Catholic school, parish leaders remember philanthropist Nasseff’s generosity

| February 23, 2018 | 1 Comment

John Nasseff with his wife, Helene Houle, spoke at the dedication of St. Agnes School’s Ubel Activity Center in 2015. Nasseff, who died Feb. 21, donated $1 million to help keep St. Agnes open in 2007, collaborating with then-superintendent Father John Ubel. He later donated more than $10 million to fund construction of the school’s activity center. Nasseff, a philanthropist and retired West Publishing executive, made numerous gifts to Catholic parishes and institutions in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Courtesy Mike Ekern

Two weeks before his Feb. 21 death, John Nasseff made his last public appearance at one of the Catholic institutions he helped the most.

Nasseff, 94, attended the Red and White Benefit Dinner and Auction Feb. 9 at St. Agnes School in St. Paul, an institution he helped save from closure in 2007. A longtime philanthropist in St. Paul, Nasseff donated millions to the Catholic K-12 school.

“I think it’s only appropriate given … how generous he’s been to St. Agnes,” said Kevin Ferdinandt, St. Agnes’ headmaster, of the dinner being Nasseff’s last public event. “The impact of John Nasseff reigns in this institution in so many ways. John gave and gave and gave.”

Nasseff died Feb. 21 on his 94th birthday. A St. Paul native and son of Lebanese immigrants turned West Publishing executive and philanthropist, he left a legacy of giving to numerous Catholic institutions and parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and beyond.

“When God blessed him, he did not forget where he came from,” said Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron Maronite parish in Minneapolis. “His roots were very, very important to him.”

Nasseff, who grew up in Holy Family Maronite parish in St. Paul at the time, gave back generously to the Maronite community. A St. Maron parishioner, he provided 80 percent of the funds for the new church and parish facilities in the 1990s. That included the neighboring Peter Nasseff Maronite Senior Home, named for his father.

John Nasseff

Nasseff also donated generously to the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Paul, who serve the elderly at the Holy Family Residence and Jean Jugan Apartments. His support included the residence’s wellness center and renovation to the pipe system.

“Whenever we had big projects, he thoroughly thought through them. When he was giving money, he wanted to make sure that it was going to be used well,” said Sister Mary Elizabeth Anderson.

Other recipients of Nasseff’s generosity included St. Louis King of France in St. Paul and St. Anne parish and school in Somerset, Wisconsin. Both of those connections came about through his wife, Helene Houle. A French Catholic and Somerset native, Houle and Nasseff attended St. Louis King of France in addition to St. Maron.

“John and Helene have been very gracious and kind to our school over the years,” said Randall Stanke, St. Anne’s principal, who noted that Houle attended the school many years ago.

Nasseff also donated to secular causes, including additions to United Hospital in St. Paul and a clinic in his mother’s hometown of Ban, Lebanon.

He built his fortune through investing and moving up the career ladder with West Publishing in St. Paul from handling freight to becoming the vice president.

Father John Ubel invited Nasseff to assist St. Agnes in 2007, and they developed a decade-long friendship. Father Ubel was then the parish’s pastor and school’s superintendent, and he said their friendship included visits to the Houle family farm in Somerset where he saw Nasseff, in his 80s, “chopping wood for the stove and filing the bird feeders.”

“John [Nasseff] was a mentor who taught me many valuable lessons in life — the value of hard work and not wasting anything, the gift of a rock-solid faith and strong devotion to our Lady,” Father Ubel said. “Though materially blessed through his own hard work, he never lost his blue collar roots.”

 

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