By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Nearly 140 years ago in Ireland, a seminarian destined to become bishop of the Diocese of Davenport posed a question to a professor: What could be done to encourage more Catholics to aspire to higher education? Bishop James Davis, third bishop of the Davenport Diocese (1906-1926), might be pleased to see his question’s answer being played out in 21st century Carlow, Ireland, and Davenport, Iowa.
Father Conn O’Maoldhomhnaigh, vice president of Carlow College — where he and Bishop Davis attended seminary a century apart — is completing a nine-month presidential fellowship at St. Ambrose University in Davenport. The 2014-15 fellowship coincided with the 10th anniversary of the schools’ partnership, the centerpiece of which is a study abroad program.
But connections between the two diocesan institutions of higher learning may have taken root much earlier. Between 1871 and 1932, 16 priests were ordained at Carlow College for the Davenport Diocese. Carlow, which formed in 1782 to educate seminarians and lay Catholics, has no seminarians at the present time. Enrollment is about 1,000 lay students.
The request for the presidential fellowship came from Carlow because of the long relationship between the two institutions, said Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, president of St. Ambrose University. “We had a fair amount of interaction with faculty and staff and certainly with students so I think it was probably a natural outgrowth. We were actually quite honored to have the request come.”
“This was an opportunity for me to come here and shadow the president in her role and to also observe the workings of higher education in an American setting,” Fr. Conn explained. “We have a kind of similar history and ethos as St. Ambrose. We’re a diocesan Catholic college dedicated to the liberal arts and we firmly believe in our Catholic tradition and ethos, which runs through our programs and the way we operate. I notice that’s exactly what St. Ambrose has been doing since 1882.”
“He knows our history well,” quipped Sr. Joan, during an April 28 interview with Fr. Conn and The Catholic Messenger in her Ambrose Hall office. Sr. Joan’s previous experience with a presidential fellowship provided a sort of template for this one, she said.
Fr. Conn met weekly with Sr. Joan and regularly with the six people who report directly to her in the areas of academic affairs, student affairs, finance, fundraising, enrollment management, athletics and campus ministry. “In order to give the presidential fellow a real view of what it means to do this job, he needs to be aware of what those six reports do,” she added. No one needed convincing of the value of Fr. Conn’s participation in meetings.
“Whenever you have a senior higher education professional on your campus, normally you’d pay a lot of money for that; it’s called a consultant. We’ve had the benefit of having someone like Fr. Conn with us for the full year,” Sr. Joan said. “He’s been willing to take part in our discussions and very generously to offer his insights. So St. Ambrose has really benefited by the kind of higher educational expertise he has.”
“I am impressed by the caliber of people who work here, including members of the cabinet and also the commitment and interest that board members have in the university,” Fr. Conn said. “I’ve been at meetings where I’ve seen people really approach matters … in a forensic manner, gathering information, teasing out information, asking questions to arrive at the best decision for the university.”
He appreciated open access to all meetings, having his office in the campus ministry corridor and being involved with students and with Campus Ministry Director Father Chuck Adam.
“I like the campus here very much,” Fr. Conn said. “I like the students a lot. I think it’s a very friendly campus. I find the students very mannerly and very friendly. I also like the way they hold the door for people. I marvel at the numbers who attend Mass on Sunday; their commitment, their involvement. Wednesday night’s student Mass to me is extraordinary, the numbers who go to that.” A friend from Ireland who visited for a few days was also amazed at the attendance at the two Masses. He told Fr. Conn, “Their parents don’t know whether they go or not and they still go!”
Fr. Adam describes his fellow priest as “very down to earth, easy to relate to, with warmth that draws people to want to learn. He has a deep understanding of Irish spirituality that recognizes the beauty of God in creation and ordinary experiences of life.”
The priest with the distinctive Irish brogue and singing voice helped out with daily Mass and filled in for some weekend Masses and served as a spiritual director for the fall and spring Busy Students retreats.
St. Ambrose senior Luke Staudt, who sings in the choir and cantors at campus Masses, got to know Fr. Conn through those experiences and at a Busy Students retreat. “It’s been a pleasure to get to know him over the year. He has a very warm personality.” The Irish priest exposed Luke to the universal nature of the church, the student noted. “If he was to be here full-time, he’d be a good fit. He identifies with the St. Ambrose way.”
Christine Mattern, a senior biology major, met Fr. Conn when she studied in Ireland at Carlow College during her sophomore year. “He was very welcoming. He was one of my favorite persons I met during my study abroad experience.” Her mother and grandmother traveled to Ireland to visit and Fr. Conn joined them for tea at a little place near campus. “We were there for a good hour and a half and talked. My mom and grandmother still talk about that.”
Christine said she was so happy to find out Fr. Conn “was going to spend a year with us just because I had such a good experience in Carlow. It’s nice to re-live those memories, to bring back the magic of Ireland.”
Soon, Fr. Conn will return to Ireland. Sr. Joan said she will miss Fr. Conn’s counsel, creativity, wisdom and ability to understand higher education. “If we want Catholic education here or elsewhere to thrive we have to have good leaders,” she reflected. “Good leaders aren’t just born. They also have to be made in the sense that the talents and skills it takes to be a leader have to be developed. I know in my own life if I have any gifts at all in this regard it is because they were fostered by outstanding mentors.”
“Everything here made it possible for me to have a wonderful experience for a presidential fellowship,” Fr. Conn said. “I experienced nothing but encouragement and welcoming and the opportunity to be involved and to learn and to have the opportunity to give my views on matters.”
He’ll be sad to go home, “but I’ll be going home with lots of new insights.”
Next week: A reflection on the Catholic Church in Ireland. Father Conn O’ Maoldhomhnaigh who serves as vice president of Carlow College, sister college of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, shares his insight and his story.
A case study in leadership
Father Conn O Maoldhomhnaigh had an opportunity to witness a leadership challenge involving a proposed St. Ambrose University stadium that a number of neighbors opposed. The proposal didn’t pass because Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba, a St. Ambrose grad, vetoed it. Assumption High School recently purchased the property from St. Ambrose for construction of athletic facilities for the high school. It would be shared with St. Ambrose and other diocesan Catholic schools.
“The timing was perfect in my mind,” said St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, who mentored Fr. Conn during his presidential fellowship at the university this academic year. “He could actually see a classic case of how a university interacted in the wider neighborhood of the Quad Cities. It was a great opportunity to see how we would handle such a thing; the various aspects that were there, the kinds of issues that came up on all the different sides and what ways we worked to see how we could resolve those issues.”
The Quad Cities and Carlow (Ireland) are different places, but “every institution has interactions with its wider neighborhood, whether we’re here or in Ireland or any place,” Sr. Joan said.
“I think one of the things I have picked up in my time here is the respect for St. Ambrose by the local community … the president is very well known in the community and beyond the community,” Fr. Conn said. “What I like is the proactivity — the ability to see around corners; I think that comes from leadership, how the institution is led, and how the leader interacts with various people … I like the calm approach that was brought to matters.”
In the end, it’s always about the students, Fr. Conn said, and how to ensure that they have a quality education experience and one that attracts new students to have that same kind of experience.