Canon law authority Fr. Francis Morrisey dies in Ottawa at age 84

April – May, 2020

May 27, 2020


Fr. Francis "Frank" Morrisey, OMI, died May 23 at age 84 at Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital in Ottawa. He was a foremost authority on canon law and helped to draft the text of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. He was a canon law professor and author whose bibliography ran 26 pages. He frequently served as a canon law consultant to Catholic health care systems and facilities as well as to general superiors of congregations and diocesan leaders.

Fr. Morrisey was greatly respected by the U.S. Catholic health ministry as a pathfinder whose work was foundational to changes in business structures and in sponsorship models that allowed for a more active role for the laity. He was cherished by those who knew him for his joy-filled approach to work, as well as his humanity, wit, optimism and genuine appreciation for others.

Sr. Jomary Trstensky, OSF, chairperson of Hospital Sisters Ministries, says, "Fr. Morrisey served the needs of Catholic health care at a time when sponsorship structures were changing quickly, and new models were just emerging. He was quick to tell us that church law was adaptable and that we should create a model that would serve the needs of our organization and trust that this model could be shaped to be in harmony with the expectations of law.

"His vast knowledge of these matters were a great reassurance for those of us who were called to be leaders of change," she says.

Born in 1936 in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island in Canada, and raised in Ottawa, Fr. Morrisey knew as a child that he wanted to become a priest. He joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Ottawa as a young man and was ordained a priest in 1961. He was studying at the University of Ottawa in 1965 when a chance meeting landed him a role on a steering committee tasked with setting up a Canadian canon law society. His participation inspired him to study how church law affected hospital finances, and over time he developed his expertise in canon law. He earned a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Ottawa and a doctorate in canon law from Saint Paul's University.

He was Saint Paul University's registrar from 1965 to 1971, then vice-rector of the school's seminary through 1984. He was dean of the faculty of canon law at the university from 1972 to 1984.

He emerged as one of the world's top experts on canon law. He was a consultant to the Vatican and an international lecturer.

He advised congregations that founded the U.S. Catholic health ministry's systems and facilities at a time when those congregations were determining how to transition to greater lay sponsorship and to greater consolidation of facilities. He helped the congregations to form ministerial juridic persons to sponsor the systems and facilities they had established and built.

He also was a regular content contributor to CHA's Health Progress journal and taught.

He received CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award last June at the Catholic Health Assembly in Dallas. For a video tribute that was shown at the awards dinner, Fr. Morrisey was asked to write and provide narration for a letter to his younger self, telling him what the future holds. The wisdom he shares in that missive rings especially true today:

"Do not be afraid," he says in the letter. "There is a tomorrow, although we have no idea what it will hold. Do your utmost to be involved in shaping tomorrow, which will soon be here."

Sr. Peggy Ann Martin, OP, who is retiring in June as executive vice president, sponsorship and governance for CommonSpirit Health, says she relied on Fr. Morrisey for his expertise. She says, "Even though, I/we might not have been ready to let Frank Morrisey go, he was ready and excited to see his Savior face to face.

"Although, I can no longer call him nor e-mail him for his insights and wisdom, I will be calling upon him and I trust he will be there to support and inspire us. May he rest in peace, good and faithful servant," she says.

Sr. Mary Haddad, RSM, CHA president and chief executive officer, says Fr. Morrisey was a great mentor to her when she joined CHA a decade ago as senior director of sponsorship services. "Always quick with an email response to my questions, he would begin with 'I'm saving souls in (whichever location he was in).' Recently, I learned that the last words of the Code of Canon Law are 'the supreme law is the salvation of souls.' I imagine Frank will continue saving souls."

"Frank has given so much to Catholic health care in the United States through his humble service and sage counsel. He will be deeply missed," Sr. Mary says.

Saint Paul's University said it will a liturgical celebration in honor of Fr. Morrisey will be planned when it is safe to gather. But given the current circumstances around the pandemic, no date has been set. The university invites those who wish to make a donation in Fr. Morrisey's honor to contribute to its Francis Morrisey Scholarship fund, or to a charity of their choice.

Fr. Morrisey reflects on his deepest life lessons in a letter to his future self

At CHA's request, Fr. Francis Morrisey provided a reflection last year on his life's journey, to be used in a video commemorating his 2019 receipt of CHA's Lifetime Achievement Award. The reflection is in the form of a letter penned to his younger self. Click here to read one of the versions of the letter.



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