REMEMBERING SAM KIRWAN
by Dr. Beth Mortensen
On October 11, 2016, Sam Kirwan, a kindly young man who had attended Wyoming Catholic College for a number of years, was critically injured by a falling masonry wall. He was rushed to a local hospital as friends, family, and members of the College community besieged Heaven on his behalf. Sadly, he succumbed to his injuries and passed away on October 18.
An obituary described Sam as someone “who left a meaningful impression on everyone he encountered.” One such person was Dr. Beth Mortensen, whose husband, Dr. John Mortensen, was one of Sam’s teachers during his time at Wyoming Catholic. She wrote the following piece when Sam passed away. We share it with gratitude to her, and with the request that anyone who reads it will take a moment to offer up a prayer for the repose of Sam’s soul.
When the Class of 2015 matriculated, then-Dean Jeremy Holmes explained to the incoming Freshmen that the word “matriculation” is derived from the Latin word for “womb.” That’s because beginning college is like being born into a new life, becoming a new member of a family. Sam Kirwan was one of the matriculating students listening to Dr. Holmes speak. He ended up being one of the alumni who left the College, then came back, then left again. But as Dr. Holmes had promised, once born into this community, a person forever remains a family member.
Sam Kirwan was unique, however, in the fact that after he left the College, he called my husband regularly—every month or two—to chat about his life and to ask advice. Whenever these calls came, I was proud of Sam for seeking counsel with such faithful persistence. And I was honored and grateful that Sam knew my husband was someone he could turn to. Honored and grateful, too, was how I felt on October 13, when we learned that Sam was in a Philadelphia hospital. In the providence of God, this was the exact day we were leaving on a road trip to visit my grandmother in New Jersey, and our itinerary would take us right through Philadelphia.
We arrived at the hospital on October 15 and immediately ran into a group of College alumni who led us to Sam’s room: a tiny ICU chamber packed with Sam’s family members and Wyoming Catholic friends praying a Divine Mercy Chaplet.
My husband and I were greatly moved to see the Wyoming Catholic community that had sprung up around Sam’s bed, bringing the prayer, love, and music that is so characteristic of them. But this was nothing compared to the impact it had on Sam’s parents. They had little contact with Wyoming Catholic College since Sam had left, so they were understandably overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from our alumni. Sam’s friends had traveled from Montana, California, Texas, Iowa, and New Hampshire (to name but a few), and took turns watching by his side. They prayed; they sang; they told stories about Sam through which Mr. and Mrs. Kirwan were catching new glimpses of their son.
As we took a moment to talk with the Kirwans about our own relationship with Sam, I remembered a sophomore theology paper of his that my husband had shown me. The assignment had been to take some of Thomas Aquinas’s densest, most difficult theology and bring out the poetry in it, and Sam’s paper was more than just solid theology; it was quite good poetry. John was able to bring it up on his phone, and soon everyone in the ICU was talking about it.
We resumed our travels, and were still traveling when we learned that Sam had passed into eternal life, received into the arms of the original Alma Mater, the Seat of Wisdom whose nourishing motherhood is the model for Wyoming Catholic. We were honored and grateful to be given that chance to say goodbye to Sam, and to see so many of our alumni sharing the witness of their faithful love. And we were honored and grateful that Sam had been a part (however briefly) of our lives and of our College’s family.