Dennis McNally, SJ (1944 - 2020)
New York born and bred, McNally received his B.A. from Fordham University, M.A. from New York University, M.Div from Weston Jesuit School of Theology and Ph.D. from New York University. He studied for a year in Italy, an experience that has infused his work with Renaissance influences. His Jesuit training in the Spiritual Exercises puts the use of imagination in the attempt to connect with God at the very center of his prayer life and his work. He was Saint Joseph’s University’s first full-time studio professor, hired in 1976, and was instrumental in the creation and development of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts where he served as chairman for 22 years. He established the Saint Joseph’s University Gallery, formerly Galleria Poggeschi, and curated over 200 exhibits. Over the past 40 years at Saint Joseph’s University, he served on over 100 committees, for many of which he was chairman. Twenty-eight of his years on campus were spent living among the student body as a faculty resident in the dormitories. Popular among the SJU community, students filled the Chapel of Saint Joseph every Sunday night to be present for McNally’s two-hour long mass. McNally presided over this 10 PM mass for ten consecutive years often bringing his own paintings to reference in his homilies. He has married over 200 graduates, faculty and staff. When not teaching, McNally has created over 500 paintings and sculptures. His work has been exhibited around the world and he has published five books. Additionally, McNally has received numerous awards as an artist and educator. He will receive the 2020 Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching posthumously.
Those wishing to honor Father may contribute to The Corpus Christi Scholarship Fund which was established in 1993 through the generosity of the Jesuit Community and Dennis McNally, S.J.,Ph.D., to assist art students who demonstrate financial need. Address contributions to: Corpus Christi Scholarship Fund, c/o St. Joseph's University, 5600 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19131-1395 or online at giving.sju.edu/mcnally.
Virtual Memorial Service, Sat. May 23rd at 1pm
Inquiries regarding purchasing artwork by Fr. McNally should be directed to Fr. Eugene Geinzer - firstname.lastname@example.org. Proceeds from sales will go to the Corpus Christi scholarship that Fr. McNally established.
Please visit Fr. McNally's website for a extensive display of his paintings, text and documentaries about his life's work. mcnallysj.com
A reflection from former student and friend, Jeff Weyant
I am an SJC/U alum from the class of 1980 (the class of 1980 was the last class to graduate from St.Joseph’s ColIege before it became St Joseph’s University). I majored in Fine Arts and Philosophy and I was resident of Hogan Hall for four years from 1976 to 1980 where Dennis was our RA. I am also a former Jesuit from the Maryland Province. I am happy to be with you today to mourn our loss and celebrate the life of Dennis. I am so glad we are together albeit virtually to lean on each other in spirit.
I’ve known Dennis for almost 45 years and we’ve stayed in close touch and our relationship has changed and grown ebbed and flowed over the years from father/son, mentor/advisor teacher/student to brothers who shared a deep abiding friendship, a love for the beautiful, a love for each other and a love for the one who created it all. Besides my husband I don’t think that there is another person who knew me as well as Dennis or whom I shared my life and my spiritual life with so intimately year upon year. We laughed together and cried together and painted and drew together and looked at art and architecture together and prayed and reflected together and we swam lots of laps together. I will be forever grateful for our brotherhood & friendship, one of my life’s greatest gifts, and I will miss him much.
I’m especially grateful today to be able to share some thoughts and memories with you. I hope my words here today, while from my own personal experience of and relationship with Dennis, somehow speak of and to yours as well and thus may be help bring consolation, as I believe our experiences and relationships with Dennis, while unique, were also similar and shared and universal. That’s one of the things that made Dennis so wonderfully special. He saw and loved us in a similar way that I believe that God sees and loves us. So many of us have had the shared experience of being looked at by Dennis (and yes there were
many Dennis looks!) …. the look I am talking about now is the look that seemed to look into our very beings our souls with those piercing compassionate clear blue loving and yes even impish eyes. I think there were times he knew us better than we knew ourselves. Often he was able to kind-of give us to ourselves, reveal us to ourselves and teach us to love ourselves and to appreciate who we were/are each with our own gifts and all the while to not take ourselves too seriously. His love for each of us had a way of being personal and unique but also communal/shared. Dennis’s love while making us feel special/singled out did not divide us, on the contrary it united us. He had this way of breaking down barriers and helping us form lasting bonds of friendship of brother and sister
hood. All you need do is hear about the stories from so many of us about Dennis and to hear the hundreds of laughter through tears stories of friendships between each other … some of those friendships have lasted for almost a ½ century now.This I think is true Christ-like loving. He modeled pure Jesus-like Christianity for us and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Dennis contributed to making these life-long connections/relationships/friendships happen. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his continual prayers over his life-time for us helped mystically sustain these connections despite years of distance … look how quickly we came together all of us very desirous of wanting to continue to connect or reconnect to share the grief of this loss and to remember and celebrate his life. He said to me just before he died, “I am worried about so many but I can’t really do anything … I pray for God’s blessing on all I can think of … I hope they are listening. He held us all in prayer.
At an early time in our relationship Dennis sent me a song from Les Miserables. It’s the one where the older Jean Valjean sings what is his prayer to God for the young Marius who is sleeping. It’s called, “Bring Him Home.” Dennis told me he played it often praying for me. Over the years I in turn began to play & pray it often for him. There were times we played it together. It’s a prayer-song-supplication Valjean begging for life and rest and peace and joy for Marius who is like a son. I mention this because Dennis could have just as easily sent this fatherly song-prayer-supplication to any one of us. Perhaps he did. In Dennis’s heart we were the sons and daughters he did not have. I know he held each of us in his heart. I know that for certain. So you know what I mean when I say I
feel like I am in a way the son of two fathers my own Dad and Dennis. Dennis helped form me as I suspect he helped form many of you. I don’t mean to overstate that. Of course Dennis was not the only one but for many of us in our younger years we were like clay in his hands at least at some certain significant life points or milestones. He was a clay sculptor after-all.
Then there’s THE look, that without a voice look, the one that so many of us talk about and remember so vividly, the red-faced-steel-eyed look that stopped you dead in your tracks. It was authoritative and admonishing but it would also quickly melt into what was his default way of being which was a fatherly-like peaceful … calm & caring. That one look was at once an angry look for rule breaking disruptive hoodlum behavior but it was also a look to stop and to prevent the possible bad outcome and consequence of youths who only believed in invincibility. Its interesting to think during this time that Dennis was just about 33 … too old to be a peer but too young to really be our Dad. He always balanced that with such deftness and self-possession. It’s an understatement to say that his fatherly mentorship and advice and council full of other-worldly wisdom was far beyond his years.
In addition to being father-like, mentor, advisor & counselor, Dennis was also for many of us our teacher. Just “simply” our art teacher; but, his classes were far from ordinary. Anyone who studied studio art with Dennis whether it was one elective class or the full range & offerings of classes as a Fine Arts major knew from the moment that they stepped into a studio art class that they were in for something very different. If you came to make a pretty still life picture or sculpt a
take-it-home-to-Mom clay shape that ended when you were confronted not with a still life set of a bowl of fruit on a draped cloth with a few empty wine bottles but instead with a real-life-naked man or woman! Sometimes two of them! You certainly came to know quickly that you were at least in higher education and definitely not in Kansas anymore!
Dennis wasn’t about pretty pictures. Dennis was about teaching us how to see and helping us to discover the beautiful. In helping us to find beauty he helped us to find God. He taught us to see God in all things. Ultimately he taught us to find God in ourselves and in each other. He taught us too how to understand and own our own way of seeing, to discover and respect our own style of depicting this or that as a gift from God to be enjoyed for the pleasure it gave both ourselves and others. Dennis’s end game in the classroom, in all that he did, was to push us toward God … AMDG! All for God’s greater glory! … the Jesuit motto and the principle and foundation of the Society of Jesus.
Dennis was friend and brother. When I entered the Society of Jesus he said to me, “good, now my son will be my brother.” And so our relationship changed and grew as I am sure yours did too. He made himself even more vunerable. He shared more of his hopes and fears. He was VERY upset by the pandemic and in some of our exchanges before he died he questioned whether or not he sounded hopeful. God had fallen silent he said and he hoped They were listening. He concluded that he was hopeful, but not cheerful. He said, “I have faith … that’s a plus. I know they love us more than we know. How blessed we are that we are not alone.” I wanted to hug him. As time went on he let you comfort and care for him the way he comforted and cared for you/us. He let us love him.
Dennis was painter-priest, mystic-fully-human-holy man. Every painting and sculpture were a passionate fully sensate visceral prayer-process … a journey to union with Them. His creation process was a continual listening to God and then a putting down not in words or writing but in images what he was hearing God say to him personally and what he believed God was wanting him to tell us. So his paintings are sacred space (the title by the way of his Ph.D paper and
eventually published book) and prophetic and they are “points of prayer” inspirational launch pads into our interior selves and into the beauty & oneness of God. Dennis’s pronoun for God was the Trinitarian “THEY”. His body of work is a great gift and legacy that he leaves us as Dennis left nothing on the field so to speak … each painting is a pouring out of himself onto canvas or into clay. They are not so much to be looked at but contemplated. When you do pray them you will find Dennis human, Dennis eternal, Dennis immortal, Saint Dennis. You will find yourself. Ultimately you will find Them/God. This life-time corpus of paintings and drawings and sculpture is sacramental gift beyond measure. How blessed to have this enormous part of himself left behind for us!
Over everything, the tie that binds, the thread that weaves together all of what Dennis was for us is the ordained sacramental … Dennis was OUR Jesuit-priest. We were his parish. As one of the Hogan guys said, He was our good shepherd and we were the sheep of his flock. Rev./Fr Dennis BLESSED us. Dennis directed our spirits and helped us discern the good from the evil. He heard our confessions and channeled God’s mercy. He offered Mass and officiated the consecration of bread and wine into Eucharist and so helped feed us. His homilies too fed us and challenged us and increased our faith. He married many of us. He baptized many of our children and now our children’s children. He’s buried several of us. It is in and through all of these priestly sacremental life events that he not only remaind our friend and brother, he became chosen family. He lives on in each of us and in the generations of family and friends and collegues to come, as we, men and women for others continue to hold each other up and support and care for each other.
What can we say in the face of this extraordinary man’s life that has so enriched ours?! Thank you seems inadequate but it’s really all there is and I believe it is enough. So, “thank you Dennis!” And “thank you God!”
If you’d so indulge me, I’d like to now give Dennis back the prayer-song he gave me so many years ago, the one again that he could have given any one of you, and if I can be so bold as to pray it on all of our behalfs, “God on high, hear our prayer. In our need you have always been there. You can take you can give, let Dennis rest, heaven blessed, let him live! Give him peace! Give him joy! He is young again … he is YOUR boy. Bring him home! Bring him home! Bring him …home!”