Father John Duryea, who was excommunicated in 1976 after a third of a century as a Catholic priest -- much of it serving the Palo Alto/Stanford area -- died Saturday at the Oaxaca, Mexico, home he shared with his wife, artist Eve DeBona.
Duryea became nationally famous, or infamous, for announcing on Jan. 18, 1976, in his sermon at St. Ann's Chapel in Palo Alto that he had "done the one thing the (Catholic Church) institution will not tolerate. I have fallen in love."
The lanky priest had evolved over the years to the point of questioning and distancing himself from church policies and bureaucracy that he felt separated it from the day-to-day human condition.
"I have come to see the ministry as the facilitation of the human and Christian growth of individuals: their liberation from fear and guilt and oppression by God's healing love, mediated through me," he said in his St. Ann's sermon, which shocked the more than 200 parishioners and triggered widespread news coverage. Showing a quiet defiance that he has maintained over the years, he made it clear he was "being kicked out of the church. I am not resigning."
He received his official letter of excommunication on his wedding day. He continued counseling as a legal minister under state law.
In an interview with the former Palo Alto Times, he said his romance with DeBona, a non-Catholic who was 24 years younger and had two young daughters from a previous marriage, had made him a better person: "I have been able to do better sermons and give better counseling during the past year" due to the romance. He said the church's celibacy law has "robbed the church of its most dedicated young men," but didn't know how it would change.
Over the past two years, Duryea suffered from deteriorating vision and hearing, although he was still able to walk daily until recently. He was suffering from a rare form of cancer, and family members said he chose a "self-directed death," which Eve DeBona said should be legal and acceptable as a "much kinder" way of passing. she was holding his hand when he died. He composed a letter/e-mail to friends the day prior to his death, in which he said, "I will go soon. Of all the images I take with me, the strongest are of my beloved mountains."
Last January, on his 88th birthday, friends from Palo Alto visited him in Oaxaca and showed a DVD with greetings from numerous friends and former parishioners from the Palo Alto area. They also presented him with a glossy book of photos Duryea had taken on backpacking hikes in the Sierra Nevada. They also interviewed him on video, during which he complained of his vision and hearing problems but showed the same warm smile and sparkle in the eyes recalled by those who knew him.
Duryea was raised in Palo Alto and for many years had lived in the home of his late parents, Mr. and Mrs. Robert Duryea. His late brother, Robert F. Duryea, Jr., also a priest, was expelled from the church after a secret marriage of seven years and a 5-year-old son became publicly known.
DeBona, a non-Catholic and mother of two young daughters, Leslie and Ariel, met Duryea in 1974 and a friendship developed that became a romance.
Duryea was a native of San Francisco but was raised in Palo Alto. He decided to become a priest by age 12. He attended Stanford University a short time, then a seminary preparatory school in Mountain View and St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park prior to his being ordained in 1943. He served in San Mateo, Oakland and as San Jose State College (now University) chaplain between 1950 and 1961 -- when he moved to St. Ann's Chapel in Palo Alto, which also housed the Newman Center for Stanford students.
Duryea continued his ministry as a spiritual leader of the Angelo Roncalli Community in Palo Alto until his retirement to Mexico in 2001. In the 1980s he wrote an autobiography, "Alive Into the Wilderness."
Gerry Masteller, co-owner of Printers Inc., where Duryea worked for more than 10 years, said: "He was a great presence in the store. He was like the elder thinker, the great philosopher, and very popular with staff and customers. He was a gentle man, very kind and thoughtful and sweet."