Cardinal William J. Levada, who rose from altar boy at Holy Innocents Church and graduate of St. Anthony High School in Long Beach to the highest-ranking American prelate at the Vatican, has died. He was 83.
Levada died in his sleep in Vatican City, an independent city-state within Rome, on Sept. 26, according to George Murchison, a former Long Beach harbor commissioner, who was a close friend of Levada’s.
Pope Francis presided over the rite of commendation during Levada’s funeral Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 27. In a telegram last week to Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, where Levada had been archbishop, the Pope gave his condolences. He recalled “with immense gratitude the late cardinal’s years of priestly and episcopal ministry among Christ’s flock in Los Angeles, Portland and San Francisco, his singular contributions to catechesis, education and administration, and his distinguished service to the Apostolic See.”
In 2005, newly elected Pope Benedict XVI named Levada, who then was archbishop of San Francisco, as his successor to be prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, a post charged with promoting and protecting Catholic teachings on faith and morals. It was the first time a U. S. prelate had headed this powerful congregation. Levada served in this position until he retired in 2012. He was elevated to Cardinal in 2006.
Archbishop William J. Levada answers questions after being named by Pope Benedict XVI as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for the Catholic Church, the highest post held by an American prelate, during a news conference in San Francisco, in this Friday, May 13, 2005 file photo. Pope Benedict XVI named 15 new cardinals during the weekly general audience at the Vatican Wednesday Feb. 22, 2006, including Archbishop Levada and prelates from Italy, Poland, the Philippines and Hong Kong, adding his first installment to the elite group of churchmen who will elect his successor. The pontiff read aloud the names during the audience and said they would be elevated during a ceremony at the Vatican on March 24. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
During his time in the San Francisco area, Levada was a visible participant in debates over same-sex marriage and sexual abuse of children by the clergy.
But, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article, “even the politicians who opposed the conservative archbishop’s positions respected him as a force to be reckoned with.”
When Levada left the Bay Area for the Vatican, Gov. Gavin Newsom, who at the time was San Francisco mayor, praised his sometime opponent.
“He has a remarkable ability to adapt in difficult conditions, particularly when it comes to his strong theological beliefs in a city that doesn’t always share his thinking,” Newsom told the Chronicle at the time. “For him to acclimate and still engage and be a constructive voice in San Francisco under those circumstances is a pretty remarkable thing.”
William Joseph Levada was born on June 15, 1936, in Long Beach, the youngest of two children born to Joseph and Lorraine Levada. His sister, Dolores, died in 2007. Levada’s great-grandparents had immigrated to Northern California from Portugal and Ireland. His parents had moved to Long Beach from Martinez, in Contra Costa County, just months before his birth.
He was baptized, had his First Communion and was an altar boy at Holy Innocents Church, 425 E. 20th St., in Long Beach.
In a Holy Innocents publication, Pastor Father G. Peter Irving III, called that parish “home to a prince of the church.”
“What a privilege,” he added, “to have this illustrious individual as part of our parish’s nearly 100-year history.”
Levada entered St. Anthony as a freshman in 1950, where he met George H. Niederauer, who also became a priest and followed in Levada’s footsteps as Archbishop of San Francisco.
Levada, Niederauer and Murchison, who eventual became head of a public accounting firm in Long Beach, became good friends and graduated from St. Anthony in 1954. The three were inducted into St. Anthony Hall of Fame in 2007. Niederauer died in 2017.
After high school, Levada went to St. John’s Seminary, in Camarillo, graduating in 1958. Levada was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1961. He served two L.A. archdiocese parishes, in La Puente and Santa Monica. He received a doctorate in theology in Rome, was ordained as a bishop in 1983 and served as Los Angeles’ auxiliary bishop until 1986.
Levada moved to Portland, serving at archbishop there until 1995; he was the archbishop of San Francisco from 1995 to 2005.
Then, it was off to the Vatican, to serve as the highest-ranking American prelate.
Murchison, Levada’s old friend, said he and his wife, Joyce, maintained their friendship with the cardinal and saw him on a vacation to Rome in April.
“He took us all over the city,” Murchison said Wednesday, Oct. 9. “We had a great time.”
He also said Levada came to their home in Long Beach on July 11 to celebrate Mass and the couple’s 60th wedding anniversary. Murchison also did Levada’s tax returns.
The cardinal also loved St. Anthony, Murchison and others said.
Gina Maguire, president of St. Anthony, said she met Levada for the first time in Rome in 2006 when he became a cardinal.
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“The entire St. Anthony community celebrated with great pride,” she told me. “My favorite moment came when the new cardinal, dressed in full red regalia, warmly extended his hand to greet me and then turned his laser beam to the two St. Anthony students accompanying me. His enthusiasm and love for them and all of us was palpable.”
A few months later, the high school hosted a welcome-home gathering for the cardinal, and Bob Foster, then Long Beach mayor, declared it “Cardinal William Levada Day” in the city.
Levada continued visiting St. Anthony over the years, most recently in June, handing out a man of the year award named after him during the school’s graduation.
“The cardinal was always accessible, willing to offer wise counsel and support whenever I asked,” Maguire said. “I will treasure him and these memories always. Well done, good and faithful servant. You are with all the saints in heaven now.”
The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, in San Francisco, will celebrate a Mass for the cardinal at 10 a.m. Oct. 24. The Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, in Los Angeles, will celebrate a Mass in his honor at 10 a.m. Oct. 30.