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Fine Fellows

By Elizabeth Walker

While they do not literally speak in tongues, the four Edward Bennett Williams Fellows at Holy Cross, collectively, are fluent or conversant in more than a dozen languages, including Hindi, Greek, Italian, German, French and Spanish. Also scattered among the impressive academic and professional credentials that fill their individual vitae, they note command or reading knowledge of Urdu, Choctaw, Bengali, Latin and several other languages.

This collection of unusually broad-based language competencies underscores the breadth of the Fellows’ experiences, the depth of their scholarly pursuits, and the diversity of perspectives they bring to their students, particularly in the Catholic studies classes they teach. Given the Williams Fellows’ passion for teaching and glowing scholarly reputations, the extraordinary gifts that created the Williams Fellows Program will have a profound impact on the intricately woven intellectual and spiritual life of students, while helping to position Holy Cross at the cutting edge of Catholic thought.

Three of the four Williams Fellows are about to begin their second year on campus. Assistant professors Lee Oser (English), Mathew Schmalz (religious studies) and John Schmalzbauer (sociology) joined the faculty last fall. The fourth, Jeffrey Bloechl, assistant professor of philosophy, will begin teaching in January after he completes a four-year postdoctoral research appointment in Belgium.

The Edward Bennett Williams Fellows Program was established in 1997 by Agnes Williams to honor her late husband who graduated from Holy Cross in 1941. Edward Bennett Williams had a high profile law career in Washington as one of the finest trial attorneys in the nation. He advised several presidents and represented a litany of famous clients, while also serving on and eventually chairing the Holy Cross Board of Trustees until his death in 1988. Magnanimous gifts from his widow, Agnes, also a former trustee; John Brogan ’66, Jacob Hiatt and other contributors endowed the Williams Fellows Program to recognize the late summa cum laude graduate’s deep commitment to the Holy Cross mission.

In addition to their strong credentials, the professors hired in the inaugural year of the Williams Fellows Program were selected for their commitment to undergraduate teaching and to providing opportunities for the study of Catholic life, as well as for their interdisciplinary orientation toward issues of faith and reason. Their potential both to advance the Catholic and Jesuit nature of the Holy Cross mission and to propel the College to the forefront of Catholic thought was also included in the mix. Fellows remain in the program until they receive tenure or leave Holy Cross.

Human Nature and Religious Phenomena

Fellow Jeffrey Bloechl, currently finishing his work with the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research, will be on campus in October to present a talk, “Access to God in Moral Conscience? Marginal notes on the Renewal of Divine Command Ethics.”

“My current interests are divided between a study of human nature and a study of religious phenomena,” said Bloechl, who grew up in Wisconsin and earned his doctorate in philosophy at K.U. Leuven in Belgium. “At Holy Cross, I look forward to helping my students think through moral and religious issues in a manner which does not shrink from the social and existential context where they must choose their own path into a mature and independent life. Naturally, this calls for a communal effort — between teachers and their students.”

Cross-cultural Catholicism

It took Mathew Schmalz, an assistant professor in the department of religious studies, three degrees, a dozen years and thousands of miles to make the typically one-hour trip from his hometown, Amherst, to Holy Cross. Schmalz earned a Ph.D. in the history of religions from The Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

“I have been primarily concerned with the Catholic experience in the non-Western world,” Schmalz said. “My four years of language training and research in North India focused on Catholic converts from Untouchability and their efforts to articulate a religious and social vision beyond the strictures of caste.”

Schmalz says he is particularly concerned with introducing students to the diversity of Catholic experience throughout the world.

“In my course, ‘Comparative Catholicisms,’ the students examine Catholicism in Africa, India, Europe and the United States, Schmalz said. “Such a comparative discussion asks them to reflect upon how they would characterize Catholicism cross-culturally and whether it is appropriate to speak of Catholicism as a unified religious tradition or as a phenomenon most distinctly shaped by the immediate cultural context. Engaging the issue of Catholicism’s place within world culture is a concern at the heart of the Jesuit tradition.”

Given the Fellows’ passion for teaching and glowing scholarly reputations, the extraordinary gifts that created the Williams Fellows Program will have a profound impact on the intellectual and spiritual life of students, while positioning Holy Cross at the cutting edge of Catholic thought.

Bing Crosby, Cokie Roberts and Catholic Identity

One of John Schmalzbauer’s research interests is the influence of Catholic sensibility on the careers and product of news and entertainment media figures, including directors Martin Scorsese and John Ford, and news personality Cokie Roberts.

“I’m interested in the impact American Catholics have made in higher education and in the national news media,” said Schmalzbauer, who earned his doctorate in sociology at Princeton University. “Most recently, my research has focused on the experiences of people of faith who work in the academic and media elite. I’m writing a book about how 40 prominent Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants relate faith and work in two fields — national journalism and the academic social sciences.”

Schmalzbauer explores similar themes with his students in two courses he teaches that are explicitly tied to Catholic studies. He pairs one course, “Catholicism, Media and Popular Culture,” with an evening film series to provide students with big-screen perspectives on how Catholics have been presented on film since the 1930s. He and his students discuss depictions of Catholics and Catholic influences on writing and direction in a dozen films ranging from the warm-hearted The Bells of St. Mary’s to the gritty Dead Man Walking.

Renewing the Traditions

English Professor Lee Oser is enjoying favorable reviews of his book, T. S. Eliot and American Poetry, while hard at work on another, False Consciousness and the Avant-Garde. Oser has introduced two new courses to the College curriculum under the umbrella of “Poetry and Religion”: “The European Tradition” and “The American Tradition.” In his classes, students compare different religious sensibilities through poetry.

“I think the students have a great thirst for knowledge of their traditions and how those traditions resemble and differ from others,” he said. “What’s exciting in the classroom is discovering the relevance of centuries-old poets, theologians and philosophers. As a Catholic, I recognize that if our young people do not renew our traditions, no one will. Fortunately, the Catholic intellectual tradition is very rich.”

It will remain rich, relevant and continually rediscovered and examined by Edward Bennett Williams Fellows in a variety of disciplines — and by the generations of students who learn in their classrooms. The dynamic cycle of discovery and advancement will continue thanks to the great generosity of Agnes Williams and all who have joined her to honor her late husband’s commitment to the Holy Cross mission through the Edward Bennett Williams Fellows Program.

  Edward Bennett Williams Fellows: (from left) Lee Oser (English), Mathew Schmalz (religious studies) and John Schmalzbauer (sociology). Not pictured, Jeffrey Bloechl (philosophy).

Edward Bennett Williams Fellows: (from left) Lee Oser (English), Mathew Schmalz (religious studies) and John Schmalzbauer (sociology). Not pictured, Jeffrey Bloechl (philosophy).

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