He will long be remembered for his classroom wit, as well as for the plates of pasta carbonara he would cook and share with students and alumni during community-building meals at his home.
The ecumenical nature of the July 25 funeral Mass celebrating the life and work of Rev. Joe DeFrancisco, PhD, spoke more profoundly, however, to the longtime St. Ambrose professor of Theology's teaching skills and his openness to the universality of faith.
A 27-year member of the St. Ambrose faculty, Fr. DeFrancisco died July 20. He was 69.
Rev. Thom Hennen '00, campus chaplain, was the lead celebrant, and Rev. Robert "Bud" Grant '80, PhD, a Theology Department colleague of Fr. DeFrancisco for nearly 25 years, delivered the eulogy. Former Chaplain Rev. Charles Adam '82 performed the commendation.
The three priests were joined on the altar by Rabbi Henry Karp, formerly of Temple Emanuel, Davenport; Imam Saad Baig, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center of the Quad Cities, Moline, Ill.; SAU Theology Professor and Anglican priest Rev. Matthew Coomber, PhD; and Pastor Richard Priggie, Lutheran chaplain at Augustana College.
"When I started making phone calls and letting people know about Joe's death, I shouldn't have been but I guess I was a little surprised how deeply Joe was engaged with folks from the Quad Cities faith community," Fr. Grant said.
Chris Mandle '04, '07 – a former Campus Ministry work study student – remembered visits to local mosques and temples were important parts of Fr. DeFrancisco's Comparative Religion class.
"He was very much one to embrace other faiths," said Mandle, who served as a pall bearer along with fellow alumni Paul Foley '01 and Matthew Biancotto '07; Theology Department Professor Keith Soko, PhD; and current SAU students Ahmed Aglhamdi, Mohammed Al-Huwaiki, Abdulah Alsubaie, and Meshari Basaffar.
Aglhamdi, Al-Huwaike, Alsubaie, and Bassafar each came to St. Ambrose from Saudi Arabia in order to study engineering. Three were members of Fr. DeFrancisco's World Religions class, and Fr. Grant said the men were moved to tears when they learned of Fr. DeFransisco's death.
Mandle said he and his wife, Kristen (Blake) '07, '08 MOT had an opposite reaction as they remembered Fr. DeFrancisco's sense of humor. "We were almost in tears remembering some of the odd ball things he would say in class," Mandle said. "Those are memories that will last a lifetime."
Mandle stressed he will remember more than laughter and magnificent carbonara, however. "Much of what I am today is because of my education at Ambrose," he said. "By far, that's what really formed me and particularly classes with Fr. Bud and Fr. Joe. Those guys had the best classes and were most influential on me."
Fr. Grant said Fr. DeFrancisco's influence on students was spurred by a genuine interest in them.
"He desperately cared about his students and the students knew that," he said. "They sensed it and responded to it."
The following are a sampling of comments on a St. University Alumni Facebook post following Fr. DeFrancisco's death:
Mike Winter '16: "Father Joe was an incredible teacher that loved to challenge our minds. Encouraged debate. Very kind and humorous."
Jared Andrew '09: "Fr. Joe and I frequently found ourselves on the topics of the sacraments when we spoke. Primarily, we would often find ourselves talking about the Eucharist. To many across the Christian spectrum, the Eucharist is looked at as a memorial meal meant to remind us of the sacrifice of Christ. Fr Joe though kept to the understanding that St John had of the Eucharist, a love feast. Fr Joe looked at every chance to break bread with others as a chance to celebrate the Eucharist. He let his love shine while dining with others."
Hannah Bridgewater '16: "I had to write a paper for one of his classes. I wrote it in the presence of angels. When I got my paper back he commented about how much he believed that our loved ones are always with us after they've passed. I know he'll always be with us Bees."
Kristin Upah '15, '16 DPT: "A great man, professor, and priest. I will always remember his stories fondly. I remember one about hiding the infant Jesus from his family's nativity set in a meatball! His humor was a hallmark quality, but he also provided such rich spiritual guidance, especially one-on-one or in small group settings."