Catholic Studies founder in hospice care after leukemia diagnosis

UPDATE: Don Briel died Thursday, Feb. 15 after a month-long battle with leukemia.

Don Briel, the founder of the Catholic Studies program at the St. Thomas, is in hospice care after being diagnosed with an untreatable form of leukemia on Friday, Jan. 19.

A wave of shock rippled internationally as Briel’s friends, family and admirers heard the news.

“I think immediately when you hear that someone you know and you care for and you’ve had a good relationship with is dying, there is a bit of sadness in that,” said Jonathan Liedl, one of Briel’s former students.

“To find out that you only have a month or two to live…Dr. Briel is probably one of the best prepared people to do it.”

A week after his diagnosis, on Jan. 28, 2018, Briel turned 71. His friend and fellow professor Michael Naughton said Jan. 28 is fitting as Briel’s birthday because it is also the feast day of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Roman Catholic Church. Aquinas is a saint who inspired Briel’s faith and education, and the namesake of the university that Briel nurtured for more than three decades.

“There’s very few people like Dr. Briel,” Naughton said, describing Briel as a confident and dedicated leader with administrative genius and a deep understanding of a faith-based life and education.

“All of those things create a kind of stature of somebody,” Naughton said. “It’s rare to get all those things in one person.”

Colleagues and former students noted Briel’s intelligence and explained that his breadth of intellectual prowess [is] inspiring and captivating, without seeming demeaning.

“I’m sure if you did an IQ test, he’d be off the charts,” Naughton said. “He [is] one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met.”

Beyond being a professor, Naughton explained that Briel had a vision for the development of a program at St. Thomas that connected the Catholic university to the Catholic Church in more than a religious designation. Briel’s vision for the Catholic Studies program was to allow students to explore the intellectual tradition of Catholicism, simultaneously deepening their academic knowledge and spirituality. His vision became a reality when he founded the program in 1993.

“The vision he had and the life that flowed through this program has impacted probably thousands upon thousands of people,” said Liedl, a graduate student in his first year at the Saint Paul Seminary. “Everyone who’s gone through here, everyone who knows someone who’s gone through here, but then there are Catholic Studies programs around the country that were inspired by this one.”

The Catholic Studies program at St. Thomas was the first of its kind. The program’s faculty began offering classes in 1995, and developed a center in 1996 and a corresponding department in 2001. As the Catholic Studies community at St. Thomas grew, it became apparent that Briel’s vision was vaster than an academic program. The positive atmosphere of growth in the Catholic Studies community at St. Thomas drew Liedl to St. Thomas’ graduate seminary program.

“The reality is, Catholic Studies wouldn’t exist or it wouldn’t exist in the way that it is without him,” Liedl said. “There were certainly other people involved, but I think it was really his vision and his work that made the program what it is today.”

Similar programs sprouted around the country after Briel cultivated St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program.

“I think it just goes to show that something is really remarkable about a human being when they make such an impact … that programs around the country and around the world spurt up because they recognize that something is good in this program,” senior Zach Galante said.
Galante, an undergraduate seminary student, met Briel during his first year at St. Thomas through the Catholic organization Saint Paul’s Outreach, and he grew closer with Briel while studying abroad spring 2017, when he attended Briel’s class at the Angelicum in Rome.

St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program remains the largest program internationally.

“Really there are people all over the world that owe him a debt of gratitude for all that he’s done,” former student Caitlin Riordan said.

Riordan, a Catholic Studies and Theology double major who graduated from St. Thomas in 2007, is still influenced by her experiences and growth in two of Briel’s classes.

“Going to St. Thomas and going through that program just opened my eyes on how to view the world with a Catholic perspective and really just a human perspective of growing into a better person,” Riordan said. “As a whole, Catholic Studies definitely changed the way I think and view everything.”

Although Briel was the head of the Catholic Studies department until his retirement from St. Thomas in August 2014, his students were his highest priority.

“I think for Dr. Briel, teaching wasn’t just a career, it wasn’t just a function, but it was really a vocation, a calling,” Liedl said. “He didn’t just view them as names on a list and people to get out the door, but as real people he could enter into relationship with.”

Naughton emphasized that Briel’s deep relationships with students extended beyond traditional academic relationships. He cared for his students as individuals and equals, investing in their education, personal well-being and spiritual development.

“His door was always open, and students were often quite taken by him,” Naughton explained. “There was a deep sense of indebtedness to him–a deep sense that his personhood influenced them in very profound ways.”

Briel’s impact on students showed in their gratitude toward him, and their admiration for him. Students like Liedl, Galante and Riordan consider Briel not just a former professor, but a friend.

“That was deeply humbling for me because he was a man who was incredibly accomplished,” Liedl said. “Just the fact that he cared enough about me and other students to have that kind of personal relationship with us I think was really impactful.”

As gratitude for Briel’s contributions and legacy pours in via social media, Briel’s door remains open. Liedl and Galante visited Briel on separate occasions after his diagnosis, still learning from their friend and role model.

Liedl visited Briel after hearing of the diagnosis and said that “even with death on the doorstep he exuded a kind of peace and trust in the Lord that is an incredible witness to the rest of us,” Liedl said. “So even in his last weeks here on Earth, he’s still teaching. Not only through his words, but just through his life; really teaching people the beauty of the faith.”

Briel received a tribute on the Catholic media site First Things, and St. Thomas celebrated Mass on Feb. 1 in honor of him and his impact at the university.

“His willingness to share his thoughts really conveyed that for a Christian … death – it doesn’t need to be this thing that we shun and hide away from – there’s certainly sorrow in it, but it also can lead us into greater joy,” Liedl said. “He talked about it and he also radiated it.”

Natalie Hall can be reached at hall0224@stthomas.edu.

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