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Basilian Fathers Continue Legacy at UST

Father MikeIn the first 20 years after founding the University of St. Thomas, the priests of the Congregation of St. Basil were so dedicated to the success of the infant University, that they worked for free. The Basilian Fathers, as they are known, founded the University in 1947, fulfilling their dream of Catholic higher education in Houston after establishing an all-boys high school here in 1900.

Most of the first administrators were Basilian, including the Rev. Vincent J. Guinan as president, and 6 of 8 college presidents have been from the order. The Basilian Fathers are firmly rooted in Catholic education and the University of St. Thomas and they remain intimately involved in its daily operations.

“We founded and established the University, so it’s in our blood,” said the Rev. Mike Buentello, CSB, chaplain and director of Campus Ministry. “We serve as faculty members, we serve on the board of directors. There’s an active Basilian presence on campus.”

As a teaching order, its special charism is education, with the values goodness, discipline and knowledge. “We interact with students on a personal basis and in the classroom.,” Fr. Buentello said. “We care about the whole person, the soul and the intellect. It’s the hallmark of a Basilian education.”

Fr. PilsnerThe Congregation of St. Basil was started by 10 priest-teachers in Annonay, France in 1822 and later branched out into Canada in the mid-19th century. Today, their headquarters are in Toronto, and the Basilians also have communities in other Canadian cities and in New York, Indiana, Michigan, New Mexico, France, Colombia and Mexico.

Fr. Buentello serves as superior of the 10 Basilian priests who live on campus in Donaghue Hall, most of whom are active in University life. The Rev. Joseph Pilsner, a 1988 alumnus, is the dean of Arts and Sciences, after teaching philosophy, theology and honors courses during his 10 years as a faculty member. Other faculty members include the Rev. Ted Baenziger, who studied at the renowned Sorbonne in France and is a professor of French. The Rev. Anthony Giampietro had a career in banking before answering the call to the priesthood, and is now associate professor and chair of the Philosophy Department. The Rev. George Hosko is the inter-library loan librarian and always ready to talk politics.

With years invested in teaching or administering, even as the priests retire, they continue to be engaged with the University. The Rev. Patrick Braden, who served as the fourth University President from 1967-79 and is a retired physics professor, still has a lab in the Department of Chemistry & Physics and teaches a course. He’s known for riding his bicycle around campus.  

The Rev. Robert Crooker joined the theology faculty in 1980, and he served as Vice President of Finance from 1984 to 1986. He maintains an office in the Link-Lee Mansion, continuing to work for the University.   

Fr. GiampietroFr. Janusz Ihnatowicz, though not a Basilian, also lives in Donaghue Hall. He is a professor emeritus of theology and personally knew the priest who turned out to be the first Polish pope. “I wrote for his diocesan paper when he was a bishop,” Fr. Ihnatowicz says. “We used to talk about articles. He was quite an editor.”

Another notable Basilian Father is the Most Rev. J. Michael Miller, archbishop of Vancouver, who was president of the University from 1997 to 2004 before being called to the Vatican. He occasionally visits for lectures and special events.

Fr. Buentello, in his role as chaplain, is actively involved with students in the spiritual dimension and also the social dimension. “We connect with students through the sacraments,” Fr. Buentello said. “The attendance at the 12:30 p.m. Mass has gone up since I’ve been here, as well as the sacrament of reconciliation.”

Fr. Buentello makes it a point to meet students on campus where they are. Several times a semester, he can be found on the Campus Life Mall, donned in boots and a black cowboy hat and preparing a 120-pound pig in his “Holy Smoke” barbecue pit for a student event. Or students can chat about the University sports teams with him while working out in the Jerabeck Center weight room. Fr. Buentello has also been known to join the annual Jello-O games with Residence Life.

“I enjoy the spontaneity of being with young people and the depth of their thoughts as they look at world issues and share with me their insight,” he said. “I’m very much amazed at how well they grasp a lot of things, and I find it enlightening.”

Fr. BradenThe Basilians’ community life revolves around morning and evening prayer, as part of the Divine Office of prayers. The morning begins with meditation and prayer in the priest’s private chapel in the Basilian residence. Breakfast follows with meals served by one of the priests’ longtime cooks, Ruby Justice. “The conversation is light hearted and fun, discussing current events, politics and history,” Fr. Buentello said.

After work on campus, the priests will return to their residence for conversation and dinner. “In most homes there’s a living room,” Fr. Buentello said. “In our house it’s a community room. I look forward to that at 5 o’clock just to be part of that conversation.”

Another longtime cook, Juanita Rogers prepares dinner at 6 p.m., and the priests are punctual for the meal, which includes more lively discussion. “At dinner, Fr. Braden can explain physics to us, so that we mere mortals can understand it,” Fr. Buentello said. “He’ll use the salt shaker and the pepper to start demonstrating, and okay, wow, now I understand.”

Each priest has a modest living space: a small room with a door that opens up to the courtyard. There is also a pool, a gift from benefactors Dominique and John de Menil in the 1960s. “My living room is the outdoors, the courtyard,” Fr. Buentello said. “I like that design.”

As this is their home, the Basilian residence also has spaces dedicated to the work and hobbies of several of the priests. Fr. Braden, who has a doctorate in engineering from University of Texas at Austin, is known for his mechanical skills and tinkers in a workshop off of the courtyard.

Fr. Baenziger grows about 800 orchids, some of them prize-winning, in the courtyard and in a greenhouse tucked behind the priest’s rooms. The priests also care for their dog Nero, a large black Labrador that can take a grown man down with one jump.

Fr. TedToday, the University’s success means that the priests no longer have to work for free, and the Basilian community donates a large portion of salaries back to the University, continuing the many ways in which they support the school.

The Basilian Fathers build on the legacy of previous priests at St. Thomas. Fr. Buentello, an alumnus, said he remembers another era of priests when he studied at UST as an undergraduate in the 1980s.

“Fr. William Young was president,” he said. “Fr. Robert Lamb was still teaching history. I remember Fr. John McManus, Fr. Edward Bader, Fr. Richard Schieffen -- all of these very gifted individuals. We would say our evening prayer, and then I would see them trudging back on campus to their offices. And guess what, I do the same thing. Well, there’s something to be done. We want to do it.”