LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — For more than 45 years, Julian Davies, OFM, was a fixture at Siena College. His strict grading methods earned him the nickname “D+ Davies.” His kindness and generosity earned him the respect of his students.
Now, just over half a year since he retired from the classroom, Julian is still living at Siena, but now he’s spending more time on the high seas as a cruise ship chaplain — an enjoyable ministry for this friar, who celebrated his 83rd birthday on Jan. 25.
“I first began serving as a cruise chaplain in 2003, long before my retirement. I’ve averaged a cruise a year since then,” said Julian. Now that he’s retired, he hopes to do more.
“I like meeting people, seeing different places, celebrating the daily Masses, and enjoying the good food,” Julian said with a smile. He also enjoys playing bridge, watching movies, and getting some good reading done.
One of his favorite aspects of the cruises are what he calls “small world stories.” For example, on the last trip he went on, the Protestant chaplain had served under Ignatius Smith, OFM, in the U.S. Navy.
It may seem like a small world, but Julian’s influence has spread throughout it, through the young minds he spent nearly half a century teaching while at Siena.
From 1969 to 2016
A native of Utica, N.Y., Julian arrived at Siena in October 1969 and worked as an instructor in the philosophy department. Throughout his 46 years at the college, he’s seen many changes.
From his first class in 1969 to his final one in April 2015, he noticed a change in the student population. The number of resident students increased while the commuter population decreased, and more women and Muslim students now come to the college.
Despite the increased student population, Julian said the school’s friar community has diminished from 38 to 13 people. Some parts of community life have changed — for example, each friar has the use of and responsibility for his own car now, instead of having to share a vehicle with other members of the community. Even with a smaller group, he said the good spirit of fraternity continues to thrive.
Throughout his 46-year career, Julian has made many memories, but an experience in December 2014 stands out to him. He had been hospitalized at the end of the semester, and even as another friar covered his classes, Julian said he was touched by the students’ emails expressing concern for him. Being able to teach a wide variety of people was something he enjoyed.
“Over the years, I have enjoyed having non-traditional students in class and have made friends with several of them,” Julian said. “The late registrar, Barbara Vertefeuille, sat in on one of my classes, as did a grandmother just killing time before picking up her granddaughter from school. Also, some 10 priests now in the diocese have enrolled in my classes when they were preparing for the seminary.”
During his teaching career, Julian received the nickname “D+ Davies” — half a letter grade higher than when he began teaching at the college as “D Davies.”
“It evolved because my name begins with D and I was a strict grader. Those who achieved D’s got D’s,” Julian said. “I like to say it seems my D students were more successful financially than others with B’s and even A’s. When the administration was in doubt about a student’s academic abilities, they enrolled him or her in my class, and if he or she passed it, he or she could make it at Siena. Like Mary Tyler Moore; if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. When D plusses became a possible grade, I gave out some of them, so the nickname changed to ‘D+ Davies.’”
While this might make Julian sound like an imposing figure, fellow friar Daniel Dwyer, OFM, who has lived next door to Julian for many years, is quick to point out his softer side.
“The word that comes to mind when I think of Julian is ‘authentic,’” said Dan. “He lives Franciscan life with dedication, prayerfulness and consistency. Strong in his opinions and beliefs, he is always charitable toward those who differ. When someone needs help, Julian is always willing to be there for that person.”
Dan continued, “Though we are different, at times, in our thoughts, in our idea of the perfect meal, in our politics, and in our knowledge of sports, Julian is one of my role models. His entire life is centered on Christ and the Gospel, and he is truly one of the ‘pure of heart’ called blessed by the Lord.”
Many of Julian’s former students appreciate the example he set for them.
Rev. Rick Lesser of St. Mary’s Church in Ballston Spa, N.Y., took five classes as an adult student with Julian. His first was an introductory philosophy class.
“I was impressed right off the bat with how clear he could make some of the stuff he was talking about so [the students] could understand,” Lesser said. “That’s the mark of a good teacher — when they can explain the material in a way that someone else can understand it.”
Inspiring Vocations, Guiding Success
Lesser’s favorite memory of Julian was a seminar course he took with the friar, and his classmates would debate him on various issues. Each student could say his piece, and Julian would rebutt it. By the time they made it around the room a few times, Julian had “boxed them into a corner so they would have no other philosophical leg to stand on and they’d have to agree with him,” Lesser said. “It was fun for me to watch someone whose mind is that agile having a good time with the material.”
Lesser, a retired veterinarian, said that after his wife passed away during his first class with Julian, he felt the call to the priesthood a few years later, in part, because of Julian’s love for Catholic, theological and philosophical thought. He was ordained at age 61.
“The truth, the beauty and the symmetry of it all was something that was lovely to behold and brought some clarity in life that I thought I could share with other people,” Lesser said. “He had a big impact on my vocation.”
John Hynes, a ’73 graduate of Siena, met Julian in September 1972 when he was taking a metaphysics class. He struggled with the course, but said he liked that it always started with the sign of the cross and a prayer, and that Julian’s guidance helped him pass and eventually to graduate.
“My favorite memory of Fr. Julian is from a pilgrimage to Birmingham, Ala., to the Eternal Word Television Network, founded by Mother Angelica,” Hynes said. “The trip, in May 2005, was assembled by Julian and turned out to be a very spiritual experience for all who participated.”
Siena basketball has also played a big part in Julian’s experience at the college.
“Traveling on a student bus to North Carolina in 1989 for the Stanford NCAA game was memorable, as have been MAAC championships when students stormed the floor, and for me, road trips to Tampa, Fla., Dayton, Ohio, and Spokane, Wash., for Siena NCAA games,” Julian said.
A Valued Mentor
For the last 19 years, Julian worked in the archives section of the library, furnishing materials for student exhibits, or looking up pictures and articles about their relatives. Roughly two thirds of the archival searches he conducted were at the request of administration and faculty members.
Now that his archival duties have freed up his afternoons, the absence of classes in Julian’s schedule has allowed him much more time for travel and to serve as chaplain on a cruise ship. He visited Washington D.C., in September to concelebrate Mass with Pope Francis, and took a 32-day cruise from mid-November to mid-December to Peru, where he visited Christopher Dunn, OFM, and Dac Tran, OFM. In additional, he went to Boston in October, has a three-week cruise planned for May and is available to serve as chaplain as needed for other cruises.
His pastoral duties still include celebrating Mass on Saturday and Sunday — at school once per week, every other Friday at a convent, once per month at a nursing home — and he hears confessions once a month. In his spare time, he still works on The Provincial Annals, of which he has been the editor since the 1980s, and reads, enjoys Siena basketball and is considering joining a bridge club.
Julian keeps in touch with many of his past students, according to an October 2014 article by Mike Clemens, a ‘15 Siena graduate. Clemens said he grew up with Siena College T-shirts in his wardrobe, gifts to his family from Julian.
“The sustained relationship my parents held with this friar is a testament to the kind of lifelong connections that Siena is perfect for, connections I’ve made over the last four years,” Clemens said in the article.
Julian said in the article that he got to a point where he had been teaching so long that children of his former students began showing up in his classes.
He also became an important part of his students’ families. After Hynes attended several Masses celebrated by Julian, Julian married Hynes and his wife, baptized their two sons and administered the Sacrament of Last Rites to Hynes’ parents. He now joins Julian on an annual trip to the Holy Name Friary skilled nursing home in Ringwood, N.J., where he is always astonished at Julian’s sharp memory.
“Personally, I have been inspired by Fr. Julian as I continued my education in graduate school and subsequently an internship course at Siena’s Standish Library where he was the archivist,” Hynes said. “My master’s degree, which I acquired after my children were grown, allowed me gratification and fulfillment of my life — becoming a teacher in a local high school. Had Fr. Julian not been my mentor, this career choice would never have been possible.”
Every time Hynes visits Siena in warmer months, Julian joins him on a walk around campus and a prayer when they pass the Grotto of Our Blessed Mother.
“In the Rule of the Franciscan Order, St. Francis said that when Franciscans travel about the world, they should be gentle, peaceful, and unassuming, courteous and humble, speaking to all as is fitting,” Hynes said. “Anyone who has ever met Fr. Julian recognizes that he is the epitome of this profound statement by St. Francis of Assisi some 800 years ago. Julian has a passion for traveling and has offered Mass in each of the 50 states. There are no signs of his slowing down.”
— Mary Best is a Western New York-based writer and a graduate of St. Bonaventure University.
- “Christmas Break Provides Time for Service, Travel and Other Activities” — Jan. 18, 2012, HNP Today
- “Professor, Friar and Friend: Fr. Julian Davies, OFM, Ph.D., Prepares for Retirement” — Oct. 13, 2014, Siena.edu