The Cardinal Newman Society thanks Fr. Malachi Van Tassell, T.O.R., president-elect of St. Francis University in Loretto, Penn., for speaking with us about his life and leadership plans.
“The only way you’ll know is if you try it out,” a seminarian friend told Malachi Van Tassell.
Malachi had observed what religious life means up close and personal while an undergraduate student at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He watched the way the Franciscan friars taught, prayed, interacted with students and even just walked around campus.
What struck Malachi about the friars was their seemingly endless joy, he told The Cardinal Newman Society in an interview on January 21st. He remembers thinking, “I would probably be happy as a Franciscan as well.”
Malachi was the oldest of five children to his parents, Fred and Barbara. A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.,he attended Catholic school in grade school and high school. As the first teachers of the Faith, Malachi’s parents “took this role very seriously” and emphasized the sacraments, he said.
At the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Malachi double-majored in accounting and Spanish. He then went onto earn his master’s degree in taxation from Arizona State University. After graduation, he worked as an accountant for almost three years. When he switched from one accounting job to another, he knew that he was looking for something different.
His friend’s “go-for-it” advice was the final push that Malachi needed. He thought he would try out the Franciscan order just to see what it was like—and then see what happened.
It turned out to be an “easy transition” to religious life, and Malachi found the “peace” that he had been looking for. He professed his vows in 1999 and was ordained to the priesthood in 2004 in the same province of Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular that controls his alma mater in Steubenville.
Now Father Malachi Van Tassell, T.O.R., he likes to retell the “go-for-it” speech, encouraging other young men and women who are discerning a call to the religious life to step out of their comfort zone and give the Lord a chance to make His will known in their lives.
“Servant leadership is about giving others the tools they need to help develop themselves,” said Fr. Malachi. The servant leader helps enable others to become the best that they can be—in every area of life.
Fr. Malachi earned his Ph.D. in in higher education leadership from Capella University and wrote his dissertation on “servant leadership.” He hopes to put this leadership style into action in his role as the next president of St. Francis University in Loretto, Penn. He will assume official duties at the end of the 2013-2014 academic year.
“I am blessed and humbled to be following the footsteps of a number of Franciscans who have been the presidents of St. Francis University,” he said. “I am excited to build on the success that we have here.”
Founded in 1847 by six Franciscan friars from Ireland, St. Francis University was the first Franciscan college in the country and has always had a Franciscan friar as president. The liberal arts University currently has an enrollment of approximately 1,700 undergraduates and nearly 700 graduate students, according to the University’s website.
“Our number one focus should be our Catholic, Franciscan identity,” Fr. Malachi said. “If we focus on our identity first, then everything else will fall into place… St. Francis should know its mission and not be afraid to live it.”
There are a lot of similarities between his province’s two colleges, Franciscan University of Steubenville and St. Francis—most notably their “Franciscan spirit,” Fr. Malachi pointed out. He attended Franciscan University in part because he saw students there who were “equally as serious about growing in their faith.” Fr. Malachi is still actively involved with Franciscan University, serving on its board of trustees, and he presided over the University’s spring commencement ceremony.
Fr. Malachi stressed the importance of having Franciscan friars on St. Francis’ campus—in the classroom, in the administration and in campus ministry—and hopes to recruit more friars as they join the order. The friars minister to the students and help them grow in their Faith first and foremost, while at the same time, they help provide an excellent education.
For the past 12 years, Fr. Malachi has been an adjunct professor at St. Francis, teaching business and religious studies courses. He said that it’s been a “blessing,” because he’s always wanted to teach.
“By being both a Franciscan priest and a professor, it allows me to take it to the next level,” Fr. Malachi said. “On the academic side, I can bring Franciscan-ism into the classroom, even into the business classroom. In this day and age when there are business and accounting scandals, I think it’s good to have a Franciscan presence in the school of business to remind our students that we need good people in the business world who are Christian, who are Catholic, who have morals, who have ethics.”
Fr. Malachi also noted that by being in the classroom, he has been able to reach a significant number of our students who he might have otherwise never met.
When Fr. Malachi moves into his position as president of the University, it will be “bittersweet” to no longer be in the classroom on a regular basis, but he still hopes to build up servant leaders on campus.
“When you get on campus and look around, you realize that there are a lot of good things going on,” Fr. Malachi said, offering the examples of the University’s strong peer minister program and monthly night of worship.
When asked about the Division I athletics program, Fr.Malachi spoke about how in many ways the University is able to offer student-athletes the “best of both worlds” by providing them with Division I athletics in a small, Catholic school environment. He said that servant leaders should help athletes “become the best athlete they can be.”
Several staff, led by the University’s presidents, have been instrumental in directing Greek life in a positive direction, especially in the last five years, Fr. Malachi believes. “Sadly on other campuses, Greek life is associated with drinking and partying. When you think of Greek life at St. Francis, you think service.”
Under the direction of a Franciscan friar who served as the chaplain to the Greek life organizations, every fraternity and sorority at St.Francis partakes in a spiritual retreat once a year and service opportunities throughout the year.
“Students who come to this University will leave knowing that they have received a Franciscan and Catholic education,” Fr. Malachi said. “Which in turn can be put at the service of the Church, and at the service of the greater good of society in which we live.”
Not many college presidents can tell a story like this…
The alarm went off, and Fr. Malachi responded. An older woman had fallen in her house and pressed a medic-alert button. When Fr. Malachi and his team from the Loretto Fire Company arrived at her house, the lights in the house were off and the doors were locked.
While one fire fighter was getting tools out of the truck to open the door, another man took the air conditioning unit out of the window. Fr. Malachi dove through the open window, rolled off the couch and onto the floor, and landed right next to he woman who had fallen.
“I’m Fr. Malachi. I’m here to rescue you,” he told the woman. She was then safely transported in an ambulance to the hospital, and later the woman loved sharing the story about how Fr. Malachi had rescued her.
For more than 10 years, Fr. Malchi was deputy fire chief and chaplain of the Loretto Volunteer Fire Company. He was very “into it”: Fr. Malachi often received the “most calls responded to” award from the Company. He served to help meet the physical needs of those in desperate situations, but as a priest, he also aided spiritually and was able to give Last Rites and preside over funerals when necessary.
Fr. Malachi cared for the bodies and souls of the people he rescued during his time in the Fire Company, and aims to continue to do the same for students at St. Francis University.
“It’s a big responsibility, but at the same time, I know the Lord is in charge and has provided and will provide the grace,” Fr. Malachi said. “Any prayers that people can offer for me and for the University are greatly appreciated.”
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