By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — A new, interfaith prayer room which will be used largely by the Muslim community at St. Ambrose University has been named in honor of a Catholic priest theologian dedicated to fostering positive interfaith relationships.
The Father Joseph DeFrancisco prayer room was dedicated May 8 in honor of the priest who taught for years at the university before his death last summer.
Matt Mahoney, president of the Student Government Association (SGA), said work for a larger prayer room began over a year ago. “I was sitting in the gathering space of Christ the King Chapel. A few minutes later, I happened to be in the middle of a meeting of the Saudi Student Association which was also taking place in the gathering space at that time. Fr. Joe was there and facilitated a discussion with the students about how SAU could best accommodate them, and what each of their challenges were. Fr. Joe talked to them on such a personal level. It was clear that they
were very important to him.”
Mahoney said he didn’t realize the impact Fr. DeFrancisco had on the Muslim community on campus until he attended Father’s funeral last July. “Three Muslim students served as pallbearers and Imam Saad Baig spoke at the funeral about Fr. Joe and his impact on the Muslim students.”
Last fall, Mahoney met with the president of the Saudi Student Association and asked if SGA could help them find a larger prayer room — one of the issues that Fr. DeFrancisco had brought up. At the time, the more than 80 Muslim students were praying in a small prayer room that previously served as a faculty office. It was too small to allow the ritual ablution (ceremonial washing) before prayer, so they were using the common restrooms for that ritual.
As the number of Muslim students has rapidly increased, Mahoney said, efforts were made to find a much larger prayer room for them. Muslims pray five times daily as part of Salah, one of the pillars of the Islamic Faith.
“I brought my concerns to the administration and they were quite receptive to finding a way to make a larger prayer space,” Mahoney said. Many rooms were proposed before one on the third floor of Ambrose Hall was selected. He said the space is perfect because it provides much more room for the students to pray, a separate area for females to pray and space for the ritual ablution.
This spring, Mahoney asked St. Ambrose University President Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, if the room could be named after Fr. DeFrancisco “because of his immense commitment to building connections with other faiths, particularly with our Muslim students. I talked with many of the students who felt like it would be the perfect way to remember Fr. Joe because he was so sensitive to their faith and cared genuinely for them.”
After careful consideration, Sr. Lescinski was willing to move forward with naming the prayer room after Fr. DeFrancisco. “This is a truly appropriate way to honor Fr. Joe,” said Sr. Lescinski. “His openness to all members of the Quad Cities faith community was a living example of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Former students still talk about the impact visits to temples and mosques had on them as members of his comparative religions class.”
“I find this particularly special, since I can’t imagine there are many other Muslim prayer rooms named after a Catholic priest,” Mahoney said. “It’s uniquely Ambrosian and honors our commitment to welcoming all people here.”
The prayer room will be open to all students, but will largely be used by Muslim students at this time for their daily prayer.