July 5, 2010Syracuse, New York
Frank Woolever, Syracuse peace activist and social advocate, dies after sudden illness
Published: Tuesday, July 06, 2010, 12:12 PM Updated: Tuesday, July 06, 2010, 5:44 PM
Syracuse, NY -- Frank Woolever, a former Catholic priest and peace activist who dedicated his life to social work and served three months in federal prison for civil disobedience, died Monday morning in Syracuse. He was 77.
Woolever died suddenly at Crouse Hospital after complications from a stroke, his family said. He is survived by his wife, Meme, and two daughters, Heidi Daly and Amy Woolever and one grandson, Micah. Calling hours will be held from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at St. Lucy's Church, 432 Gifford St., Syracuse. His funeral will be at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Lucy's.
Woolever worked and volunteered at non-profits and faith-based service groups for nearly 40 years after leaving the priesthood with the Syracuse Diocese in 1971.
He was arrested and jailed for trespassing during a November 2005 protest at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly School of the Americas, in Fort Benning, Ga. While in prison, he studied the works of Mohandas Gandhi and wrote a book, "Ghandi's List of Social Sins," which will be self-published this fall.
A year before his arrest, he retired as director of L'Arche Syracuse, a community for people with disabilities. During his five-year tenure, the non-profit built a new group home in Lyncourt, said Peggy Harper, the current director.
"He really had his commitment to peace in his everyday life," Harper said. "It wasn't just about peace in the world, but peace in our community and between individuals."
Woolever also worked for Cornell University's Family Matters Project, the Onondaga Pastoral Counseling Center and was a former chairperson of the Syracuse and Onondaga County Human Rights Commission.
He graduated from St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester in the 1950s, and later earned his Master's and Doctorate in Ministry from the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. In 1971, he earned a Master's in Public Administration from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
He served as assistant pastor for St. Andrew the Apostle Church and St. Brigid-St. Joseph Church in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He later worked in the Office of Inner City Development for Catholic Charities before retiring from ministry.
In addition to serving others, Woolever had other gifts.
"He was a (darn) good poker player," said longtime friend, Deborah Pellow. Her husband, David Cole, played in Woolever's group for more than a decade.
One time, Cole was in the hospital and couldn't make poker night. So Woolever went to the hospital to visit him. They played poker at Cole's bedside, and Woolever won.
Pellow described Woolever as "saintly," adding: "He was an extraordinarily tender man."
Woolever also was a star basketball player at St. Anthony of Padua High School on Syracuse's South Side, his daughters said. He received two scholarship offers, but went to seminary instead, his daughters said.
He remained very religious throughout his life, praying twice every day, family said.
Woolever enjoyed hiking, biking and cross country skiing, especially at Green Lakes State Park in Manlius. His love of nature led him to become an avid gardener.
He rode his bike around town and took the bus often.
"He liked to feel like a normal person," his daughter, Heidi, said.
Retired Syracuse diocese Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Costello offered this tribute to Woolever:
“Frank Woolever was a practitioner of Catholic social teaching. He advocated for poor and disadvantaged people. He felt their pain and responded to their needs with love. And he simultaneously challenged the social systems which marginalized people and fostered poverty, calling them to task, not infrequently through the medium of letters to the editor of this very newspaper.
"Frank Woolever was a peacemaker for whom the horror of war and war making was simply unacceptable. And he had the courage of these convictions; he did prison time in their support.
"Frank Woolever was a perfectionist. He sought excellence in all that he did – from playing basketball at St. Anthony’s to pastoring his people at St. Andrews, from neighborhood organizing to counseling to guiding his friends at L’Arche, from being spouse to being parent; for Frank Woolever only his best would do.
"Absent his presence and his voice our community is diminished."
© 2010 syracuse.com. All rights reserved.
Frank H. Woolever
'Someone special,' regardless of your walk in life
Published: Friday, July 09, 2010, 12:57 AM Updated: Friday, July 09, 2010, 9:04 AM
Meme Woolever laughs when she tells the story, although she admits she didn't think it
was so funny when it happened. Years ago, during a rough Syracuse winter,
Meme bought a new coat for her husband, Frank. A few days later, he was coatless when he came through the front door.
"Where's your coat?" Meme asked.
"I've got another coat," Frank replied.
He had given away his new one to a homeless man. That was no real surprise to Meme or to Frank's daughters, Heidi and Amy. As the girls were growing up, Frank would occasionally bring home men from the street who needed a place to sleep.
In 2005, his daughters recall, some friends arrived in town for Amy's wedding.
The little group stopped for a drink at a downtown tavern, where a tough and grizzled man at the bar reacted joyfully when he heard the name linked to the celebration.
"Woolever?" he exclaimed. "Do you know Frank Woolever?"
The man had done jail time. That's where he met Frank, who often volunteered to visit prisoners at the state prison in Auburn. For a time, Frank also taught a course in dream
analysis at the Onondaga County jail in Jamesville, which gave prisoners a chance to revisit what was really their only means of escape.
"When we were little, he'd always take me and Amy downtown and we were always amazed at how many people he knew," said Heidi, 38, who owns a farm in Maine. "Whether it was the mayor or a street alcoholic, they'd get the same treatment, the same enthusiasm."
Frank died Monday morning. The family had been preparing to leave for a vacation at Cape Cod. Frank, feeling poorly, decided to see a doctor. He asked if he could delay treatment until he returned. Instead, he was admitted to the hospital. Amy, a pediatrician who is two years younger than her sister, said her father endured a seizure and other complications.
He fell into a coma and never woke up.
At 77, Frank maintained a focus on helping the suffering, which he saw as
the essence of Christianity. He exuded concern and interest upon meeting anyone, even those with whom he disagreed, which meant you felt his presence once he walked into a room.
"He was a gentle guy," recalled Meme, who knew Frank was "someone special" on the day that she first saw him.
That was in 1969. Frank was a priest in Syracuse. She was a nun with the Sisters of Mercy. They met by coincidence while visiting with a mutual friend in Vermont, which touched off a long period of correspondence. "He was a great letter writer," Meme said, a point echoed by her daughters, who say their dad would send long and detailed notes when he was concerned about events in their lives.
The couple eventually left what Meme describes as "their lives of formal ministry." In 1971, they were married. Meme said her husband missed the priesthood but never regretted the choice. A grandfather, he saw his family as the evidence that he'd done the right thing.
As for service, it remained synonymous with his career. He was one of the early volunteers at the Oxford Inn, which provides shelter for the homeless. He worked in several positions with the developmentally disabled, including a job as director of the L'Arche community in Syracuse. He was a counselor and a tireless activist for peace, a guy who did jail time in his 70s as a protest against policies involving the School of the Americas.
To his daughters, that devotion was part of daily life. They remember the Easter Sunday when he drove to the Near West Side to help an ailing man get medical help. They remember standing with Frank at vigils in the biting cold. They remember how he would sometimes take them along on visits with prisoners in jail.
Most of all, they remember how he always made time for them.
Frank enjoyed biking. Heidi and her dad once took off on a biking trip on
Martha's Vineyard that stretched into the night. The sun was gone, and they
learned that a hostel where they planned to sleep was 10 miles away.
Getting there meant taking a jutted road that had no lights. Father and
daughter braced for a harrowing ride.
Throughout it all, Heidi listened for Frank's voice in the darkness. It was
calming, as if nothing bad could happen, and it helped her make it to the
She didn't know she was rehearsing for the way that she'll live now.
The funeral Mass for Frank Woolever will be at 10 a.m. today at St. Lucy's Church.
© 2010 syracuse.com. All rights reserved.