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Religion: Father Oliver Passes

5 minute read

In the Middle Ages men did not hesitate to have more than one profession. . . . In this present age of ours we have become so stereotyped . . . that a man, if he is to be successful, cannot possibly do or be more than one thing. If he does try to do more, he becomes either superficial or a mere drifter. And I am quite aware that my own experience is open to the reproach of superficiality.

Last week the remarkable fourfold career of the author of these words was ended by death in his 72nd year. He was kindly, white-haired John Rathbone Oliver of Baltimore—physician, psychiatrist, professor and priest. Countless Johns Hopkins students, Baltimoreans of all stations and readers of his books remember Dr. Oliver as one of the most unusual and winning personalities of his time.

Each weekday morning Oliver the physician, wearing a bailiff’s brass badge pinned to his waistcoat, let himself into a dingy little room in Baltimore’s Court House. It was a simple place, filing cases bulging with records of human wretchedness, a medicine table, a first-aid kit, a couch with sagging springs. There he helped unravel twisted lives caught by the law. Some got a sedative, but Dr. Oliver first tried, to win their confidence and get them to talk, “for confession and expression are good for the soul, even better than four tablespoonfuls of aromatic spirits of ammonia.”

Between interviews he often got a summons from the judge on the bench. Perhaps it was to test the reliability of a witness; perhaps it was to prove that a stain was blood. He found cross-examinations mentally invigorating, soon learned that he could nonplus storming attorneys if he kept smiling no matter how galling their insinuations.

After lunch Oliver the psychiatrist received private patients in two dimly-lit rooms in Baltimore’s Latrobe Apartments. Originally he had had to borrow money to furnish them, carefully seeing that they looked like a private apartment rather than a doctor’s office. Soon he was doing a brisk business, got the reputation of the city’s No. 1 psychiatrist.

Towards evening Oliver became the professor. For years he lectured on the history of medicine at the University of Maryland and at Johns Hopkins University. Most evenings, wearing a rosy boutonniere in his grey Norfolk jacket, he sat down at the head of a long dining table in Johns Hopkins’ Alumni Memorial Hall. As warden of the hall he was surrounded by men ranging from freshmen to graduate students. Once when an after-dinner speaker failed to show up, Oliver pinch-hit for him, related the details of a famous murder. That set a precedent and he had to give at least one “murder talk” each semester.

After the meal Oliver went to his book-crammed quarters (he said he always expected the Mad Hatter to appear crying out “No room, no room”), where he held open house far into the night. Students dropped in “just for a moment,” stayed hours on end. Tired in body, he generally sat propped up in bed.

Saturday afternoons saw the greatest transformation. Donning his black clerical suit and round collar, Anglo-Catholic Father Oliver went off to Mount Calvary Episcopal Church. There he got into cassock and biretta, attended vespers, heard confessions, dined, had a cigaret, went to bed at 10 in a cell-like room on the top floor of the clergy house. Sunday morning he sang High Mass at 11, but seldom preached.

In his dozen books he preached well. Victim & Victor lacked only one vote to make it the 1928 Pulitzer Prize novel. Other books: Fear (a novel), Foursquare (an autobiography). Most of his writing was done during summer holidays in Quebec. He never kept a cent of royalties. They went to help educate men for the ministry and medicine.

Oliver always regarded his priesthood as the center of his fourfold life. His father was General Robert Shaw Oliver, Assistant Secretary of War under President Taft and President Theodore Roosevelt. After leaving Harvard summa cum laude (1894), Oliver spent two years teaching at St. Paul’s School, Concord, N.H. Then he entered the Episcopal priesthood, but after three years’ ministry he lost his faith and asked to be deposed. He went to Europe, joined the Roman Catholic Church, started studies for the priesthood only to find his faith gone a second time. He turned to medicine, got his degree from Austria’s Innsbruck University (1910), became a lieutenant in the Austrian Army’s medical corps and served in 1914-15. A heart attack forced him to return to the U.S. He recuperated but failed to get into the U.S. Army medical corps in 1917. His court and private practice and university work in Baltimore took his mind off his disappointment.

One afternoon in 1917, 14 years after he had been deposed from the priesthood, 45-year-old Dr. Oliver entered an Episcopal church in Baltimore, saw people entering and leaving the confessional. He entered himself and knelt down by the grating to whisper the form for confession. He could only say: “I want to come home. … I want to come home.”

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