Friar Flashback: Sitting with Fr. Shanley

by The Cowl Editor on March 3, 2017


Nicholas Crenshaw ’20/The COWL

by Meaghan Dodson ’17

News Co-Editor

He has taken on nearly every role that Providence College has to offer: student and hall director, priest and professor, Board of Trustees member and, ultimately, president of the College.

He has been connected to PC for over 40 years and during this time he has seen it transform from a small Rhode Island college to the premier Catholic liberal arts institution it is today.  In fact, he did not just witness this transformation, he helped facilitate it.

He is none other than Fr. Brian Shanley, O.P. ’80, who—as the College celebrates its 100th birthday—sat down with The Cowl to discuss ways in which he has seen PC grow over the past several decades.

Fr. Shanley first stepped onto campus in the fall of 1976. His father was a PC alumnus and Board of Trustees member, and his mother was a librarian at the Phillips Memorial Library. “Her faculty status meant I got free tuition,” he stated. “It didn’t make economic sense to go anywhere else.”

PC’s latest purchase was the Chapin property (the hospital complex that today forms lower campus), which had been acquired only a few years earlier. With dreams of law school in mind, Fr. Shanley thought he had no choice but to major in political science.

It was Fr. Coskren O.P., the assistant director of the Liberal Arts Honors Program at the time, who told him this was not the case. “Pursue what you love,” Fr. Coskren advised. And so Fr. Shanley became a history major, spending the next four years taking in all the College had to offer.

A member of the Liberal Arts Honors Program, Fr. Shanley attended his Development of Western Civilization classes in the basement of the former Stephen Hall,  which is now the Feinstein building. The format of “Honors Civ” resembled the current DWC format, while the general DWC program—which was housed on the first floor of Aquinas Hall—consisted of five lecture-based classes per week.

His favorite class at PC? “Definitely Civ,” he revealed. And his favorite subject? “Thomas Aquinas. This is all him,” he stated, pointing to the better half of his office’s bookshelves.

His professors included the likes of Dr. Raymond Sickinger, current chairperson of the history department, and Dr. Richard Grace, professor emeritus of history and the College’s official historian. Fr. Shanley was very focused on his studies and thus PC’s future president was ironically fairly uninvolved on campus. “I was never a joiner,” he stated, revealing that intramural sports were the extent of his extracurricular activities.

And what was campus like at this time? Women had first been admitted to the College a few years prior to his attendence, by the time Fr. Shanley arrived in 1976, the co-ed life was “old news.”

“One of the biggest differences was that about half the College’s population was commuters,” he stated.

Fr. Shanley, however, was not among this number. He lived in Guzman Hall his freshman year and then moved to Raymond Hall (a male dorm at the time) for his sophomore year. Two or three Dominicans lived in each residence hall, and it was this close contact, Fr. Shanley revealed, that helped inspire him to become a priest.

Speaking of Ray, what was Fr. Shanley’s favorite meal when he was a student? The campus’ dining hall was “not memorable” at the time, he admitted. There was a single serving line down the middle of Ray, and there was one option per meal which was typically a meat, a potato, and a vegetable. Otherwise, students were stuck with PB&J. “Nowadays,” he stated, “Students do not know how good they have it. I still eat in Ray occasionally.”

Fr. Shanley studied abroad in Switzerland for his entire junior year and senior year he lived off campus on Veazie Street. “We called it ‘Sleazy Veazie,’” he joked.

Indeed, the majority of juniors and seniors lived off campus at the time. The apartment complex of DiTraglia, Mal Brown, and Cunningham Halls—which, for the first few years, were simply labeled  A, B, and C—were not be built until the late ’80s.

After college, Fr. Shanley immediately began his journey to priesthood. “I graduated in May, and I arrived in Dover, Massachusetts [where the seminary was located] on August 7, 1980.”

Among his fellow novitiates were Fr. Mark Nowel, O.P., dean of undergraduate and  graduate studies, and Fr. Iriarte Andújar, O.P., associate dean of admissions.

Fr. Nowel, Fr. Shanley revealed, arrived sporting a fake British accent, the result of recently acquiring his Ph.D. in England.

Fr. Shanley was ordained a priest in 1987 and in 1988 he returned to PC as a philosophy professor and hall director. He served as hall director for Stephen Hall which, at the time, housed all of the College’s male scholarship athletes. “It was two of the most interesting years of my life,” he laughs.

In 1991 he left to pursue a Ph.D., one of the five degrees he holds, and then from 1994 to 2005 he taught philosophy at the Catholic University of America. He was still connected to the College, however, as he had been a member of the Board of Trustees since 1998.

In 2004, Fr. Philip A. Smith, O.P., announced his intent to retire as PC’s president, and Fr. Shanley was encouraged to throw his name to the mix. “I didn’t think I was going to get the job,” he revealed.

But he did get it, and he has been the president of the College ever since. The first student he interacted with after his appointment, he stated, was none other than The Cowl’s News Editor at the time. Fr. Shanley has had a long history with The Cowl as his father served as co-editor from 1948-1949.

Upon assuming the presidency in 2005, Fr. Shanley recalls that among the campus’ newest buildings were St. Dominic Chapel and the Smith Center for the Arts. The “don’t step on the chapel circle” superstition, he argued, is nothing more than a myth. “The stone has only been there since 2001!”

The first structure built under Fr. Shanley’s supervision was the Concannon Fitness Center. Prior to that, the “gym” was in the basement of Alumni Hall where the current ROTC office is situated.

Indeed, Fr, Shanley revealed that the collective Slavin Center/Alumni Hall complex was much smaller when he was a student. Peterson Center was not built until the early ’80s, and Slavin Center was initially conceived to be a large, five-story building before the College ran out of money. This is why the stairs behind the “Fishbowl,” for example, are so steep; the space was designed to be an elevator shaft.

Since 2005, Fr. Shanley has worked to promote the academic and physical transformation of the campus. The DWC program underwent major construction in 2012 while, in terms of physical layout, the Ruane Center for the Humanities, Schneider Arena, Chapey Field at Anderson Stadium, and, most recently, the Arthur F. and Patricia Ryan Center for Business Studies became the most recent additions to campus.

As PC enters its centennial year, Fr. Shanley looks both back into the past and forward towards the future. “I walk past all these pictures [in Harkins Hall] every day; I look at the history of the College on a daily basis,” he stated. “I think about where we were when we started, and as I look at what campus is now, I think about how everything has changed but also how nothing has changed. From an academic and physical point of view, the founders [of the College] would be amazed at where we are now. But the mission of educating in the Dominican Catholic tradition has remained the same. We have never changed our core values; we have stayed true to the vision that Bishop Harkins and the founding Dominicans had 100 years ago.”