Rev. Bartley MacPhaidin, 79; Shaped Stonehill College’s Campus

April 8, 2016

Multilingual since his childhood in an Irish village, the Rev. Bartley MacPhaidin became fluent in several languages, but some were still beyond his grasp when he became president of Stonehill College in 1978.

“I was not prepared and would have benefited from a mentor to help me learn the languages of high finance and educational public policy,” he told the college’s alumni magazine in 1998.

He turned out to be a quick study in monetary dialects. His fund-raising helped the campus add more than 20 buildings during his 22-year tenure, the longest of any Stonehill president. He led the school’s first capital campaign, exceeding its goal by $3 million, and his legacy includes residence halls, a sports complex, a science center, the Martin Institute for Law and Society, and a library that bears his name.

“He had a great eye for where to place buildings, so the college developed a campus that is extraordinarily beautiful,” Rev. John Denning, Stonehill’s current president, said of Rev. MacPhaidin. “His impact on the college was monumental.”

Rev. MacPhaidin, whose wit, storytelling, and congenial presence defined Stonehill’s identity as much as the campus he helped shape, died of congestive heart failure March 17 in Holy Cross House on the grounds of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He was 79.

“He used his Irish charm and his wit and his intellect to attract people to Stonehill who could be helpful in a number of ways,” said Francis X. Dillon, Stonehill’s vice president for advancement. “We were sort of a small, sleepy school until he became president. He really put Stonehill on the map.”

Richard Finnegan, a professor emeritus who formerly chaired Stonehill’s political science department, told the Globe when Rev. MacPhaidin marked 20 years as president that “to be terribly blunt about it, in fund-raising, the college had operated in a very modest way before Bartley’s presidency. He catapulted it into the big leagues.”

Founded in 1948 by Congregation of the Holy Cross, which Rev. MacPhaidin would later join, Stonehill College had only been in existence six years when he arrived as an 18-year-old from Ireland. He taught theology and religious studies before becoming the school’s eighth president. “I’ve gone from teaching Kierkegaard and Aquinas to specializing in capital accumulation, endowments, and bond issues,” Rev. MacPhaidin told the Irish Independent in 1985.

Still, he was philosophical about his fund-raising duties. “I always have a strong sense that I’m not asking for myself,” he told the Globe in 1998. “It makes it not only bearable but challenging.”

To some who saw Rev. MacPhaidin work a room of business executives and would-be donors, however, the task often didn’t look that challenging. Dillon recalled that he “would hear time after time, ‘How could you say no to Father MacPhaidin?’ ”

The sixth of seven children, Bartley MacPhaidin was born in a village in County Donegal. His parents, James McFadden and the former Margaret Duggan, ran a small store, but the family was so large “that little shop was not enough to sustain us,” said Rev. MacPhaidin’s younger brother, Tadhg, who lives in Dublin. Their father spent a few months every year in Scotland in a variety of manual labor jobs to supplement the family’s income.

Years later, when it was time to sign his doctoral dissertation, Rev. MacPhaidin changed the spelling of his last name to a more traditional Irish version. Doing so recognized “the informative influences on my intellectual creativity” that hearkened back to his youth, he told the Hartford Courant in 1996.

As a boy, Rev. MacPhaidin “always was quiet. He never caused any problems for his parents. He would help his mum with the cooking,” his brother said. Young Bartley also was enchanted with movies, watching them in local parish halls and reading about film stars. He initially intended to travel to Hollywood, before the stop at Stonehill along the way became a permanent detour.

A strong student, Rev. MacPhaidin grew up speaking Irish Gaelic in conversation, and he also learned English, Latin, and other languages, with Italian always a favorite. “He had a gift for languages and that manifested itself early on,” said his brother, who added that Rev. MacPhaidin’s affinity for words carried over into letter-writing. His letters home were always left out for all to read.

‘We were sort of a small, sleepy school until he became president. He really put Stonehill on the map.’

Francis X. Dillon, 

“He was really able to portray his life to us,” his brother said. “You felt you were almost there, he was so descriptive.”

Rev. MacPhaidin attended Colaiste Einde secondary school in Galway before going to Stonehill, from which he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy in 1959. He also studied at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, receiving a licentiate in theology in 1963 and a doctorate in theology in 1978.

Rev. MacPhaidin was ordained in 1963 and taught at Stonehill for a dozen years before being named president. “Oh my goodness, he was so entertaining and so brilliant,” said Dillon, who had Rev. MacPhaidin as a professor before returning to work at Stonehill. “He had this ability to turn everything into a conversation. Conversation was very important to him, and that’s why he was such a great teacher.”

While he was Stonehill’s president, Rev. MacPhaidin served on boards for institutions including the American Ireland Fund, Brockton Hospital, and the Brockton Art Museum, and he received honorary degrees from schools including New England School of Law and Bridgewater State College.

In 2002, he received the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, or papal cross, from the Vatican. “It is an honor that humbles me in many ways,” he told the Brockton Enterprise. “Since being a young adult, I have wanted to serve the church, and now to have my contributions recognized at the papal level, it is more than I ever expected.”

A funeral Mass has been said for Rev. MacPhaidin, who in addition to his brother Tadhg also leaves his brother John and his sister, Margaret, both of County Donegal.

When Rev. MacPhaidin was a young faculty member, he performed as a singer with an improvised Irish band that entertained at college events. “He had the advantage of knowing all the words to all the songs,” said Finnegan, who also played with the group.

Finnegan added that because Rev. MacPhaidin was Irish and “incredibly personable,” he connected easily with Boston’s Irish community and with executives in Boston and New York City, tapping into a rich trove of donors and potential Stonehill trustees.

Though Rev. MacPhaidin lived on Stonehill’s campus in Easton, his heart in many ways remained home in County Donegal. He often cited his mother as his greatest influence and returned home every couple of years. After she died in 1997 at 92, he wrote a book about her called “Coming Safely Home: Habits of a Mother’s Heart.”

“I wept softly as the plane began its smooth liftoff to the north, because I knew that she would watch until it was lost in the clouds,” he wrote of leaving his mother at the airport near his childhood home in 1997, which he knew might be his last time seeing her.

“Then she would go home, with a heavy heart but always room for a smile, light the holy candle and pray till I had come safely home to America,” he wrote. “Coming safely home – that was a big thing for her, and could be easily described as the metaphor by which she viewed the way that we exist in the world. We were all included in this embrace of hers.”