In a funeral Mass Wednesday morning, Boston College celebrated the life of Rev. J. Donald Monan, S.J., a leader of BC for 45 years as the University’s 24th president and first chancellor. Monan died on Saturday in Weston, Mass., at 92.
Attended by Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09; Newton Mayor Setti Warren, BC ’92; Doug Flutie, BC ’85; and numerous other prominent members of the BC community, the Mass featured remembrances of a man who Monan’s great-nephew, Anthony J. Bellia, Jr., said in a eulogy was “always at his best.”
Rev. Joseph O’Keefe, S.J., a former dean of the Lynch School of Education, built his homily around the Eucharist as thanksgiving, a common refrain from Monan in his homilies. O’Keefe highlighted Monan’s scholarship, graciousness, practical wisdom, dedication to public service, and faithfulness, citing examples of each.
O’Keefe was recently made the rector of a Jesuit training program at Fordham University, where a few weeks ago a scholastic asked him why Jesuits had to learn about Aristotle.
“Because maybe, one day, you’ll turn out like Don Monan,” O’Keefe had thought—Monan was an Aristotelian scholar and author in addition to his leadership in higher education.
“Don was living proof that the humanities can, indeed, humanize,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe told a story about Kim Noonan, a nurse for the Jesuit community, who accompanied Monan to doctor’s appointments over the past few months. One day, the wait for the doctor unexpectedly went into lunchtime. Noonan offered Monan half of her sandwich, and after a couple bits he stopped and looked at her.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “This is just delicious.”
It was half of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Monan believed, O’Keefe said, that Jesuits should “leave the sacristy” to engage with the marketplace of ideas and demonstrate a steadfast to commitment to the common good. He participated in the polis and public service, and even got involved in professional sports. After the murder of several Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter in 1989 in El Salvador at Central American University, Monan challenged Congress to withhold aid from the country until it held its political leaders accountable for their roles in the murders. He succeeded.
“Don believed in a faith that does justice,” O’Keefe said.
Bellia, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Notre Dame, gave the first eulogy, highlighting in particular Monan’s personal attributes and family life—his families in Buffalo, Syracuse, Baltimore, Indiana, Boston, and Ireland.
“Blood ran very thick for him,” Bellia said. “But the spirit ran thick with him as well. And he treasured his spiritual family.”
Bellia’s first remembrance in life is Monan pushing him around in a red wagon, as a 2-year-old with a broken leg. When Bellia’s father-in-law was in the hospital, dying of cancer, Monan would go, without telling anybody, to visit him.
“His kind words for others flowed easily because he genuinely appreciated their contributions and virtues, and … it was the same for a high-ranking public service, as it was for a person who served BC students lunch in the dining hall,” he said. “He loved everyone as an equal.”
Geoffrey Boisi, BC ’69, a longtime member of the Board of Trustees who said he spoke to Monan weekly for over 38 years, delivered the other eulogy. He called Monan, who is widely credited with saving the University from financial instability, BC’s “visionary second founder.”
“For me, it was the greatest honor of my life to have him call me his friend, and have him as my mentor,” Boisi said.
Monan, Boisi said, loved being a Jesuit. Bellia said he and his family knew Monan as a priest before they ever knew him as a university president. He became a priest so he could be a teacher, and dedicated his life to spreading the message of Ignatian spirituality. He was also a good businessman. Boisi, a major player on Wall Street for decades, said Monan was especially proud of his decision to appoint lay and businesspeople to the Board of Trustees, which was run by Jesuits when Monan took over as president in 1972.
Monan was also committed to academic freedom, and voiced his opposition to the 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which the Vatican wanted to use to review the religious commitments of Catholic colleges and universities. Monan opposed a similar document in the mid-1980s.
He had an eye for talent, too. Monan had a knack, Boisi said, for choosing the right person, placing them in the right place at the right time. Boisi listed off Jack Connors, Frank Campanella, Tom Vanderslice, Mario Gabelli, Bill Voute, Tip O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, and others as people Monan choose to assist BC in areas like fundraising, investing, government relations, and church management. But Boisi said Noonan, Peg Dwyer, BC’s first female vice president; and Rosemary Donahue, an assistant to the president, were Monan’s best hires.
To understand Monan, Boisi said people had to understand that he was an athlete. A lifelong hockey fan, Monan was a competitor, and he valued BC Athletics. Last Friday night, after BC men’s hockey beat Boston University in the Hockey East Semifinals, Boisi and Donahue drove to see Monan in Weston. When they told him BC had beaten its archrival, he smiled. He passed away early the next morning.
In 2006, Boisi was at the Frozen Four with Monan. BC lost, but after the game, Monan took a 9-year-old fan by the hand to meet the players in the locker room, and told him that one day, he’d be there. “Does that mean you’re giving me a scholarship?” asked Colin White, now a star on BC’s team and a first-round selection of the Ottawa Senators. Head coach Jerry York put “JDM, S.J.” decals on the hockey team’s helmets for Saturday’s Hockey East Final.
Boisi read a section of Monan’s final address as University president.
“A hockey player is only given a few short minutes of intense activity on the ice, and then he yields his place to a new line, and skates to the sidelines to watch the action,” Monan said. “The fact that my own turn on the ice has been so long has made it more enjoyable, and the best part is that even if I never score another goal, I will continue to be a member of the team, and perhaps enjoy the action more watching from behind the protective glass.”
“The spirit and the essence of J. Donald Monan will thunder through the halls of Boston College for eternity,” Boisi said. “May God bless you and hold you close, dear friend—we will love you always.”
Featured Image by Tom Devoto / Heights Senior Staff