minute. Those are just a few of the things. There are so many more that just seem like the Holy Spirit is working there.”
Fr. Ray spoke in the interview about the meaning of life. “From a religious point of view, which my whole life has been centered around, my purpose in life is to serve God and God’s people, to put it very simply and briefly,” he said. “ I could do a lot better, I am sure. That’s my goal anyway.”
As Father Ray put it in a College magazine profile in 2016, “It’s not so much what you say as what you do. We are blessed with the opportunity to lead by example.”
And so he did.