24 Years of Anselmian Leadership

By Gary Bouchard

On July 1, there will be a very big pair of shoes to fill in the President’s Office on Alumni Hall’s first floor. 12Es, to be exact.

Not that Father Jonathan DeFelice, O.S.B., is one to leave his shoes lying around. As a child in Bristol, R.I., Peter DeFelice was raised to know better. Brought up in a household where daily meals were sacred rituals and the sons, Peter and Ralph, were expected to come to those meals with collared shirts, the meals would be no less sacred in later life. Neither would the collar. The second son of Eleanor and Ralph DeFelice was nurtured by Italian-American parents, the children of immigrants who, though neither had the chance for schooling past eighth grade, worked hard so their sons could have the kind of education they could not. “My father, an expert house painter and paper hanger, was insistent that neither my brother nor I were going to work at the trade he did and refused to teach us much about it.”

But other, more indelible, lessons were imparted by his parents and close-knit Italian family. Life lessons learned at chaotic holiday gatherings were strengthened by the Italian sisters at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. “They were strict sometimes, setting high expectations usually, loving always,” Father Jonathan recalls. Six decades later, his first experience of Catholic education remains so significant that he still keeps in touch with the teachers there, including first-grade teacher Sister Laura Longo, M.P.F.

Sister Laura and the extended DeFelice family gave their native son a healthy modesty, the same one he has today as he looks back on nearly a quarter century as president of Saint Anselm College. “Perhaps more than anyone, I did not imagine 24 years ago the transformation of Saint Anselm that has taken place.”

To appreciate that transformation, consider that when he became president in 1989, the Science Center, Geisel Library and Bradley House were aging facilities half of their present size. Joseph Hall and St. Mary’s Hall were convents. The Coffee Shop was a mail room. There was no Grappone Stadium, no three-story fitness center, and no Sullivan Arena (nor a football or a women’s hockey team). Minimal apartment-style housing, and only 70 percent of students lived on campus. Today, that number is over 90 percent, and students choose from 40 majors, as opposed to 24.

Father Jonathan Timeline

Student, Teacher, and Prior

As president, Father Jonathan faced the challenges of steering the college through national financial crises. yet during his tenure, the $10 million endowment in 1989 has grown to just under $100 million. He founded the President’s Society in 1992 with 274 of the most generous benefactors. There are now 913 members who have contributed $87 million. He also headed a capital campaign that raised $55 million, and annual giving has risen by 315 percent to $3 million.

Not bad for a kid from Bristol whose first encounter with the Benedictines came when his parents decided to send him to the Portsmouth Priory (now Abbey) School in Portsmouth, R.I. It was the fall of 1961 when he found himself in what was primarily a boarding school for mostly well-to-do New Yorkers and East Coasters, with some international students. “Day students like myself were a very small part of the all-boy population.” Italian names were scarce and the painter’s kid from Bristol found
it incomprehensible that students could live away from their families or that a limo would come to fetch them at vacations.

A layman at that school, Associate Headmaster Cecil J. Acheson, introduced him to Saint Anselm College, a school he had never heard of. At his mother’s insistence, he applied. Saint Anselm was the last college he heard from. He found out later that his application had been misplaced, but by then he had decided to attend Villanova. At the last minute, a case of cold feet about leaving New England small-town life for the city made him change his mind. So, he took his cold feet to a place known for cold winters. His first visit to the college was also his first day of orientation. There was no going back to Bristol; but back then, he says, he had only modest aspirations.

“I wanted to get the best education I could and study English so I could one day teach like Dom Damian Kearney, O.S.B., the man who taught me how to write at Portsmouth.” He would get a good education, and before the first year ended, he got something he never anticipated: his vocation. “By the end of my freshman year at Saint Anselm, I had fallen hopelessly in love with the place, the Benedictines, the people, and the work. I could see myself sinking roots here.

“Once I decided to join the Abbey, I did so with a feeling of great peace and with the hope that if this was not where I should be, it would become clear enough from trying to live the life. My attitude from the beginning was that I would go where the Lord seemed to be leading.” With his family in the front row of the still new Abbey Church, Father Jonathan took solemn vows as a Benedictine in 1973 and was ordained the next year.

“As I think about the 48 years that have passed since I arrived at Saint Anselm, I would never have imagined at the beginning that I would someday lead the college – and for so long.”

Others, however, recognized the young monk’s potential. “After formation and theological studies, I was asked to get involved with administration, first as dean of freshmen and then as dean of students. Abbot Joseph was clear that if things did not work out, he would not leave me in the position beyond a year.” Things did work out. The young monk was there for five years in the days when RAs were called proctors and he knew them all by name.

Next came graduate studies in canon law before a return from Rome to teaching at the college and formation work in the monastery. Mike Sheehan ’82 former chair of the college board of trustees and CEO of Hill Holliday, still has his notebook from Father Jonathan’s Christian Social Ethics course. He still lives according to a lesson he learned in the class: “Every bit of humor has a little bit of truth, and it can hurt people.” In 1986, with the election of Father Matthew Leavy, O.S.B., as abbot, Father Jonathan was made prior and formation director. He continued to teach theology.

Presidential Commitment

When Brother Joachim asked for a sabbatical after 10 years as president in 1989, Abbot Matthew asked Father Jonathan to fill in. After several months, Brother Joachim said he did not want to return as president and Father Jonathan’s appointment was made permanent.

“It took me some time at the beginning to get up to speed on what was happening; not just here, but with the world of Catholic higher education and higher education in general. I saw some things that we were doing well and others that I thought could be vastly improved for the long-term good of the college. I was concerned from the beginning about doing things that made sense for our identity as a distinctive liberal arts college—I wanted us to be deliberate about our choices about majors and programs, residential life, faculty and curriculum.”

Pointing to examples from the doubling of the capacity of the Geisel Library to his more recent determination to bring about a new core curriculum, Father Augustine Kelly, O.S.B. ’83, dean of the college, says that the developments on campus over the past two and a half decades demonstrate “Father Jonathan’s profound commitment to the college’s primary mission of promoting academic excellence.”

Merging classroom learning with the lived experience of students became an integral part of Saint Anselm’s mission, including the establishment of what would become The Meelia Center for Community Engagement in 1989. The Center’s diverse opportunities for student volunteerism and leadership as well as service learning became a signature aspect of the Saint Anselm experience.

Campus Ministry started the Spring Break Alternative program, which expanded into the Service and Solidarity Missions sending students on hundreds of domestic and foreign trips in 23 years. Father Jonathan tears up each year as he listens to students describe the impact these trips have on their lives.

Seizing the opportunity provided by New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary, the college established the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in 2001, a place that in keeping with the notion of Benedictine hospitality, welcomes the public and the media into the conversations that shape American democracy. Father Jonathan brought the idea to U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, who liked the concept of a small liberal arts college making a monumental commitment to civic engagement and public discourse. He liked the idea so much that he helped turn a former Army Reserve center into a place where students would have the first shot at asking a future president or world leader their views.

“It was Father Jonathan’s idea that the NHIOP would serve students first and would be non-partisan,” says Anne Botteri ’82, head of communications and marketing at the CFU Foundation of Central Florida University. She helped found the Institute and served as executive director from 2002-2007.

“When people complained that the Institute welcomed those whose ideas ran counter to Catholic teaching, he would say, ‘Actually the Bishops have called us to informed citizenship, what better place than here? It’s better for us to engage and talk than to run away. Democracy depends on this.’ Because of that vision, students’ lives have been changed. When you get to introduce Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney or when you have a one-on-one conversation with someone significant, you become significant. We saw those sparks lit every day at the Institute,” she says.

Early in his presidency, Father Jonathan addressed the realities of educating students in an increasingly global world. “No one was talking about diversity back then, but he was,” says former trustee Jeannette Davila ’83, HD ’99, who went on to a distinguished career in banking. In 1993, the Multicultural Center was established. In 2006, he established an advisory council on inclusiveness, involving the entire college community in a conversation about what inclusion really means. He made it clear that the work was not just about attracting minority students to a college in a state with an overwhelmingly white population. It was about breaking down barriers, celebrating differences and refusing to give in to the human tendency to judge anyone who is different. His motivation was rooted in his early experience as part of an immigrant community and the memory of Father Joseph Sorzana, of the Scalabrinian Fathers, telling the schoolchildren, in broken English, ‘We built this school so you don’t do to other people what they did to us.’ I’m not sure I understood then what he meant, but I certainly did later.”

Isabela Echeverry ’06, who works in the Trade Ministry of her native Colombia, recalls, “When I got to Saint A’s it was easy to feel alienated as an international student. It was easy to step into Father Jonathan’s office and speak frankly about issues international students face.” Since 2006, student diversity has increased from 3.7 to 7.3 percent. In 2008, when the New Hampshire Union Leader accused Saint Anselm of being more interested in diversity than in staying true to its mission, Father Jonathan responded that, on the contrary, we are “more anchored than we ever were in the true meaning of what it is to be a Catholic college.”

This is just one example of Father Jonathan’s courage and heart, says trustee and professor of English emerita Denise Askin, who served as his first executive vice president. “He has been an agent for change,” she says. “He does it with courtesy, respect and a willingness to compromise with those who disagree with him. I’ve never seen him worry, but he doesn’t give up.”

One of the most evident changes during Father Jonathan’s presidency is the transformation of the student residential experience that began in the mid-1990s when the growth in the numbers required new campus housing. There were not enough beds, so the college purchased 25 trailers that were installed in the field northwest of the monastery. “This was just a temporary measure, but the students liked it,” says Father Jonathan. “They put pink flamingoes on the lawn and had barbecues. They treated it like a neighborhood.” The trailers became the inspiration for Bernard Court, where upperclassmen now live in townhouses with shared green spaces.

“Father Jonathan made the residential experience essential to the college experience, and community integral to the residential experience,” says Joseph Horton ’77, vice president for student affairs. “I think he was mirroring the life of the monastery. There is a lot to be learned from living in community, both from the positives and the challenges.”

Unique to residential life at Saint Anselm was the opportunity for some students in the apartments to have a gourmet meal prepared by the president. “He is an incredible cook,” says attorney Patrick Mulroney ’99. “He would come over to our town house and make a feast.” Like so many things, these opportunities to cook and eat with students were deeply rooted in Father Jonathan’s earliest years where he recalls meals as being “almost sacramental.” He adds, “There is something so fundamentally human about taking good ingredients and fashioning them into something wonderful to eat that makes a person inherently grateful to God for the gifts of the earth. Eating together, sharing conversation that is worthwhile and at times so very joyful is something that I believe, lifts our human spirit to God.”

At the heart of this Anselmian’s leadership is his devotion to students. “He loves the first day of classes,” says Joyce Shepherd, who served for 17 years as his secretary. “It’s impossible to get him to stay put in the office on that day because he’s too busy pointing students this way or that way and asking them about themselves.”
This was evident back when he was dean of students. Jeannette Davila ’83, HD ’99, was only 17 years old in 1979 when she came with her father to the college, contemplating life away from Puerto Rico for the first time. “Nothing will happen to your daughter here. I will look after her,” Davila recalls Father Jonathan saying to her father. “My father was so impressed that he told me, ‘This is where you are going.’ And Father Jonathan was as good as his word.”

Father Jonathan’s influence, however, extends far beyond campus, where fellow presidents, community leaders and public policy intersect on decisions that make access to and affordability of private education an increasingly complicated challenge. With 93 percent of Saint Anselm students receiving institutional aid, and the average need-based financial aid package exceeding $25,400 in 2012, what happens in the public sphere matters. A three-time chair of the New Hampshire Council of Universities and Colleges (NHCUC), Father Jonathan brought private and public presidents together to advocate for the needs of students in the state’s 22 institutions of higher learning.

Tom Horgan, NHCUC president, notes, “He’s touched the lives of students across the state with his collaborative initiatives.” Those initiatives include bringing federal grant money to New Hampshire’s private colleges and championing the creation of a tax-exempt college savings plan in New Hampshire after seeing Massachusetts’ plan advertised on a billboard in Manchester. He was also the founding president of Campus Compact of New Hampshire, an organization that promotes service learning on all of the state’s campuses. Next to Father Jonathan’s desk is a suitcase marked NEASC. After he served two terms as a commissioner, the New England Association of Secondary Schools and Colleges gave him the wheeled bag to carry the weighty documents that accompany every school’s accreditation process. He has led that process for about a dozen schools.

“We have a small number of former commissioners that we can send anywhere, and Father Jonathan is at the top of that list,” says Barbara Brittingham, president of NEASC. “He is a good listener who is open-minded and has a great sense of humor. People trust what he has to say.”

Of course a man with a suitcase next to his desk who is also a monk is bound to live in conflict. “The relentless press of duties, the expectations for a president to be involved in things outside the college and campus, the fundamentally more ‘noisy’ life of a president,” he admits, “these things are often in conflict with being a monk.” Asked to list his mentors, Father Jonathan leads with the 5th century founder of his religious order. “There is no doubt that Saint Benedict’s wisdom was a guiding force for me during my years as president. His understanding of the human person, his insight in how to deal with different people, his advice to the leader (abbot) on what kind of person he should be and how he should act…all of these things influenced how I approach my position.”

His greatest challenge, he says, was the often difficult process of changing governance, which was eventually resolved in 2009. Pressed to recall his most treasured moment as president, Father Jonathan actually returns to one of the darkest days in American history: “I will never forget the sight of filling the Abbey Church on 9/11. In reflecting on it with students in the days that followed, I said they should remember what in their hearts called them to prayer that day; that even if they didn’t attend Mass as regularly as they might, there was something in them that called them to the Church. I wanted them to remember that throughout all of life’s difficult moments.”

Among the many daily concerns that come across a president’s desk, none, he says, was greater than the well- being of students. “The sons and daughters of Saint Anselm are in a real way our sons and daughters too. We feel angst alongside mothers and fathers, just as we share their joy at commencement or during a wedding in the Abbey Church.”

And among the hundreds of difficult personnel decisions he has made, none was more difficult than his most recent: “the decision to retire as president. There is nothing about the decision that is wrong, but it was—and probably will be— difficult to discern the path ahead after doing this work for so long. More than half of my life here has been as president.”

Even as he turns to contemplating his own future and leaves the planning for Saint Anselm College in other hands, he suggests that the “most important thing for the future of the College’s mission is hiring. While it is important to have Benedictines present and active in the College, clearly the numbers now and in the future indicate that the vast majority of those employed as faculty and staff will be lay people. The Church has called us to provide good lay leaders for our institutions and I think this is a good thing.”

Those large shoes left to be filled on the first floor of Alumni Hall are well worn. And somewhere in Rhode Island are some daughters of Saint Lucy Filippini who can be proud of one of their pupils, one whose life has helped to transform thousands. “I could not have imagined any of this in 1965. Looking back at how I came to Saint Anselm, how my vocation was nourished here, clearly in this process was the gentle hand of the Lord.”

National Influence

  • National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities: three terms on board of directors: 1995-1998, 2007-2010, 2011-2014
  • Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities: co-founder in 1991 to present
  • Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities: two terms on board of directors 1996-2002
  • American Council on Education, Board of Directors: 2012-2014 – representing ACCU
  • NEASC – Commission on Institutions of Higher Education – two terms as commissioner, 1999-2005