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Boston’s Labor Priest: A Short Biograpy

Joseph J. Fahey

          Edward F. Boyle, S.J. has a sense of urgency about his ministry as a labor priest that many a young cleric would envy.  After thirty eight years “on the job” with the Archdiocese of Boston’s Labor Guild, Fr. Ed (as he is affectionately known) believes his vocation to work for social justice is needed even more today than it was years ago.  He is deeply concerned that “the labor market climate in almost all sectors continues to deteriorate” and that the gap between worker and manager, between rich and poor, threatens the very moral foundation of our society.

          In a recent address to the Executive Board of the Labor Guild Ed Boyle stated that “our economic system” has lost its “moral compass” through the exploitation of worker and consumer in our society.  True to his and the Guild’s philosophy, however, Ed stated that he believed that “the only valid opposition to this ongoing situation must be a moral one grounded in God and God’s will.”  Ed spoke with passion and conviction and every Board member in the room responded with strong support.  As Ed and the Board discussed solutions to these problems, I thought of earlier conversations we had about the unusual journey that led to his joining the ranks of the famed Jesuit labor priests and to his ministry as Chaplain of the Labor Guild. 



          Ed Boyle did not take the standard path to the priesthood that many followed back in the 1950’s: Catholic grammar and high school followed by seminary and ordination.  Ed attended public schools in Belmont, MA before attending Dartmouth College on an R.O.T.C. scholarship.  After he received his A.B. in Economics from Dartmouth he served as a U.S. Navy officer for three years.  He then received an M.B.A. and, after that, took a position in finance with Seatrain Lines in New York City.  As Ed pursued his life of worldly success, however, he realized something was missing; something was wrong.  He came to realize that he “was going down the wrong path at 100 miles an hour” by pursuing a life in which “money and winning is everything.” 

          During this period Ed attended Mass at the St. Ignatius Loyola parish in Manhattan where, for the first time, he met Jesuit priests.  He was inspired by these men to seek a deeper, more spiritual rationale for his existence.  After attending several Jesuit retreats Ed surprised many by deciding to become a priest and his life changed dramatically when be entered the Jesuit Novitiate in 1958.  He left the world of finance and success for the milieu of simplicity and spirituality.  He particularly appreciated being exposed to “the whole new world of the lives of the saints.” 

          Ed gives a great deal of credit for his ministry to the rigorous Jesuit training in spirituality and the intellectual life.  When asked for specific examples of teachers and courses that opened his eyes to social justice issues, Ed credits a course in “Social Ethics” taught by William Drummond, S.J.  In this course and at other places in his seminary training Ed studied the great social encyclicals that serve as a blueprint for a just and peaceful society.  He also encountered the pioneering work in social justice of John A. Ryan, George Higgins, Jack Egan, and the Jesuits Phil Carey, Leo Brown, and Phil Land.  He was inspired by the witness to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that he saw in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker.   

          In the course of his studies in philosophy and theology at Weston Seminary Ed benefited greatly from speakers who shared the spiritual and moral basis for their work in the world.  Ed was particularly inspired by people such as Marie Augusta Neal, S.N.D., the future Senator Pat Moynihan, and the great civil rights priest from New Orleans, Lou Toomey, S.J.  A frequent visitor to Weston was Mort Gavin S.J. who served as Chaplain to the Archdiocese of Boston’s Labor Guild.  Seminarian Ed Boyle was particularly attracted to Fr. Gavin’s ministry and he began to spend time helping out at the Labor Guild.  Following his ordination in 1969, Fr. Ed taught at BC High for a year and then formally began his ministry at the Labor Guild in 1970.  He was strongly attracted to the Guild’s mission to promote the “dignity of the individual person/worker as the cornerstone of a just economic system” through “democratic trade unionism” and collective bargaining. 

          Sensing the need for more formal education, Ed pursued a master’s degree in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts.  A course he took in “Labor Economics” particularly helped him to understand the stark difference between an economic system that begins with people and one that begins with profit.  “If you start with people then your goal is to serve humanity, and if you start with profit your goal is to maximize money” he told me.  This “simple” insight, he reflected, is the basis for Catholic teaching on economics and is foundational to the 1986 U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Economics.  Ed is particularly fond of the quotation, “Economic decisions have human consequences and moral content; they help or hurt people, strengthen or weaken family life, advance or diminish the quality of justice in our land.”

          There are four distinct but interrelated foundations for Ed Boyle’s ministry: the experience of those who are physically and spiritually poor; the philosophy of natural law; the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; and Catholic Social Teaching.  The starting point for Ed Boyle’s ministry is his concern about the physical and spiritual needs of all he deals with: workers, managers, arbitrators, lawyers, academics, and politicians.  Because of his commitment to natural law, Ed believes that people of every faith and conviction can reason together and work in solidarity to secure a society based on eternal moral principles.  God’s call to salvation through the work of justice (especially as found in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4) serves as the scriptural building block of his ministry.  The final foundation for Ed Boyle’s ministry is Catholic Social Teaching.  Although there is a long commitment to justice for workers in Christian history, Ed is particularly inspired by the now lengthy social doctrine of the Church that began in 1891with Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum – “The Condition of Labor.”  The word “justice” is never far from Ed Boyle’s lips; “Justice is central to our spirituality” he told me.          


          As I listened to the Board members of the Labor Guild map out their response to the challenges that affect labor and management, itFr. Boyle at Boston Labor School was evident that much of Ed Boyle’s philosophy was shared by all.  The Guild has come a long way from its exclusively Catholic roots to include people of all faiths and convictions.  In addition, the Guild now embraces the management or employment sector as well as professional “neutrals” such as arbitrators, lawyers, and academics who are work in the field labor relations.  These inclusive and collaborative measures are, perhaps, a primary reason why Boston’s Labor Guild has outlasted the 150 or so Catholic labor schools that were prominent in the 1940s and 1950s. 

          When the Guild was begun in 1946 by Cardinal Cushing its primary function was to educate Catholic workers about their rights and responsibilities.  Today, however, the Guild offers a wide range of services.  These include:

          * School of Industrial Relations (SIR).  Like the labor schools of old, the SIR offers classes for workers and interested others in such diverse areas as labor law, collective bargaining, steward training, union governance, parliamentary procedure, public speaking, organizing, and the philosophy of unionism.  Hundreds of students benefit each year from experts and practitioners in labor, management, and arbitration who contribute their services.   

          * Cushing Gavin Awards Dinner.  This dinner was initiated in 1967 by Mortimer H. Gavin, S.J. then Chaplain of the Guild.  This unique dinner honors leaders of labor unions, executives from management, and “neutral” academics, arbitrators, and attorneys who work for justice between workers and employers.  This dinner attracts over 1,000 people annually and is testimony to the Guild’s philosophy of inclusion and harmony.

          * Elections.  This important service conducts impartial elections for union officers, bargaining representatives, and related issues.

          * Seminars.  The Guild offers occasional seminars for management, unions, and bi-partisan groups.

          * Monthly Newsletter.  “Labor Life” is an informative newsletter that highlights local conferences, gatherings, and features a challenging and inspirational column by its editor, Ed Boyle.

          * Publications and Library.  The Guild publishes Robert M. Schwartz’s widely used Your Rights on the Job: A Practical Guide to Employment Laws in Massachusetts (4th Edition).  The library contains over 3,000 books, journals, and periodicals that are available to labor school students and Guild members for research and information.

          * Gavin Conference Center.  The Labor Guild headquarters in Weymouth, MA serves not only as its work center but also offers five rooms for negotiations, arbitrations, and other labor relations meetings.        

          Because it provides so many vital services to labor and management in the Boston area and, according to Board members, because of its unique moral focus on labor/management matters, the Labor Guild continues to thrive.  It numbers over 1,200 members and counts among its members many labor leaders and some members of management.  Perhaps the most amazing fact about the Guild, however, is that it has essentially been staffed by just two people for many years.  Fr. Ed is, of course, the principle staff person but he is quick to give a good deal of the credit for getting so much done to Mary Standley who served the Guild for over 44 years and who died earlier this year.  “She was truly a remarkable person,” Ed stated, “she made everyone feel like they were the most important person in the world.”

          What does the future hold?  A good deal if the Guild’s 26 member Executive Board has its way.  The Board shared with me a draft version of a “Vision” document that explores three initiatives that are designed to enhance and solidify its mission.  The first initiative is to become actively involved in the “public arena” through press and media educational programs.  Next is to explore ways to better serve Boston’s immigrant worker population.  The final initiative is perhaps the most far reaching since it contemplates collaboration with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ), a national organization that has grown rapidly in the past ten years.  The draft document states that “Perhaps it is time for a major interfaith-supported Workers’ Center to be established in Boston, modeled after similar Centers in other cities that were started with the help of IWJ and local groups.”  Clearly, the seeds that Mort Gavin and Ed Boyle have planted through the years have born fruit.

          As the Board ended its meeting I asked several members if they would like to comment on Ed Boyle.  Board President Marty Callaghan of Boston Newspaper Printing Pressmen’s Union No. 3 summed up the feelings of all when he said, “Fr. Ed is an inspiration to all of us here at the Guild.  He is the heart and soul of this organization.  He works tirelessly to ensure the continued mission of the Guild. He is truly the pastor of the labor flock in Boston.  He counsels us, marries us, baptizes our children and buries us.”  Eileen Norton, RN, Director of Organizing at the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a former Guild student stated that “Fr. Ed is one in a million!  He sees the whole picture and provides a moral dimension to the dignity of work you just don’t get in other places.”    

          Fr. Ed is a man on fire with God’s love for the world.  He may be the last of the great Jesuit labor priests but his work will continue long after he is gone.  Ad multos annos!

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