When Saint Leo’s Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies (CCJS) was established more than two decades ago, its mission was to provide interfaith education and dialogue for thousands of students and members of the Tampa Bay area community. Today, with the creation of the Maureen and Douglas Cohn Visiting Chair in Jewish Thought, the center is providing more opportunities to engage in dialogue with better resources and information, making CCJS the only academic center of its kind in the Southeast.
Made possible by the generosity of Maureen and Douglas Cohn in December 2021, the new chair enables CCJS to feature a Jewish scholarly voice at the center of its vision, mission, and educational programs. A unifying force in their work with the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation, the Cohns are longtime friends of CCJS and have supported Saint Leo on this front since the early 2000s.
“We are excited to collaborate with the university and the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies to help increase engagement between the Jewish and Catholic faith in our community,” Maureen Cohn said.
“By establishing a full-time faculty position that also works closely with local religious leaders, we can create more opportunities for people of all faiths to talk directly to a scholar for generations to come,” Douglas Cohn continued.
The Cohn Visiting Chair is devoted to scholarly research and teaching and allows students, faculty, and members of the community to significantly deepen their understanding of Judaism by having direct and regular access to a scholar of Jewish thought.
The west coast of Florida is home to many Catholics as well as Jews. One of the most unique aspects of the Cohn Visiting Chair is that it puts a scholar of Jewish thought and culture into regular conversation with individuals outside of the college classroom—with everyday people, including members of other religions. In addition to teaching undergraduate students, the visiting scholar will provide a series of spring educational workshops for the Tampa-area community.
“The center is unique in the way our faculty teach in the community, as well as in the classroom,” said Dr. Matthew Tapie, CCJS director. “We are building bridges of understanding that lead to a more just and peaceful society.”
Because the position is a visiting chair, the scholar will teach and research at CCJS and in the community for up to three years before another scholar takes the helm to carry out the center’s mission, building mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation among people of goodwill.
Saint Leo welcomed the Reverend Randall Meissen as university chaplain in October 2020, and he now leads the University Ministry team. Meissen is a member of the religious order, the Legion of Christ, and was ordained as a priest in 2014. Prior to coming to Saint Leo, he served as sacramental associate at Our Savior Parish and the University of Southern California Caruso Catholic Center in Los Angeles. He also is a doctoral candidate in the history department of USC.
LEARN ABOUT FATHER RANDALL IN 15 QUESTIONS
Describe yourself in three words: Inquisitive, analytic, compassionate
Where did you grow up and what makes it special to you? I grew up on a small farm just outside of Salisbury, MO. The farm was a wonderful place to grow up, surrounded by the outdoors and open countryside. A good part of my extended family is in the area, so I will always treasure memories of a childhood surrounded by faith and family.
What was your first job? There was never a shortage of chores to be done on the farm. However, the first job I remember getting paid for was cutting weeds out of my uncle’s soybean field.
When did you know that the priesthood was your future? The call to the priesthood was an unexpected turn of events in my life. I went to college as a biology major and was extremely focused on getting into medical school as a career goal. However, after being involved in a car accident that took the life of one of my friends, I started to re-examine the big questions in life and turned intensely to prayer. Amid that process of deepening in my faith and becoming more involved with student ministry on campus, I experienced a call to the priesthood and decided to enter the seminary with the Legionaries of Christ after graduating from college.
Who is your favorite saint and why? My favorite saint has to be John Paul II. He left a profound impact on the modern papacy and brought a new enthusiasm of spreading the gospel to all corners of the world. The so-called “John Paul II generation” of Catholics is a fruit of his outreach to young people at World Youth Days and has been a source of great innovation and revitalization in the church in my lifetime.
What is your favorite Bible verse/Scripture? One of my favorite passages is the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11–32. That parable is powerful in how it describes the capacious mercy of God who, like a good father, hastens to embrace a lost child upon his return home.
Where is the most interesting place you have ever been? I once had the chance to tour the papal gardens around Castel Gandolfo (the traditional summer retreat for the popes) with the Vatican’s top Latin translator as a guide.
What excites you the most about Saint Leo University? Our students are the most exciting part! I love that our community is amazingly diverse. We must have a record for the most students from small island nations. Sometimes it stretches my geographic knowledge to the limit; I had never met anyone from Cabo Verde or from the Commonwealth of Dominica before coming to Saint Leo.
How would you describe your homily style? You probably should ask students for a more objective opinion! In preparing homilies, I start by praying over the day’s readings and asking for light from the Holy Spirit. I try to keep things lively with stories and examples connecting the Bible message to students’ lives.
Is there a myth about priests that you would like to dispel? I hope I can dispel the myth that priests are always boring! As the adage goes, “a sad saint is a bad saint,” and I see priesthood as a divinely inspired quest for sanctity…not a boring endeavor.
What do you think our Catholic Identity calls us to do? Catholic universities are animated by a Christian anthropology that affirms each person as having a transcendent destiny and a worldview that sees continuity in truth, goodness, and beauty. This goes beyond merely fostering a higher education environment where faith reflection and practice are welcomed alongside rigorous academic study.
Do you have any hobbies and what are they? In my free time, I enjoy hiking, running, Ultimate Frisbee, kayaking, and exploring parks and museums.
What is your favorite song, artist, TV show, podcast, and/or book? I love [Giovanni Battista] Pergolesi’s hauntingly beautiful setting of the Stabat Mater, a hymn addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary as she stood at the foot of the cross. The fact Pergolesi composed it in his final days of life makes it even more moving.
What are you enjoying about Saint Leo and Florida? I am amazed by the pristine natural beauty of this area of Florida. Our lakeside campus is a treasure, and I have also enjoyed taking day trips to some of the nearby crystal-clear, spring-fed rivers and to Florida’s beaches. Winter in Florida is hard to beat!
What is something that most people do not know about you? Sometimes people are surprised that I know a lot about insects. During high school and college, I had my own small business that sold insect collections to biology teachers, and I trapped and collected most of the insects myself. I paid for my first car in college out of the profits from selling insects. Dead grasshoppers for a set of wheels was a great trade!
On July 29, Saint Leo University signed an agreement to merge with Marymount California University, following a vote from the university’s board of trustees.
Pending regulatory and accreditation approvals, this agreement will unite the two Catholic, values-based institutions together under the Saint Leo University name, helping to provide students everywhere with a quality education. Marymount California University is in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA, nearly 2,500 miles from University Campus.
“There is value that comes from two universities working together to create something powerful for our students,” University President Jeffrey Senese said. “Working with Marymount, Saint Leo University looks forward to making an even more meaningful impact on Catholic higher education from coast to coast.”
This first merger for Saint Leo is expected to offer many benefits for both institutions, providing students with more degree program options and internship opportunities, around-the-clock support for students studying online, and more university location options to consider attending, among other benefits.
Senese said Marymount California and the area surrounding it are a good fit for Saint Leo, as it serves first-generation college students, Catholics, Hispanics, and military students.
The university is in the process of gaining regulatory approvals to move forward with merging Marymount into Saint Leo as one institution. While the two institutions work to develop these plans, an immediate next step will be to work to allow new students at Marymount an immediate opportunity to consider additional degree programs.
As two universities rooted in the Catholic tradition, focused on the future for students, this newly unified community will offer an innovative, values-based learning environment inspired by individuals in pursuit of a greater purpose.
Deacon Charles Onyeneke ’17 has the kind of smile that you can hear.
You can easily visualize his beaming face and cheerful eyes. His laughter decorates conversation like confetti at a party and unmistakably emanates from a place of joy. For Onyeneke, his joy is in attending to God’s calling.
Onyeneke, who graduated from Saint Leo with a Master of Arts degree in theology in 2017, began his journey to Catholic religious life at his childhood home in Imo State, Nigeria. He recalled his interest began when he was an 8-year-old altar server.
“I fell in love with what priests do in the Eucharistic celebration, changing wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ,” Onyeneke said.
The youngest in a Catholic family of eight children (four sisters and three brothers), Onyeneke said he learned from his parents how the presence of Christ in the Eucharist can help resolve life’s difficulties.
Today, that zeal Onyeneke felt for the celebration of the Eucharist—and to serve people—has translated into years of study that will culminate in his ordination as a priest in the U.S. Catholic Church later this year.
“The Eucharist is the center of my life,” Onyeneke said.
It is no small coincidence then, that Onyeneke was assigned to Corpus Christi Church in the small town of Round Lake, NY, to complete his pastoral year for seminary. The church’s website states its mission as one clearly aligned with Onyeneke’s own: becoming the body of Christ by worshiping God and serving others.
“He jumped right in without hesitation—into a church with a large congregation and a lot of moving parts,” said Reverend Rick Lesser, pastor of Corpus Christi Church.
“I love to watch our community when Deacon Charles preaches,” Lesser said. “They become so engaged and are smiling back. He has this ability to elicit in others the joy he feels.”
Onyeneke quickly embraced the entire community, conducting half of the church’s daily Masses and a quarter of the weekend liturgies, developing adult education programs, and becoming involved in children’s faith formation. He also began regular visits to members of the congregation, many of whom are homebound.
Lesser also was impressed with the way Onyeneke adapted to the Catholic Church in America. “He was proactive about learning the difference between the American and Nigerian Catholic Churches,” Lesser said. “And did so with incredibly good grace.”
Onyeneke also has helped to integrate immigrants within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany (NY). His own experience provides a unique perspective on the challenges they face.
He is completing his studies for the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, an advanced degree with an emphasis on moral theology at Saint Mary’s Seminary & University in Baltimore, MD. He wrote, and will soon defend, his thesis on undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“Catholic social teaching says that laws should not deny any person human dignity and respect,” Onyeneke said. “Immigrants need a listening ear. Listen to their story, so they can integrate.”
For Onyeneke, as a graduate student living for the first time in the United States, that listening ear belonged to Dr. Randall “Woody” Woodard, chair of graduate studies in theology and religion at Saint Leo University. Realizing that Onyeneke knew little American English and few people but the Benedictine Monks of Saint Leo Abbey with whom he stayed, Woodard went out of his way to welcome Onyeneke into the Saint Leo University fold.
“Woody was there for me,” Onyeneke said. “I was lonely and had little money, but Woody made sure I had food and asked me to join him at soccer games—sometimes to watch the Lions, and sometimes to play a match.”
Perhaps more important, Onyeneke says, “We shared stories so that we learned about each other.”
He credits Woodard with helping him “fall in love with the Saint Leo community.” Onyeneke became very involved on campus, writing stories for The Lions’ Pride student newspaper and joining in student activities. He has especially fond memories of the Intercultural Student Association’s dinner, for which he cooked fufu, a West-Central African dish.
At the same time, Onyeneke says that immigrants have responsibility for their success in their adopted home country. Lesser said, “He has a very wise understanding of American culture and understands from his own experience the need for immigrants to adapt to American culture.”
Onyeneke offers this advice to those new to the United States: “Have patience, seek advice, and accept cultural differences. Rather than trying to hold onto your own culture, be open to American culture.”
Soon Onyeneke will complete his year at Corpus Christi Church. He is looking forward to his ordination and future assignment in the Diocese of Albany, NY. Lesser, with whom Onyeneke has roomed during his time at the church, said Onyeneke wakes with the Eucharist at the center of his life, so cheerful that he sings around the residence in the early mornings.
It’s a joyful noise, reflecting Onyeneke’s love for God and serving people, which Lesser said he wishes he could bottle. “He’s going to be a gift to the people of God no matter where he goes.”
When Saint Leo University launched its Doctor of Business Administration degree program in 2013, it hoped to lure the nation’s best and brightest. That aspiration has been realized with highly intelligent and experienced students joining the first two cohorts. Patrick Plummer is one fine example.
Plummer has already enjoyed a successful career, having started two health care data businesses and subsequently selling them. In his mind, he was always guided to do what was best for medical patients, and he believes that his companies attained that goal. Along the way, he also collaborated with Virginia Commonwealth University professors on a health care strategy textbook, a project that made him begin thinking about giving back to the next generation.
Now age 50, this Mechanicsburg, PA, native decided that he wanted to go back to school and become a professor, so he began looking for just the right program. Over the last several years, he had researched as many as 30 doctoral programs, but none was exactly what he wanted. Then in January 2014, he did another Google search and found Saint Leo. Within 45 minutes of perusing the website, he knew this was the place he wanted to be.
A devout Catholic, Plummer was drawn to Saint Leo’s Catholic identity and Benedictine tradition. He even commented, “If I could be a married priest, I would.” He believes that approaching matters from a Catholic basis always makes things clearer for him.
Having sold that second business in December 2013, Plummer and his wife wanted to have a meaningful family trip for themselves and their two daughters, ages 13 and 14. So in August 2014, they traveled to Italy, where they spent two and a half weeks touring the Vatican and the surrounding sites. They enjoyed seeing the pope give his weekly address, amidst tens of thousands of people. “When Papa Franco appeared,” Plummer remembered, “the crowd roared, like someone had scored a touchdown.” Even with a sudden downpour, no one’s spirit was dampened. They also toured the Sistine Chapel and St. Mark’s Cathedral, and viewed The Last Supper. His daughters agreed: “the best trip ever.”
The trip involved so much history—so much emphasis on God, religion, and faith—that Plummer returned, even more determined to make a difference for young people.“I want students to know that you don’t have to be a schmuck to succeed in business,” he explained. “Sometimes it is hard to absorb that message in corporate America. It is easy to take the wrong path if that’s what you think you have to do.”
Plummer is currently on his way to his dream of being a professor, and his goal is to complete his dissertation by December 2016. For now, he is enjoying his time as a student.
“It is a lot more work than I expected,” he said with a laugh. “There is so much reading, and writing, writing, writing. But having the cohort has been a big surprise. I am amazed at how close we have all become in such a short period of time.”