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Friar Who Donated Body to Science to Be Honored by Med Students

Fr. Matthew Conlin

VALHALLA, N.Y. — Sometimes a person’s generous service continues past his death. This is the case with the late Matthew Conlin, OFM, who donated his body to science three years ago. Next month, he will be honored by the medical students who have used his body to study anatomy.

Matthew — who devoted much of his life to education — will be among the deceased recognized on May 8 at New York Medical College’s 27th annual Convocation of Thanks. This memorial service is held each spring to show appreciation to the family members of those whose bodies were bequeathed to the anatomy program and used for research during the previous academic year. Representing Matthew’s family will be several friars.

The former Siena College president and professor, who died in April 2012 at age 92, is the first friar to donate his body to the Body Bequeathal Program of NYMC, directed by Matthew Pravetz, OFM, associate professor of cell biology and anatomy.

“Matt Conlin was generous to give his body to science,” said Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, who in 2012, as Siena’s president, wrote a letter to the community about Matt Conlin.

“His skills as a teacher were legendary,” Kevin added. “Many of his students tell stories of his profound influence in their professional and personal lives.”

Siena College presidents

Left to right: Siena College presidents William McConville (1989-96), Kevin Mackin (1996-2007), Kevin Mullen (2007-14), Matthew Conlin (1970-76) and Hugh Hines (1976-89). (Photo courtesy of Siena)

Ceremony of Gratitude
The convocation is “a beautiful ceremony,” said Matthew Pravetz. “It is not religious, but it is very meaningful.”

The memorial event is the students’ opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about those people whose generosity has been so important to their learning about the healing profession, as well as the impact it will have on their countless future patients, according to a NYMC letter sent to Kevin.

A 1993 article published in The New York Times described the convocation as follows: “It had all the trappings of a traditional memorial service. There were remembrances of the departed, prayers, floral arrangements and even organ music.”

Each year, students use a variety of ways to show their appreciation to the families of those who donated their bodies. The convocation includes dance, poetry, art, musical performances of various types — singing and instrumental — and sometimes prayer. At the memorial service’s conclusion, a tree is planted.

“The real event is outside, after the convocation, because the guests mingle with the students,” said Matthew. “It is wonderful to hear students talk with so much respect and gratitude about the people who have enabled them to learn.”

Matthew Pravetz

Matthew Pravetz

Dignity of Life
Each year, close to 50 bodies are used for teaching NYMC students. Roughly 200 first-year medical students are involved in the convocation. The event, Matthew said, is “like a big celebration because the students feel most satisfied with their new level of professionalism over the past year.”

At next month’s event, Matthew said, he will welcome visitors and then will turn over the program to the participating students.

Throughout the year, all of the students study, in one way or another, all of the bodies, said Matthew. He spends much time with the students especially during the first half of the academic year.

“I am with them for four to six hours each day from August to November,” he said. “Each day is different and every day, I feel enthused.”

To the students, these bodies are not just specimens, said Matthew, who holds a New York State license to operate a non-transplantable anatomic tissue bank. “The students consider these donors their first patients. The year of study is a profound experience for the students and for the instructors, too. We discuss and emphasize the dignity of life and of each person we study.

“In addition to dissections, the anatomy course includes discussions in which students reflect on their own feelings about death, dying and mortality.” he added. “There’s a big reflective aspect to what and how they learn.”

Impact of Program
The concept of a convocation of thanks, begun in 1987 by Matthew, is now embraced by many other medical schools.

“After the event was covered by The New York Times, the custom caught on and it is now done by every medical school in the United States and Canada and in many schools around the world,” he said. Matthew, who lives at Holy Name of Jesus Friary on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has been on the New York Medical College staff since the early 1980s.

Matthew Conlin had heard about the body donation program “through the grapevine,” Matthew Pravetz said, and called the friar-doctor to request that, upon his death, his body be donated for research.

On May 11, the cremains of Matthew Conlin will be taken to Siena by Provincial Secretary Michael Harlan, OFM, who lived with Matthew Conlin for many years. Holy Name Province friars are invited to the 4 p.m. graveside prayer service at St. Agnes Cemetery, Menands, N.Y. Following the service, visiting friars will join the community at St. Bernardine of Siena Friary in Loudonville for dinner.

The friars are looking forward to welcoming Matthew home, said Mark Reamer, OFM, guardian. “We look forward to welcoming our brother to his final resting place near his beloved Siena, where he was a leader, a scholar, a friend and a brother to so many in the community.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.