Twelve year-old Billy Scheyd of St. Ann’s parish in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport got polio.
It was 1952, and the country was in the middle of the worst outbreak in its history. Nearly 58,000 people fell ill. More than 3,000 died.
That summer, Jonas Salk administered the first experimental polio vaccine to 30 children in his lab at the University of Pittsburgh. But it would be several years before the vaccine went mainstream.
In 1952, all Billy’s family could do was wait to see how bad his case would be, and pray for a speedy recovery.
Billy’s father fretted. As a personnel manager at the Stanley Works factory, Mr. Scheyd did okay. But doctors were expensive, and polio had the potential to cripple a child for life.
Rev. Walter McCarthy was the pastor of St. Ann’s. He told Billy’s father to find the best care available. Father McCarthy would pay for everything.
Billy got better, but he never forgot the priest’s generosity. “He was a good man,” Scheyd says now. “In those days, the parish priests did a lot of good for people. That was always my impression of them. They were good men.”
Billy’s parents were Catholic, but not “religious fanatics,” he says. They were just decent, ordinary folks. Billy’s mother was a nurse. Mr. Scheyd worked nights at the post office during the war. They were always helping out at St. Ann’s in one way or another.
“Dinners, dances, basketball games—the parish was the center of our life,” he says. “The Church was at the heart of our community.”
High school for Billy was Fairfield Prep. One day a Jesuit there asked if Billy had ever thought of becoming a priest. Billy said that he had, but he didn’t think he’d make a good Jesuit. “I’m not a real academic guy,” he says. “Once in a while I read a whole book.”
Teenage Billy didn’t really know what he was aiming for. He thought about becoming a policeman, a lawyer, maybe going into business of some kind. He applied and was accepted at Fairfield University and Boston College.
But during senior year, the principal came on the P.A. and announced that the vocations director of the diocese was in the office and that any boys thinking of becoming priests should come talk to him.
Billy surprised himself by getting up out of his seat. “The Holy Spirit must have been working on me,” he says. First stop was minor seminary at St. Thomas in Hartford. Next stop, major seminary at St. John’s in Boston.
He was in Boston for six years. And they were intense years. The Second Vatican Council was happening. The old ways were rapidly changing.
Father Scheyd was ordained by Bishop Walter Curtis on February 10, 1965, and went to work as an associate pastor at St. Mary’s in Norwalk, just around the corner from the hospital. With proximity came responsibility.
“It’s one of the few things jobs where you’re asked to just about everything on the first day,” he says. The young priest went right in at the deep end—anointing the sick, comforting the bereaved, praying for lost souls.
As the years rolled on, Father Scheyd realized that his ministry was for people. He loved fellowship. Talking with people, hearing their problems, celebrating their blessings—these were his strengths.
“As a priest, you see people at their best, and you see them at their worst. I offer my help, but I try to be humble enough to know that I don’t know everything,” he says.
On July 2, 1982—30 years to the day after Jonas Salk found his polio vaccine—Father Scheyd returned to Bridgeport as pastor of St. Augustine Cathedral. A decade at the cathedral was followed by a decade as pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Norwalk. For the last 13 years, he’s shepherded the flock at St. Aloysius in New Canaan.
This month, Msgr. William Scheyd celebrates his 50th anniversary as a priest. He has held every position of high responsibility in the diocese you can think of.
“He has been vicar general since Columbus arrived,” quipped former Bridgeport bishop, Edward Cardinal Egan. Yet Msgr. Scheyd has never lost his affinity for people.
“I’ve always tried to create an atmosphere where all are welcome,” he says. “And I’ve been lucky to have had the support of wonderful people in wonderful parishes.”
The Bridgeport that Billy Scheyd grew up in is largely gone. Thanks to Jonas Salk, so is the polio virus that killed and crippled so many people in the summer of 1952.
But Monsignor William Scheyd of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, isn’t gone. He’s still here and still a priest.
That is to say, he’s a good man. He does a lot of good for a lot of people.
From the February 2015 issue of Fairfield County Catholic