Some Guys Get Lucky: Honoring Fr. John Patrick Donnelly

Late in October the History Department hosted a reception in honor of Fr. John Donnelly, S.J., that featured the public launch of the book From Rome to Zurich, between Ignatius and Vermigli, Essays in Honor of John Patrick Donnelly, Kathleen M. Comerford, Gary W. Jenkins, and W. J. Torrance Kirby, eds. (Brill, 2017).  The several dozen attendees included former and current MU history faculty, a number of Pat’s Jesuit brothers, editors and contributors of the book (in town for the Sixteenth Century Society conference), a few former students, and Pat’s beloved nephew and his wife. The book grew out of panels organized and presented in Fr. Donnelly’s at the Sixteenth Century Society’s conference in Vancouver a few years ago (when, through the efforts of his Rector at San Camillus Retirement Community, Pat had Skyped in to one of the sessions!). 

Kathleen Comerford, one of the editors of the book, offered a warm toast to Father Donnelly.  She and Pat shared a dissertation director at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Robert Kingdon (although they received their PhD’s more than twenty years apart).  An excerpt from her remarks, which refer to stories told by and about Pat in their circle of friends and scholaDonnellyrs, follows:

“I’m sure that we all have dissertation-related stories about money, living quarters, drinking, and struggling with languages, but I’ve never heard anyone else having to deal with the kind of crisis which would lead someone to decide to be a missionary in Tanzania rather than take prelims, or spending a few hours in Sicily looking in vain for a church in which to say Mass. That collar tends to invite more confidences, and more responsibilities, than the average student experiences. The events of 1968, recounted as they concerned Madison and Florence, provide a fascinating background for Pat’s interest in the mavericks Ignatius Loyola (who, to my knowledge, did not have to bribe himself to learn a language) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (whose experience with rioting students appears to have been rather more serious than Pat’s).

When I met Pat, about 25 years after the events Lynn recounted, and about 25 years ago, he was an established scholar, and like many graduate students, I was anxious about approaching him. Our mutual mentor, Robert Kingdon, worried little about the niceties of academic distinctions, and eagerly put current students in contact with former ones. He also obviously taught his students to feel the same way about treating junior scholars with genuine interest and respect, and I was fortunate that early in my career I met Pat, who read some of my work as a reviewer for Catholic University Press (it was later published elsewhere) and corresponded with me for a while as I hopped from job to job. It is thus a great privilege for me to be involved in this project.” Kathleen also introduced the several contributors in attendance and thanked other scholars involved with the project.

The highlight of the event was Pat’s short speech; a slightly edited version follows:

“I am very grateful for this award in my honor. . . . This [honor comes] to a scholar for a lifetime or long years of achievement as a scholar. For scientists it usually depends on many good research grants, for scholars in the humanities it means abundant scholarly publications. Winners usually have put in many years of hard work.

But intelligence and scholarship are necessary.

One does not get intelligence on his or her own.

Our raw intelligence largely comes through our genes. Here I owe a big debt to my father and mother. Both were Marquette graduates, my father was a [graduate of Marquette University High School, and Marquette University’s college of Arts and Sciences] and Law School. My mother was a graduate of the MU nursing school. Both were bright and well trained.

I was not a good student in grade school.  My parents sent me to Campion. We had to take an exam right at the start: we were then sent to class A, B, C, D, E, or F. I stated in the E class. After the first quarter I bounced up to C and later to B. At the end of my second year my grades were good enough for A class, but my worst grades were in Latin and I did not want to take Greek, so I stayed in B class. Toward the end of my senior years I took an exam in Chicago in which the best Campion student got a 4-year full scholarship to Loyola University. I beat out the valedictorian. He ended his career as head of the NY Federal Reserve bank. I entered the Jesuits.

I decided as a Jesuit, I had to master Latin, my one bad high school subject. I did, but I was never any good at Greek. That turned out to be very important. Latin was big for our courses in philosophy and theology, the heart of Jesuit training. I loved history. I wanted to work on European history from the Roman days to 1600. I could use Latin for that—most of the scholarly books written then were in Latin. I decided Renaissance/Reformation was the period for me. . . .

At Campion High School: I was best in Physics and Chemistry and before becoming a Jesuit I leaned toward a major in chemistry. . . . Some of my professors urged me to go on for a Ph.D. in Theology. But I wanted to be a historian. I applied to doctoral programs at University of Chicago and the three top history programs in the Big Ten. I was accepted in all four. I went to UW, to be close to home.

Also, I had heard that Robert Kingdon at Madison was a good expert in the Reformation and a good man to work with. This was one of the best choices I ever made.

Kingdon was a fine teacher and had a reputation of getting his Ph.D. students out in good time. I made the best choice. I could also take a bus from Madison to Milwaukee and spend weekends with my mother.

I was lucky—Kingdon’s seminar, which we had to take every semester, had several excellent members; Lynn Martin, Bob Kolb, Jerry Friedman, Ray Mentzer, Fred Baumgartner, Hans Gustafson, Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Luther Peterson and Bob Richgels. Kingdon’s best doctoral student came some years later. She is being honored [this week at the Sixteenth Century Society meeting]:  Merry Wiesner-Hanks, [of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee].

In my first week at Madison, Kingdon asked what I might want to do for a dissertation. I said I had a good background in Catholic theology, maybe I should do a dissertation on a Protestant theologian who was writing in Latin and was understudied. He suggested I consider Peter Martyr Vermigli. For better or worse I have been with Vermigli ever since. Right now I have a 1000-page manuscript in press on his Genesis commentary, and I am working on his commentary on 1 Corinthians. But my last three books have been about the Jesuits, mainly St. Ignatius.

Some guys get lucky. I am one of them.”

Fr. John Patrick Donnelly, SJ, retired in 2011 after nearly forty years of service to Marquette. He has written, edited, or translated nearly twenty books; served on virtually every committee at the university (including many years on the University Promotion and Tenure Committee); and taught the large sections of western civilization in the Varsity Theater for many years (which earned him the Lawrence G. Haggerty Award for Teaching Excellence in 1988). You can find out more about From Rome to Zurich at Brill’s website: http://www.brill.com/products/book/rome-zurich-between-vermigli-and-Ignatius.

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