Reverend William Canney graduated from Saint Francis de Sales School; his mother and sisters lived at 4722 Upland Street; and ten of his fourteen years as a priest — from 1924 to 1934 — were spent assisting at de Sales. His dedication to our parish was whole-hearted – and may have cost his life.
William Canney’s nickname was “Will ’E? Can ’E!” because of his joyous energy. One of five priests at the de Sales rectory, he was Spiritual Director of the Sodality (a parish women’s organization) and author of the Parish News column in the monthly bulletin. He was also Chaplain for the College of Osteopathy at 48th and Spruce, and, reportedly, unofficial chaplain for the firehouse at 50th and Baltimore – chasing the fire engines whenever the alarm sounded. In his spare time, he wrote lyrics for songs and dramatic sketches for parish events, and organized outings for parish school children.
Above all, Canney’s 1933 parish profile reported his real strength at the sickbed: “Many a soul tortured by sickness and infirmity has been comforted by his faithful and sympathetic ministrations.” This could have been his downfall: in 1935, a year after transfer to St. Leo’s in Tacony, Canney went on Sick Leave at the “Philadelphia Jewish Sanatorium for Consumptives” in Eagleville — a Tuberculosis hospital for poor people. He died there a year later, at age 41, and his obituary in the Catholic Standard quoted portions of a lengthy sad brave poem he wrote during that final year: “Weave every little cross I bear/ Into the garland of a prayer…” He was buried from our church.
“Consumption,” or Tuberculosis, was a serious lung disease and leading cause of death in the United States up into the 1940s. Philadelphia Catholic physician Lawrence Flick was one of a group (later renamed the American Lung Association) which began, in the 1890s, to raise public awareness that the disease was contagious. Health campaigns against spitting, and unshielded coughing and sneezing, formed part of the effort to stop transmission. Germs were also found in unpasteurized milk, so pasteurization gradually became standard. Those who attended at sickbeds were especially vulnerable to infection, so the archdiocese established a Tuberculosis sanatorium for priests in 1947 – just as Streptomycin antibiotic came to market as an effective cure. Danger over, the building was repurposed as a mental health institute.
Today, antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, like many formerly-controllable diseases, is on the uptick: it is estimated that a third of the world’s population may be infected or carriers.
Reverend Canney lives on at our parish in his rediscovered writings.