Fairfield's Founding Fathers
On the feast of St. Patrick on March 17 we all become Irish—at least for 24 hours—and that was certainly the case this past weekend as for the second year in a row Fairfield University proudly marched in the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Alumni, staff, and their families from all around the tri-state area came together for the festivities—perhaps hoping to be seen by friends on television.
And why was I not there? Well, along with a group of Fairfield University students, I was in New Orleans for spring break, working on the never-ending clean-up work after Hurricane Katrina. My thoughts, however, were not far from the University and its strong Irish roots.
Just walk down the first floor corridor of Bellarmine Hall towards the President’s Office, and you are surrounded by Irishmen. From the portrait of our first University presidents, Bishop McEleney and Fr. Dolan, to the three Fitzgeralds (really, two Fitzgeralds and one FitzGerald); interrupted by a McInnes; and then, finally, a Kelley (don’t forget the second “e”)—you realize that this is a corridor where St. Patrick of Ireland would feel very much at home.
However, it is only fitting that we remember some of those non-Irish Jesuits who did so much to set our University on the path to greatness.
Fr. Lawrence C. Langguth, S.J., came from Holy Trinity Parish in the South End of Boston, where Jesuits had established a parish in the middle 1800s to meet the spiritual needs of the growing number of immigrant German Catholics. As a young priest, Fr. Langguth was named dean of men at the newly-opened Fairfield University of St. Robert Bellarmine, and then went on to serve as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Later, Fr. Langguth was sent to the Jesuit novitiate, Shadowbrook, in the Berkshires. It was there, as a novice, that I first met him. He was tall and somewhat stern in appearance. His moral integrity, intellectual brilliance, and love of both physical and academic work made him the perfect model for us young Jesuits, as I am sure he also was for the young men entering Fairfield University in 1947.
The Leopardi family came to the United States from Italy in the early 1900s. Because there were so few Italians in West Virginia, they changed their name to the more American sounding “Leeber.” Later, with their young son Victor, they moved to West Newton, Mass., with its large Italian community. Years later, Fr. Victor Leeber, S.J., was present to greet the first Fairfield University class in 1947. He was the University’s first language teacher and founder of the cross country team. His warm affection for all, his love of travel, and his quick wit are still remembered in the Fairfield Jesuit community.
Fr. Maurice Wong, S.J., was born into a non-Christian Chinese family in Shanghai, half a world away from Fairfield. Reading the Fathers of the Church at an early age, Fr. Wong became a Catholic and, later, in Manila, a Jesuit. He received a doctorate in mathematical physics from the University of Birmingham, and in 1969 found his way to Fairfield University. A superb scholar, a dedicated teacher, a great bridge player and, finally, a devoted priest to the Chinese Catholic community on the East Coast, Fr. Wong’s untimely death in 1998 was a great loss for Fairfield.
These are just a few of our founding “fathers” at Fairfield University. In recent years, many other non-Irish names have joined the Fairfield Jesuit Community. You may have heard of a von Arx; there is also a Peduti, a Scalese and, most recently, a Fredy Cesar Maldonado from Bolivia.
In pondering our origins, I find myself grateful for the many nationalities among all of us—Jesuits, faculty, staff, and most especially our students. Together, we all contribute to the special place that is Fairfield University.
Blessings to you and yours as we move toward the Easter season!