By John M. McGuire
Of the Post-Dispatch
The Rev. Walter H. Halloran was a handsome and athletic Jesuit scholastic in his 20s when he found himself part of a religious experience that would spawn a series of books, movies and documentaries and fascinate people for generations.
You've probably heard of "The Exorcist." Father Halloran, who died Tuesday (March 1, 2005) at 83, was the last living Jesuit to be involved in an exorcism that took place in 1949 at a psychiatric unit in St. Louis. The incident provided the inspiration for William Peter Blatty's 1971 runaway bestseller by that name, which led to the hit movie, and a few more of lesser box office appeal, including a recent prequel.
Father Halloran died at a Jesuit retirement home in Wauwatosa, Wis., a Milwaukee suburb. But he spent many years in St. Louis from the 1940s and on into the 1970s. He was just 27 and a history student at St. Louis University when he was summoned to the psychiatric wing at Alexian Brothers Hospital, 3933 South Broadway.
The Rev. William S. Bowdern was dealing with a 14-year-old lad who he believed was possessed by a diabolical spirit or spirits. The boy, Douglas Deen, was a Lutheran from Mount Rainier, Md., a Washington suburb. An eight-page report concerning the incident that was filed in the Georgetown University archives said the boy's parents were concerned by his aberrant behavior. Later accounts said that an aunt and uncle living in St. Louis had suggested to the parents that they try an exorcism as a way of bringing the child under control. That's how he ended up at Alexian Brothers.
Bowdern needed a strong young man to keep the youth at bay. Also on hand was the Rev. William Van Roo.
"The little boy would go into a seizure and get quite violent," Father Halloran said in an interview in 1988. "So Father Bowdern asked me to hold him. Yes, he did break my nose."
Father Halloran said he observed streaks and arrows and words like "hell" that would rise on the child's skin.
Blatty said he learned of the exorcism by reading a three-paragraph news account. That inspired him to write the book, which led to the movie. Blatty's story featured a 12-year-old girl, who is transformed into "a cursing, vomiting, convulsing, murdering monster," according to one description from the time. Critics, including many Catholics, considered the book exploitative and harmful.
Even so, Father Halloran did not shy away from speaking about his experience. In 1988, the Post-Dispatch did a two-part series on the actual exorcism, with Father Halloran providing a lot of fascinating information.
It did not define his priesthood. Father Halloran gained a measure of renown as a paratrooping chaplain during the Vietnam War. At 48, he was then the oldest airborne chaplain at the time. He was awarded two Bronze Stars.
"We absolutely loved him," said Nina Wagner of Richmond Heights. Her husband, Clarence "Clank" Wagner, was in the Army in Germany and Vietnam during Father Halloran's chaplain years. They met at an engineering base in Hanau, Germany, back in 1967.
Said a former student, St. Louis attorney Jim Holloran: "He was a fearless sort of guy, who dealt with a lot of these guys who were dying in Vietnam, though he was a little reluctant to talk about himself."
Father Halloran would later teach at St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School. He studied philosophy at SLU, and in 1972 was named director of the national alumni relations for the Jesuit university here. He also served for a time at St. Matthew the Apostle Catholic Church in north St. Louis.
Father Halloran became the last remaining priest from the exorcism after the death of Van Roo, 89, who died in March 2004 at a health care center in Wauwatosa, Wis. Bowdern died in 1983 at age 85.
Father Halloran was born in Jackson, Minn., in 1921, the eldest of nine children of Dr. and Mrs. W.H. Halloran. Among his survivors are two brothers, Dr. Mark Halloran, formerly of Ladue now living in Boca Grande, Fla., and John Halloran of Minneapolis; three sisters, Mary Harrington of Miami, Marie Vorlicky of Nashville, Tenn., and Sister Ann Halloran, a Dominican nun in Milwaukee.
A visitation and Mass will take place Friday evening in Wauwatosa, Wis.