Reprinted from Magnificat (www.magnificat.com)
Credible Witness: Eugene Hamilton
By Heather King
Eugene Hamilton (1972-1997), an American seminarian who suffered from throat cancer, died three hours after being ordained a priest.
Father Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., tells the story in A Priest Forever: The Life of Father Eugene Hamilton.
Born in Haverstrom, New York, a working-class Hudson Valley town, Hamilton was the much-beloved son of Margaret, a teacher, and Eugene, an IRS auditor and deacon.
At Manhattan College in the Bronx, Hamilton was a popular student-government president and made the dean’s list all eight semesters. He graduated in 1994 with a degree in philosophy.
In the fall of 1995, he began his studies at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in New York. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his chest. He would remain in often extreme discomfort and pain for the next seventeen months until his death.
Soon after receiving the diagnosis, Hamilton began a journal-autobiography. “Servant, victim, brother, listener, and friend” were the five traits he saw as central to his vocation.
Says Sister Miriam Joseph of the Dominican Sisters of Blauvelt, “I think he was always a priest in his mind. It meant so much to him, and he had such a respect for the priesthood.” Indeed, he never waivered in his conviction that he had been called to, and would somehow be, ordained.
In April 1996, Hamilton underwent surgery to remove the tumor. In June, multiple additional tumors were discovered. He was given a terminal diagnosis.
Determined to continue his studies and treatments, he told only a few family members and close friends.
In August of that year, Hamilton was given the ministry of candidacy by Saint Joseph’s Seminary rector Bishop Edwin O’Brien. In November, he took a private vow of celibacy, writing in his personal journal, “I make this vow so as to grow closer to Jesus Christ the High Priest, so that I might continue to do the Will of the Father, and always to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit.”
With the clock ticking, early in 1997 New York’s Cardinal John O’Connor requested permission from Pope John Paul II to ordain Hamilton in spite of his terminal illness—a request that canon law holds can be granted only in “exceptional” cases. The Holy Father, apprised of Eugene’s character and fidelity, on January 20 gave his blessing toto corde: with all his heart.
Despite surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, Hamilton’s condition rapidly worsened. By January 24, he was on his deathbed. Bishop O’Brien rushed to the family home, anointed him with holy oil, and ordained him first a deacon, then minutes later a priest.
When his best friend Frank Bassett arrived, Father Eugene, barely able to breathe, took his hand and made what Bassett took to be the sign of the cross on it with his finger, thereby conferring his first consecrated blessing.
The non-believer would ask: Why bother ordaining a man who’s about to die? The follower of Christ would answer: Three hours more on earth; in heaven, eternity.
Hamilton’s gravestone reads Tu Es Sacerdos in Aeternum: “You are a priest forever.”