Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died of a heart attack in New York City on Easter Sunday, 1955, at the age of 74. Only a few friends attended a funeral Mass for him at St. Ignatius Loyola Church at 83rd Street and Park Avenue. Immediately after, his body was transported to upstate New York for burial on the grounds of St. Andrew-on-Hudson, at that time the novitiate of the New York Province Jesuits. Roger Haight, SJ, was a novice then and retains a vivid memory of that “chilly, rainy day.” Here’s what he remembers:
Tuesday, April 12, 1955, was a chilly, rainy day in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Late in the morning a group of us novices at the Jesuit novitiate St. Andrew-on-Hudson were asked to gather on the northeast cloister looking out of the back of the building along the side of the chapel. We served as a greeting party for the body of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., who was transported in a hearse from New York City after a requiem Mass earlier in the morning at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola in Manhattan. It is safe to say that no one among the novices knew who Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was, other than that he was a French Jesuit who was living at the time in New York.
This was the only time in my four years at St. Andrew’s (1954-58) that novices or scholastics were asked to welcome a Jesuit being brought for burial. It was memorable, too, because this Jesuit was distinctive in our imagination for being French rather than an American. Since that was not usual, it may have added a sense of mystery about the man.
I remember especially the somber drizzling of a gray morning, still too early in spring for the trees to show any growth, the black hearse that pulled up to our novice side of the cloister, and the black clothes and umbrellas that marked the scene. According to an official diary kept at St. Andrew’s, Emmanuel de Breuvery, S.J., a French economist at the United Nations and friend of Pierre, was among the Jesuits who accompanied the body from New York.
The rear of the hearse pointed back to the door of the crypt or temporary mausoleum in whose niches Jesuits who died in winter were placed, because the soil of the cemetery on the grounds was still frozen, and interment had to be postponed until the spring thaw. We stood a bit above the scene and at a distance of about twenty-five yards. Father Pierre’s body was transferred from the hearse to one of the niches in the crypt that, being around the back of the chapel, was out of our line of sight. The service did not take long after the arrival, no more than 15 minutes. Afterward we went into lunch with the seminary community as usual. We saw no more of the funeral party.
Have you visited Teilhard’s grave? Have a memory to share?