The Case of the Missing Principal

In the 1930–31 school year, SI had three principals. First, Fr. Dennis Sullivan, SJ, who had taught as a regent at SI in the early 1920s, took over in the summer of 1930 but left for Seattle on November 3, possibly for reasons of health, and he died there six years later. Following in his stead was the noted preacher Fr. Dennis Kavanagh, SJ, but sickness forced him, too, to resign by January. Succeeding him was Fr. Walter Semeria, SJ ’15, a legendary figure, known not for his tenure of office, but how he ended his association with the Jesuits.

Not much is known about his two terms as principal. He introduced the practice of mailing report cards home to parents and ended the Friday assemblies at which students received awards and medals for academic achievement. The August 19, 1932, edition of The Red and Blue, mentions in passing that he had left for his tertianship studies, and that Fr. James King, SJ, would succeed him as principal.

Four years later, Fr. Semeria disappeared, the apparent victim of a drowning accident on May 15, 1936. The May 27 edition of The Red and Blue reported that Fr. Semeria had died, “a victim of the raging Pacific Ocean.” It mentions that he had been “burdened with periodic sickness,” and had most recently served as “spiritual father of the young men of the University.”

What no one knew at the time was that Semeria had faked his death in order to leave town. SI Athletic Director Robert Vergara ’76 found out what really happened when, in 1983, he interviewed Fr. William Keenan, SJ, SI’s treasurer.

Fr. Keenan told Vergara that Semeria had gone to the beach one day after school and then disappeared, leaving behind a pile of his clothes and a breviary on the sands. The Jesuits, thinking that he had committed suicide, kept the matter quiet. But some, including Fr. Keenan, found it hard to believe Semeria had committed suicide. “It was thought odd, at the time, that Fr. Semeria should go swimming after school that day. He didn’t like the water, but his clothes were on the beach, and he disappeared. It was assumed that he had drowned. About 10 years later, however, USF received a request from a Southwestern Bible college for Walter Semeria’s transcript — an odd request for a man supposedly 10 years dead. At about the same time, Fr. William Dunne, SJ ’15, president of USF and SI (and Semeria’s high school classmate at SI), was scheduled to go to Albuquerque, NM, for a conference. While he was there, he took a ‘shot in the dark’ and looked through the phone book for a Walter Semeria. He found the name, dialed the number, and asked if he could speak with Walter Semeria. When Semeria came to the phone, Fr. Dunne recognized his voice and said, ‘Hello ——.’ Fr. Dunne called Semeria by a nickname that only the two of them used. Semeria knew the charade was over and agreed to meet with Fr. Dunne. They were together for an hour or two and Fr. Dunne had his say.”

Some of the priests in the city had refused to believe that Fr. Semeria had actually pulled this; after Fr. Dunne’s meeting, they were convinced. Further confirmation came when some publication ran a photo of a Protestant ministers’ conference, and Walter Semeria was clearly visible. He had become an Episcopal minister. Semeria later changed his name, and he never told his family that he was alive, worried, perhaps, that the stigma of being related to a runaway priest would be too much for them to bear.