Reverend Joseph L. Lennon has been called the “ubiquitous Father Lennon,” the versatile Father Lennon, and “Mister Providence College.” Joseph Luke Lennon was a native Rhode Islander and maintained a lifelong connection with the Elmhurst section of Providence. He was born on September 21, 1919, the son of John J. Lennon and Marjorie (McCabe) Lennon. He had six brothers, John, James, Frederick, Robert, Ralph, and Bernard, and two sisters, Marjorie, and Mary. He graduated from LaSalle Academy in 1936 and earned his B.A. from Providence College in 1940 without leaving his cherished Elmhurst neighborhood. He majored in the classics at P.C. and enrolled in a pre-ecclesiastical program. Lennon then entered the Dominican Order’s novitiate at St. Rose Priory in Springfield, Kentucky, choosing the religious name Luke to honor the Evangelist who contributed more text to the New Testament than anyone else. Considering his future literary output, Lennon’s choice of Luke as his saintly patron was both appropriate and prophetic.
Postulant Lennon then studied at St. Joseph Priory in Somerset, Ohio, for two years. He earned his bachelor’s and licentiate degrees in sacred theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. On June 5, 1947, he was ordained a priest in Washington. In 1949, Father Lennon joined the Providence College faculty, where he taught education, theology, and philosophy until he retired from regular teaching in 1968 to assume the college’s vice presidency of community affairs. At the outset of his teaching career, he added to his already impressive academic credentials by earning his Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees at the University of Notre Dame in 1949 and 1952, respectively.
Fr. Lennon has been described as ubiquitous because he blanketed the State of Rhode Island with his preaching, teaching, lecturing, and priestly ministrations. He was everywhere, even in retirement, visiting the sick in hospitals and nursing homes, talking to service clubs, counseling the bereaved at wakes and funerals, presiding at weddings, and joining the celebrations of first communion, confirmation, anniversaries, testimonials, and other social events. A twenty-five-year Providence Rotary Club member, Father Lennon was actively engaged in a wide spectrum of humanitarian and community services.
Fr. Lennon was called versatile because of his multi-faceted personality and talents; he did many things, and he did them well. He is the author of three books as well as over five hundred articles, published in the Providence Visitor, the Providence Journal-Bulletin, and such scholarly periodicals as the Thomist, New Scholasticism, Modern Schoolman, Catholic Education Review, Rhode Island Medical Journal, Columbia, Harvard Educational Review, Catholic Educator, Delta Epsilon Signa Bulletin, and other learned journals. Over one hundred of those varied essays are reprinted in this memorial volume, marking the centennial of his birth.
Fr. Lennon was heard on weekly radio talks for four years and lectured for fifteen years on WJAR-TV in a weekly program entitled “Psychology in Everyday Life.” He was often referred to as Rhode Island’s Fulton J. Sheen, a reference to a monsignor (later bishop) who was a very popular national T.V. personality in the 1950s. Lennon also conducted seminars in Europe for the U. S. Air Force Educational Program, was a featured Lenten preacher at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, was the keynote speaker at several annual state educational conferences, and was a popular lecturer along the Eastern seaboard. This Order of Preachers (O.P.) member was unrivaled as an orator.
Fr. Lennon was also a familiar figure in the Rhode Island golfing community. A low-handicap golfer for many years, he was a thirty-year member of the Board of Directors and the Selection Committee of the John Burke Caddy Scholarship Foundation. When he was chairman of the Rhode Island Heart Fund Campaign, Father Lennon cooperated with businessmen William Carroll and Christopher Antonelli to start the Father Lennon Golf Tournament for the Heart Fund Campaign. Since its inception, this charitable athletic enterprise has raised over a half-million dollars.
Fr. Lennon was hailed as a keen competitor on the links. He won the Rhode Island Golf Association Senior Golf championship in 1980 and the Rhode Island State Seniors Golf Association championship in 1981, 1982, and 1984.
The ubiquitous and versatile Father Lennon was also known as “Mister Providence College” because of his involvement in the community as a Dominican priest. He became the most recognizable cleric, professor, and administrator at Providence College. Wherever he went, people said, “That’s the Providence College priest.” His efforts in promoting the name of P.C. and exemplifying in his personal life the ideals it espouses have accounted in no small measure for the favorable reputation Providence College enjoys in the Rhode Island community.
In a professional career dedicated to youth education, Father Lennon always stressed the intellectual and moral virtues that produce well-informed Catholics, staunch family men and women, and socially conscious citizens. Father Lennon joined the faculty at Providence College in 1949, became Dean of Men in 1956, Dean of the College in August 1957, and Vice President for Community Affairs in August 1968.
While serving in an administrative capacity, Father Lennon represented Providence College as Vice President of the American Association of University and College Deans, member of the Association of Vice Presidents for Community Affairs, Vice President of the New England Association of Affirmative Action Officers, and president for three years of Delta Epsilon Sigma, the national honor society for Catholic colleges and universities.
This Dominican dynamo was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters by Bradford Durfee College in 1963 and by the University of Southeastern Massachusetts (now UMass Dartmouth) in 1975. In 1980, Roger Williams University conferred upon him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Camden Avenue Playground in the Smith Hill neighborhood was renamed Father Lennon Park in his honor in 1997 to recognize his 50th anniversary as a priest.
Among Lennon’s local civic services are his thirty-year membership on the Board of Directors of Rhode Island Blue Cross and Blue Shield; member of the Board of Directors and campaign chairman of the Rhode Island Heart Association; member of the Trustees and chairman of the Rhode Island Chapter of the Easter Seal Society; arbitrator for the Rhode Island State Board of Labor; and Chairman of the Scholarship Committee of the Laborers International Union of North America. In addition, Fr. Lennon was a director, trustee, or member of more than two dozen additional organizations, primarily those concerned with health care and disease prevention.
A resume of Father Lennon’s life and work may be found in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who Among American Educators. However, a mere recitation of his accomplishments and civic involvements does not capture his relentless and indefatigable spirit, sharp Irish wit, spellbinding oratory, or the exuberance of his personality.
Father Lennon lost his long and courageous battle with cancer on June 21, 2011, at the age of ninety-one, and he was buried in the Dominican cemetery on the P.C. campus. All his eight siblings predeceased him. Appropriately, he died on that day of the year called the Summer Solstice, when the sun shines the longest, a symbolic tribute to his brilliance and his warmth.
Fr. Lennon was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional information:
Mister Providence College: The Selected Writings of Rev. Joseph L. Lennon, edited by Russell J. DeSimone, RI Publications Society.