Lucye Rafferty/The Hoya The Rev. Joseph T. Durkin | 1903-2003

The Rev. Joseph T. Durkin, S.J., 100, Georgetown professor emeritus of history, died of pneumonia May 31 at Georgetown University Hospital.

Durkin’s wake was held in Dahlgren Chapel on June 5, followed by a Mass of Christian Burial at Holy Trinity Church. The burial service was held on June 6 in Dahlgren Chapel with interment in the Jesuit Cemetery at Georgetown.

Just weeks earlier on May 17, his 100th birthday, Durkin was welcomed onstage with a standing ovation at Georgetown’s 2003 undergraduate commencement ceremony. The following day, instead of attending a birthday celebration in his honor, Durkin was hospitalized and underwent surgery after suffering a perforated colon. During the operation, the more than 300 people who had gathered for his birthday Mass and reception instead prayed for him in Dahlgren Chapel. Though the surgery was successful, Durkin succumbed to pneumonia several days later.

Born in Philadelphia in 1903, Fr. Durkin entered the Society of Jesus at age 17 and was ordained a priest in 1933. While in seminary, he received an undergraduate degree in theology from Woodstock College in Maryland and in 1942 he earned a Ph.D. in history from Fordham University. Durkin hoped to serve as a chaplain for the United States Army, but was appointed to teach at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

In a May interview with THE HOYA, the Rev. Brian McDermott, S.J., Rector of the Georgetown Jesuit Community, described Durkin’s calling to the Society of Jesus as answering a call from above. According to McDermott, when people asked Durkin why he became a Jesuit, he would always reply with the response: “My answer is simple. I fell passionately in love with Jesus Christ and I stayed in love with him.”

As a professor at Georgetown from 1944 to 1972, Fr. Durkin played an important role establishing the American Studies program and taught courses in American Constitutional History and American History. Durkin taught and inspired several notable Georgetown alumni, including Maria Shriver (CAS ’77), a news anchor for NBC, Ted Leonsis (CAS ’77), Vice Chairman for America Online, Inc. and former Georgetown University President Leo J. O’Donovan, S.J. (CAS ’56). After retiring from teaching in 1972, Durkin continued to give tutorials and advise students until 1994.

As a teacher, Durkin has been remembered as a vivid and enthusiastic inspiration by both his coworkers and his students. To reiterate issues in American history, Durkin would dramatize famous scenes or act out historic events. To emphasize important points, he would stand on chairs, jump on desks and pound his fists on the table

“I must have been born something of an actor,” Durkin joked in an interview with THE HOYA last May. “I believe that if you’re teaching about a great person, for example John Marshall, you have to be something of an actor. I’d pretend I was John Marshall.”

The author of over 25 books, Fr. Durkin was working on two additional books at the time of his death, one about Jesuit dance and another about rhetoric. In recent years he served as honorary chaplain of Georgetown’s Army ROTC unit, made weekly visits to Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes and ministered to prisoners on a regular basis. In 2001, Durkin was honored at the Pentagon as an Honorary Chaplain Colonel.

“People will miss him, but in a sense they feel he has gone home to God,” Charlotte Daniel, assistant to the Rector said. “They are grateful for his life and inspiration to them.”

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