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THE FLASHBACK:
When they scanned the skies: The College Observatory

By James Dempsey

“Astronomy has always been an important discipline within the Jesuitical fields of study. The director of the Vatican Observatory at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, is a Jesuit—as is most of the staff there. And the fact that 35 lunar craters are named after Jesuit scientists suggests that the members of the Society of Jesus have an ongoing interest not only in the metaphysical heavens but also in the physical ones.

An observatory at Holy Cross was first proposed sometime in the late 19th century. A rendering of the proposed O’Kane building (the print is on the wall in the College archives) shows the unmistakable dome of an observatory on the northern corner. That observatory was never finished, but if one stands near the free-standing clock at the side of the building and looks up, it is possible to see the square boxy structure on the top floor that was to house the dome.

Students did eventually get an observatory, however. A Worcester Telegram article published in March 1948 describes how Rev. James K. Connolly, S.J., managed to have an observatory built “to the rear of Holy Cross College,” on top of an old building then in use as a gymnasium. Indeed, the priest was so passionate in his labors for the observatory that the location—formerly utilized, according to the story, as a barn, dog kennel and piggery—was unofficially dubbed “Mount Connolly.”

Fr. Connolly managed to obtain a “much-traveled” telescope—a 5-inch German Zeiss—from the estate of an American electrical engineer in Ecuador. The copper dome came from the observatory of Elihu Thompson of Swampscott, Mass.—founder of General Electric. While the dome had to be rotated manually, the newspaper article had promised it was “soon to be motorized.”

In 1961, when Clark Hall was being built, College officials discussed, in correspondence with the architect and the contractor, the possibility of moving the observatory to the roof of the dormitory—with Fr. Connolly mentioned as the person making the request.

But there were problems with this plan. The College’s business manager, Rev. J. Leo Sullivan, S.J., noted in a memo to the rector that one Gene Kennedy was “concerned about how this additional structure will look on the roof and he will give it some study.” In the end, though, it was not esthetics but finances that defeated the idea. So the old former piggery on “Mount Connolly” remained the center of Holy Cross stargazing.

There was a move in the observatory’s future, however. When Loyola Hall was built on that site in 1965, a crane was brought in to pluck the observatory from the roof of the old building and set it down nearby. It dutifully continued to serve astronomers of the College in its new location until about 1980, when it was finally pulled down.

Associate professor of physics, Robert Garvey, remembers the observatory well.

“I taught astronomy for a couple of years and would take students there to look at the planets,” he says. “It had a dome that could hold 12-to-15 people—and it had to be rotated by hand.” So much for the motor that had been promised in 1948.

Ralph Megna ’77 recalls the observatory fondly, having worked there as a work-study student.

“The location is now part of a parking lot,” he explains.

A history major, Megna also had a passion for astronomy that continues today—and which he pursues through his Web site for enthusiasts, www.macastronomy.com.

Garvey recalls asking that an observatory platform be built on the roof of Swords Hall when the building was erected in the late 1980s. That request was unsuccessful.

Astronomy remains a popular course at the College. According to Garvey, there are six-to-eight majors each year. Today’s students study the night skies using the College’s 8-inch reflecting telescope, which is kept in Haberlin.



 

College Observatory
1966 photo of the College observatory at new location


 

 

 


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