Some readers may recall that I have a serendipitous connection with Commonweal’s founding editor, Michael Williams (1877-1950). Williams lived, died, and is buried in Westport, Connecticut, the town where I grew up. Upon learning this, I went on a little expedition to find his grave (see “Our Man in Westport,” February 11, 2001). He’s buried not far from the elementary school I attended, and his funeral Mass was held in the church where I received my First Holy Communion and confirmation. Of all the unlikely occurrences related to my becoming editor of Commonweal, the fact that Williams and I had trod much of the same turf is the oddest.
What I knew about Williams was derived mostly from Rodger Van Allen’s 1974 history, The Commonweal and American Catholicism. According to Van Allen, the bibulous, enormously energetic, but erratic Williams had been forced to resign after he moved the magazine decisively into the pro-Franco camp during the Spanish Civil War. Williams’s actions precipitated the resignation of George Shuster, at the time arguably the magazine’s clearest thinker and most gifted editor. Shuster and others had cautioned against the popular Catholic identification with Franco’s cause. I wanted to know more about Williams, and especially about what had compelled him to compromise Commonweal’s principled support for democratic institutions by backing Franco.