Msgr. Leonard Hurley
Msgr. Leonard Hurley
At 82, Msgr. Leonard Hurley still has a distinctive speaking style and ad-libs easily, qualities that served him well 50 years ago when he narrated President John K. Kennedy's Requiem Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington for a worldwide TV and radio audience.

For the past 18 years, the veteran priest has served as the chaplain at the Carroll Manor Nursing Home in Washington, and as the rector of the adjoining O'Boyle Residence for retired priests of the archdiocese.

On Nov. 25, 1963, then-Father Hurley was situated in the cathedral's basement, right beneath the altar, and narrating the Requiem Mass as he watched a bank of TV monitors and was surrounded by about a dozen TV and radio technicians.

In a 1997 interview, the priest said, "The whole ceremony was charged with emotion, but I kept mine under control." He added that he was, nonetheless, "feeling every minute of it. I'm not afraid of feeling, never was. If you don't feel what you're saying or singing, it's no good."

Interviewed last week about the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Requiem Mass for the nation's first Catholic president, Msgr. Hurley expressed admiration for the professionalism of the TV and radio workers who joined him in the cathedral basement. "They were shook (up) like everybody else... doing the best they can do, doing what they were there to do."

Three days before the Mass, on Nov. 22, 1963, the young priest was teaching a religion class at Saints Paul and Augustine School in Washington, where he was an assistant pastor, when he heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. "Most of us had the same reaction - I don't believe it!" he remembered.

As a young priest, the Massachusetts native had been asked to do televised prayers for the end and beginning of local stations' broadcast days. His strong speaking style led to Msgr. Hurley being appointed to direct the Archdiocese of Washington's radio and television efforts from 1963-76. During that time, he hosted local talk shows about religion on Sunday mornings and was the longtime presider of the TV Mass for shut-ins. Over the years, he also narrated the Christmas Midnight Mass from the National Shrine.

After President Kennedy's assassination, Father Hurley was called to St. Matthew's Cathedral, and assigned the job of narrating the Requiem Mass. He said he greatly admired then-Archbishop Patrick O'Boyle, a straight-talking man, and he told the archbishop that they needed to "go with the pros" - find out what the TV and radio professionals needed, and provide that for the Mass.

The Requiem Mass would be in Latin, but his commentary had to be prepared in English, so the audience understood what was happening. Ironically, days later, English language Masses would begin on the first Sunday of Advent in the Archdiocese of Washington and across the United States, as Mass in the vernacular was one of the reforms resulting for the Second Vatican Council which was then underway.

Only five years earlier, Father Hurley had been ordained as a priest for the Archdiocese of Washington. His 55 years as a priest included serving as an assistant pastor at several parishes, before later serving as pastor of St. Peter Parish on Capitol Hill, Saints Paul and Augustine in Washington (now known as St. Augustine), at St. Michael Parish in rural Ridge, Md., and St. Ignatius Parish in suburban Fort Washington, Md. He served as the founding pastor of Mother Seton Parish in Germantown, Md., from 1974-87, and his strong leadership and community activism there later led to Germantown Drive being renamed as Father Hurley Boulevard in the priest's honor.

But one of his most challenging days as a priest came on Nov. 25, 1963. Msgr. Hurley estimates that he was up about 32 hours straight, preparing a script on about 50 legal-sized pages, working hard to make the Mass understandable for the audience watching or listening to the simulcast TV and radio production.

"I was there to do a job... I had done play-by-play descriptions of many church ceremonies. I could do the bridge between this, that and the other thing," he said.

As an experienced play-by-play man for church ceremonies, he also knew when to stop talking and let the picture tell the story. After the Mass, when young John-John Kennedy saluted his father's flag-draped casket outside the cathedral, the priest stopped his narration, so the audience could just watch the dramatic scene, in silence. "I let that ride," he said.

Then, after manning the live microphone at St. Matthew's Cathedral for hours, before, during and right after the Mass, Father Hurley had finished the job at hand. "I went home and went to bed," he said.