Popular St. Ambrose professor had his heart in the right place


By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

DAVENPORT — Students loved Father Joe DeFrancisco, a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University who had a theatrical flair in the classroom and made time for anyone who sought his counsel. Colleagues described Fr. Joe, who died July 20 at age 69, as a devoted teacher with a ministry of reaching out to persons of other faiths.

Fr. DeFrancisco

He was passionate about many issues, boldly expressing ideas but prone to changing his mind. He shared with others, especially his culinary skills, friends and colleagues said. Encouraged by readers’ appreciation for his writing, he launched a regular column for The Catholic Messenger on spirituality in ordinary times.

“Joe was the energizer bunny, a whirlwind of passion (the intemperate kind); of ideas (often contradictory); of stories (often tall tales); and possessed of a physical exuberance that belied his fragile health. He was a man of many contradictions, which was why he was both exasperating and endearing,” said Father Bud Grant, a professor of theology at St. Ambrose.


“Joe was a very popular professor. He was doing experiential learning before it had a chic name … I recently saw the ‘baby’ he keeps in his office for demonstrating the sacrament of baptism.  He had students over to his house for elaborate and gourmet Italian dinners. One of the nuisances I have had to put up with over the years,” Fr. Grant said, “is that of meeting an SAU alum who claims to have had me in class (Joe and I are of the same height and perhaps share a few common personality traits) and I usually have to say, ‘no, that was Fr. Joe.’ And then faces light up with warm memories. He was especially loved by our Saudi students, in part because he was so cognizant of and sensitive to their faith.”

“This global sense of openness to the non-Catholic world is not just what he taught in his World Religion classes, it was one of his defining features,” Fr. Grant continued. As word spread of Fr. Joe’s death, Fr. Grant said he heard from Rabbi Henry Karp of Davenport; Rev. Richard Priggie, campus chaplain at Augustana College, Rock Island, Ill.; and Imam Saad Baig, director of Religious Affairs at the Islamic Center of the Quad-Cities in Moline, Ill.

“He’d give you his right arm,” said Rabbi Karp, a friend and colleague. He recalls leading a study abroad trip on the Holocaust with Fr. DeFrancisco. Whenever students had a question on that trip, they sought out Fr. Joe. The same held true on campus. “He was loved by his students,” the rabbi said.

“He was beloved by his students because of his personable and entertaining approach to the classroom. He practically did a song and dance up there every single day,” observed Professor Emeritus Corinne Winter.

Professor Keith Soko, who teaches religious ethics and moral theology at St. Ambrose, recalls interviewing with Fr. Joe, then the theology department chair, when Soko was hired in 2004. “I appreciated his friendly personality and sense of humor when I visited Ambrose for my interview,” Soko said. “When my mom passed away in 2012, Fr. Joe drove up to Milwaukee for the funeral.… He concelebrated the funeral Mass and led prayers at the brunch. That meant a lot to me. It exemplified his selflessness. As one of my other colleagues, Mara Adams, noted to me recently, he exemplified all that is good at St. Ambrose and everyone seemed to love him.”

Fr. Joe talked recently about traveling to Asia to help with his Comparative Religions course, Soko said. “One of the areas that we had in common was an interest in comparative religions, and we shared many ideas and resources in that area. He worked closely with Rabbi Henry Karp and other faith leaders in the community. He had a number of courses that he juggled in the areas of Spirituality and Liturgy and World Religions.”

The priest “was always working, in a good way, always learning, always working to improve, and always there to give a helping hand or an ear to listen,” Soko continued. “He was a good friend and a giant in our department and the university overall. He will be missed.”

Father Chuck Adam, who previously served as St. Ambrose University Campus Chaplain, described Fr. Joe as “a talented musician, artist, and chef, and he was incredibly generous in sharing his irresistibly delicious pasta for campus ministry events. He encouraged vocations and helped me on several occasions host dinners with students to share stories of priesthood.  He was deeply spiritual and taught prayer and spirituality very authentically from a lived experience.”

Fr. Joe could be easily misunderstood, Fr. Adam said. “But most often I found his heart to be in the right place. St. Augustine reminded us that our hearts are created by God and our hearts are restless until they rest in him. I pray that Fr. Joe’s restless heart now rests with God.”


Father Joseph DeFrancisco 1948-2017

DAVENPORT — Father Joseph Anthony DeFrancisco, 69, a longtime professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, died July 20 at Genesis East. He was born June 14, 1948, in Connecticut, the son of Joseph and Josephine (Kulas) DeFrancisco.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, a bachelor’s degree in sacred theology and a master’s degree in sacramental/liturgical studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He studied patristics at the University of Paris and earned a doctor of sacred theology in spirituality from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome.

He was ordained Aug. 2, 1975, by Bishop Warren Boudreaux for the Diocese of Beaumont, Texas. He joined the faculty of St. Ambrose as an associate professor of theology in August 1990. He had served as chair of the theology department. He was promoted to professor of theology in August 2002. He was serving in that capacity at the time of his death.

His funeral Mass was held July 25 at Christ the King Chapel on the St. Ambrose University campus. Burial was in Mount Calvary Cemetery.

Memorials may be made to the Monks at New Melleray Abbey. Online condolences may be expressed at www.rungemortuary.com.

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1 thought on “Popular St. Ambrose professor had his heart in the right place

  1. He was by far one of the most sincere, open, compassionate and knowledgeable professors in the Theology department. He cared deeply for his students and was always willing to discuss any concerns or questions a student might have. Yes he could be goofy and bring laughter to the classroom on a regular basis, but I always saw that as a positive that helped engage the students and break down some walls. He will be missed.

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