Ronnie Polaneczky: Why did Catholic school fire 'best professor'?

Was Father "Jim" St. George fired by Chestnut Hill College - despite glowing evaluations - because of an angry e-mail?
Was Father "Jim" St. George fired by Chestnut Hill College - despite glowing evaluations - because of an angry e-mail?
Posted: February 24, 2011

YOU NEVER know what you'll find in your inbox.

Last Thursday, a Daily News reader named James Pepper forwarded to me an e-mail he'd sent a few hours earlier to Philadelphia Archdiocese Cardinal Justin Rigali.

The e-mail was about Father Jim St. George, pastor of St. Miriam, a Blue Bell church that I wrote about in my column that day.

St. Miriam is part of the Old Catholic Apostolic Church of America, a denomination in which priests are permitted to be male or female, gay or straight, celibate or married.

Pepper told Rigali that he found it "scandalous" that Father Jim, "an openly gay 'priest' " leading "a reformed Catholic church'" was teaching "theology" courses at Chestnut Hill College. Since Father Jim was "quite plainly a heretic," Pepper wrote, he should not be teaching theology at the school, because it is run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph.

"Having someone like Jim St. George teach theology at a Catholic college perpetrates a fraud on parents who send their daughters and sons to Chestnut Hill for a Catholic education," he wrote.

Before hitting "send" to the cardinal, Pepper copied the e-mail to Sister Carol Jean Vale, the school's president, and Sister Cecelia Cavanaugh, dean of undergraduate studies.

I assumed that the nuns would find Pepper's e-mail inconsequential. Not just because Father Jim has been open about his sexuality and religious denomination in multiple interviews with local media. But because he is clearly loved at Chestnut Hill.

As an adjunct professor, he has taught about a dozen classes over the last two years: studies of the Old Testament, Bible, religion and culture, justice and theology, and world religions.

His student evaluations - he earns grades between 99.8 percent and 100 percent - are the highest among his department's 56 adjuncts. And anyone would be wowed by the letters that students write him at semester's end.

"Your global justice class has changed my life," wrote one woman, who now volunteers with female parolees.

"I thank God for this course," said another. It had increased her "understanding of God's awesome power in my life."

Another trilled, "I would trade any class I have just to be in another one of your classes."

One staffer, who asked for anonymity, proclaimed Father Jim "the best professor" the college has ever had.

No wonder Elaine Green, Chestnut Hill's dean of continuing studies, had assigned Father Jim to teach two more classes, starting next week.

She told him just last week that his contract was on the way, and asked him to sign and return it promptly.

So, Father Jim expected that he'd soon be inspiring another flock of students to be God's hands and feet in the world.

Instead, he got fired.

In a letter from Green, dated Friday, he was informed that his "services are no longer needed" at Chestnut Hill College.

No reason was given. Green didn't return Father Jim's call for an explanation.

He's hurt and bewildered.

"Last Friday I saw Elaine in the office. She even asked about my father," an elderly stroke patient, Father Jim said. "She acted like nothing was wrong."

His firing is also a financial blow, as he would've made $20,000 at Chestnut Hill this year, supplementing his work as a hospital chaplain.

"That's bread off my table," he said.

So I wondered: Was it a coincidence that Father Jim was fired the day after Chestnut Hill bigwigs and the cardinal were sent a nasty e-mail about him?

"I have no comment," said Pepper, who hung up on me. He's an attorney, but I didn't know that until he phoned from the Elliott-Greenleaf law firm, in response to my e-mailed request that he give me a ring.

According to the firm's website, Pepper focuses on whistleblower litigation. He once taught history in the Philadelphia Archdiocese school system.

As for Rigali, Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell said that Pepper's e-mail was forwarded to the office that is the liaison to Catholic colleges. She said: "They saw it but had not done anything with it. No contact was made with Chestnut Hill College."

The college is mum. Eileen Green hung up on me, and President Vale and Dean Cavanaugh didn't return umpteen calls about Father Jim's heave-ho.

Finally, press aide Kathleen Spigelmyer phoned to offer an official "no comment."

Too bad. I wanted to ask if the administration's hot-potato handling of Father Jim was at odds with the mission of Chestnut Hill's new Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. It's touted as a place where "oneness overcomes divisions."

"Oneness," my eye.

You know what frosts me most about this sorry tale?

The nuns' withering silence.

Out of the blue, they fire a good man whose record at the school, by every measure, has been exemplary.

And they haven't the decency to tell him to his face why

they're doing it.

It's cruel treatment from a school that claims to honor those who long "to be faithful to their conscience and to their God, and to serve others justly and compassionately."

"No one will talk to me," says Father Jim, sadly. "I'd like to discuss this, with whoever has an issue with me. But how can I talk to a ghost?"

You can't. They're cowards.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|