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Brother Dietrich Reinhart

St. John's University,

Brother Dietrich Reinhart, St. John's president and visionary for the school

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune
  • December 29, 2008 - 10:50 PM

Enrollment rose 9 percent under his leadership. The endowment grew to more than $145 million. A capital campaign exceeded its $150 million goal.

But when people talk about Brother Dietrich Reinhart, longtime president of St. John's University, they mention few numbers.

Instead, they describe his incredible vision for the Catholic school in Collegeville, Minn. -- one that will last long after his death.

Reinhart, 59, became St. John's 11th president in 1991 and retired in October after announcing that cancer had spread to his lungs and brain. In a letter to the school's board of regents, he described the situation as "impossible, but not hopeless."

He died Monday morning in the retirement center at St. John's Abbey.

For his inaugural speech in September 1991, he chose a topic "that, surprisingly, is not easy to talk about" -- the identity of a Catholic college. It's a theme he'd delve into, in conversations and speeches, throughout his presidency.

"The task before us is to make explicit the values at the heart of our schools," he said in May. "Powerful values that were pervasive when monks and sisters predominated on our faculties, and have lived on as sources of inspiration as monastic colleagues have become fewer and fewer in number."

Scholars note that some Catholic colleges define themselves by what they're not, rather than by what they are, said Bill Cahoy, dean of St. John's school of theology. They are not Protestant, for example, not secular.

Others are intent on being "wide-open" and in the process lose their identity, he said.

Under Reinhart's leadership, St. John's strove to be certain of its Catholic identity, but hospitable to people of other faiths.

"Not open in spite of being Catholic, but open and inclusive because we're so rooted in Catholicism," Cahoy said. "There's something about that that's very monastic."

Born May 17, 1949, Thomas Edward Reinhart grew up in Minneapolis. He came to St. John's in 1967, studied history and graduated magna cum laude in 1971.

A former St. John's president, the Rev. Hilary Thimmesh, met his future successor as a student in a Shakespeare class that Thimmesh taught. Reinhart had a "boyish excitement" then that never lessened with age, Thimmesh said.

Reinhart professed as a monk of St. John's Abbey in 1972, asking for the name Dietrich in honor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who participated in the resistance movement against Nazism.

Reinhart studied theology but returned to history at Brown University in Providence, R.I., where he received his master's and doctoral degrees. After years as a professor of European history and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at St. John's, Reinhart was elected president -- the first non-ordained monk to hold the spot.

Despite his background, Reinhart was "truly president of the whole of St. John's, not just the college," Cahoy said, pointing to his work to have the 2,700-acre campus designated as an arboretum and the St. John's Bible commissioned. The St. John's Bible is a seven-volume, handwritten, hand-illuminated tome that British calligrapher Donald Jackson began working on in 1999 with an international team of writers and illustrators.

Reinhart worked well with the College of St. Benedict -- "a very artful and demanding process," Cahoy said -- and crafted with the women's college the two schools' first joint strategic plan. He reveled in the planning, colleagues said.

In an interview taped this month, Reinhart expressed gratitude for being part of an institution with service at its core and excitement about the "great place" that St. John's would be in 2025. The completed video, including that interview, had been planned for a tribute in January commemorating his retirement, spokesman Michael Hemmesch said.

During that interview, Reinhart, with a soft voice and a smile, said that the school's "best days are yet to come."

"That's my mantra for St. John's," he said. "Our best days are yet to come."

The monks will receive Reinhart's body at a Jan. 5 service. A mass is scheduled for 3 p.m. Jan. 6 in St. John's Abbey Church. Interment in St. John's Cemetery will follow.

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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