As a young man, Fr. John P. McDonagh STL, JCL, MBA made his way from Boston to the University of Massachusetts Amherst with aspirations of pursuing a career in urban planning. Upon meeting Fr. Joe Quigley, director of the University’s Newman Catholic Center, however, McDonagh decided instead he would work on “building the City of God.”
Now, McDonagh’s path—which has wound its way to Rome and back and up and down the East Coast—has brought him to the City of Homes, where he serves as the director of campus ministry at American International College.
McDonagh, who also teaches English and religion courses as an adjunct professor, said Quigley, who once attended AIC, and Fr. Merle Lavoie had profound impacts on his decision to enter the priesthood and his ministry since he was ordained in 1982.
At AIC, those inspirations as well as the words of Rev. John DeBonville, continue to guide McDonagh in his vocation as a spiritual leader and teacher. “He said, ‘How can we expect students to be interested in church if we are not interested in them?’” McDonagh recalled of the beloved DeBonville, his predecessor at AIC who passed away suddenly in the summer of 2014.
With a rich background in campus ministry that started when he returned to the Newman Center as its director, and included stops at Amherst College, Duke University, and Seton Hall University before he was summoned back to Western Massachusetts by then-Bishop Timothy McDonnell to become coordinator of campus ministry outreach for the Diocese of Springfield, McDonagh said helping the students of AIC “discover the holy in their life” has become his mission—a mission that extends to the entire campus, not just one faith community.
“The way I put it sometimes is—I try to enable students to trip over the God in their life,” he said. “Our Catholic faith is that God is not limited to Catholics. He is present in all of us.”
In the classroom, McDonagh teaches courses covering world religion, spirituality and healing, and Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, as well as writing courses that incorporate themes related to social justice, ranging from climate change to income inequality.
“He was a good preacher, he was very accepting of students, and he had a perception that a number of students were enslaved by neglect and they needed to be liberated,” McDonagh said of Quigley, adding of Lavoie, “He was also a very fine preacher, calling upon literature and utilizing literary references to explain the Scripture.”
“I feel I’ve grown as a teacher. It’s a privilege to convey to students part of the liberal arts tradition. I find it very energizing and I think the teaching has enabled me to improve my preaching,” he said.
In examining various religions and customs, as well as spiritual and societal topics in literature, McDonagh said his goal is not only to broaden students’ understanding of the world around them. He explained he encourages reflection on how these lessons can be applied for the enrichment of their own lives. “I try to teach in a way that helps students get in touch with their own story.”
Creativity, he said, is a key to teaching effectively at AIC, and something he tries to incorporate into every class to help his students grow.
“In one class I taught, I actually put a challenge out there to the class and that challenge was to go and ask someone out on a date—face-to-face, no texting,” he said. “It was an exercise to teach the students the skill of confidence, and that lesson can carry over to give them the confidence to ask for a raise, speak up with a new idea at work, and to be innovative with their families.”
When ministering to the campus community, in addition to celebrating weekly Sunday Catholic Mass in the College’s Breck Hall and holding office hours in Lee Hall, at President Vince Maniaci’s suggestion McDonagh is a regular in the Dining Commons where he connects with students in what he finds to be a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
“A big part of campus ministry is just to be present—to listen to their stories, to encourage them, to support them,” he explained. “I’m also very good at introducing people to people and networking. In a way I find Andrew to be one of my patrons— there’s only one time he’s mentioned in the Gospel where he’s not introducing someone to someone. Sometimes people feel isolated, especially in some very competitive majors, and finding someone who shares similar interests can be important and I’m very good at helping people make those connections.”
His weekly emails to faculty, staff, and students with spiritual messages discuss the presence of God in their lives as it pertains to that week’s scripture. He has also been active in efforts to feed and clothe the city’s less fortunate, and is a regular participant in activities sponsored by Rex’s Pantry, AIC’s food and necessities pantry.
In his teaching and his ministry, McDonagh draws from a lifetime of wide-ranging experiences since he completed his graduate studies in theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome. McDonagh’s responsibilities have run the gamut— he has been parochial vicar at a handful of area parishes, vocational director for the Diocese of Springfield, a member of the diocese’s Marriage Tribunal, and assistant to the vicar of finance after achieving his master of business administration degree from Western New England University in 1996.
“I look at my experiences and I try to think about how they can apply,” he explained. “For instance, my MBA background helps me to see the value in the College raising up business leaders in the non-profit and profit world, and the takeaway for me is figuring out how we encourage leadership in people. Rather than having a passive community, how can we engage?”
As a first-generation college graduate himself, McDonagh said he appreciates and wants to foster the entrepreneurial spirit and grit he sees in many AIC students. Those qualities, he said, will help them make significant impacts in the world, “especially as first-generation students—they’re thinking outside of the box, they’re not doing the same old thing. I absolutely think they are entrepreneurial and that kind of spirit needs encouragement. I try to offer that,” he said.
“These are students who are going to fight for their patients, for the victims of crimes that they deal with, for their customers, and that’s exciting. It’s exciting to be part of an institution that is transforming lives so that our students can transform other people’s lives.”
-By Chris Maza
Photos by Leon Nguyen ’16