Father William E. Jennings, founding pastor of two parishes, dies at 101


Dialog reporter   NEWARK — Father William E. Jennings, the oldest and longest-serving priest in the history of the Diocese of Wilmington, died Thursday at the Jeanne Jugan Residence, where he had lived since 2008. He was 101. Father Jennings was ordained on May 14, 1940, before most of the current priests were born, at the Cathedral of the Assumption in Baltimore by Archbishop Michael J. Curley. He served as a parish priest, chaplain, high school teacher and coach during his lengthy priesthood. He retired from parish work in 1970 but remained active for decades afterward. At a party in 2008 marking his 95th birthday, he was asked if he thought he’d still be celebrating Mass a quarter century later.

Father William E. Jennings

“I didn’t think I’d be living 25 years later,” he said with a laugh. Born in Wilmington, Father Jennings attended St. Thomas the Apostle and Salesianum schools. He studied at St. Charles College and St. Mary’s Seminary, both in Maryland. Last year, as he celebrated his 100th birthday, Father Jennings said “God” was his secret to a long life. He also wondered what all the fuss was about. “It makes me think whether I deserve it all. Everybody has always been so good to me,” he said. He was an assistant pastor at Christ Our King, St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception, St. Ann’s and St. Paul’s, all in Wilmington, and as founding pastor of both Immaculate Heart of Mary and Holy Child in north Wilmington. Before assuming the pastorate at IHM, he was administrator at St. Paul’s. At his 100th birthday party, one of his Holy Child parishioners recalled how the parish got its name. Longtime pro-life activist Dee Becker said she had been in Dover when she received bad news about abortion in Delaware and, distraught, called Father Jennings. The priest had told Bishop Thomas Mardaga that he wanted to name the new parish in honor of Mary, but the bishop said there were enough parishes with Mary-related names. They settled on a name, and Father Jennings gave Becker a call. “He said, ‘I thought of a name after talking with you. We’ll call it Church of the Holy Child,’” Becker said. As administrator at St. Paul’s, he supervised the building of a new school building. His first assignment after ordination was as chaplain at St. James Protectory in Reybold, which closed in January 1941. He also served as chaplain of the Boy Scouts from 1941-57 and coached baseball in the early years of his ministry. He taught theology at Padua Academy in Wilmington from 1978-83. In addition, he was diocesan director of vocations from 1952-56, a notary for the Tribunal, a member of the priests’ senate, and moderator of both the Young Catholics’ Study and Discussion Club (1983-88) and Catholics United for the Faith for an undetermined time beginning in 1984. He was a charter member of the Bishop Curtis Council of the Knights of Columbus. Father Jennings lived in the Fairfax development in north Wilmington well into his 90s before moving to Jeanne Jugan, which is operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. Funeral services will be Monday, Sept. 8, and Tuesday, Sept. 9. On Monday, at 2 p.m., at the Little Sisters of the Poor’s Jeanne Jugan Residence in Newark, Bishop Malooly will receive the body and lead a recitation of the rosary. A viewing will take place Tuesday from 9-10:45 a.m. at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Shipley and Weldin roads, Wilmington, with the Mass of Christian Burial at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Cathedral Cemetery.