Msgr. James M. Lavin, the diminutive priest who over the course of six decades touched the lives of thousands of young men at the University of St. Thomas, passed away Sept. 17 at the age of 93.
Archbishop John Nienstedt presidedat a Mass of Christian Burial for Msgr. Lavin Sept. 21,at the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on St. Thomas’ St. Paul campus.
Although he had been a resident at the Little Sisters of the Poor Holy Family Residence in St. Paul for the past four years, Msgr. Lavin was best known as a fixture on the campus of St. Thomas, living there for nearly 69 years, most of those in the same dormitory, Ireland Hall.
Homilist for the funeral Mass, Father James Stromberg, professor emeritus and retired member and former chair of the university’s philosophy department, recalled his friend fondly.
“He was the face of the priesthood to St. Thomas students,” Father Stromberg told The Catholic Spirit.
He chose to live in a student residence hall instead of the faculty residence so that he could be closer to those that he felt called to minister to. “He was a very determined guy,” Father Stromgberg said, “and he thought it was important for there to be a priestly presence for the students.
“He was what they called campus minister nowadays. Everything he did was an extension of his priesthood. When he dealt with anybody, he did it mercifully of course, but he dealt with them as a Catholic priest. For him, there was never time off from the priesthood.”
Born in Aurora, Minn., Nov. 12, 1918, young James Lavin graduated from DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis in 1936 and lived in Ireland Hall as a student at the then-College of St. Thomas. He graduated summa cum laude in 1940, entered the St. Paul Seminary and was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Cathedral of St. Paul in 1945.
After a brief stint as an associate priest at the Cathedral of St. Paul, he soon began teaching at St. Thomas and resumed his residence in Ireland Hall. He lived in that dormitory until 2005.
“I taught religion for 21 years, though they called it theology toward the end,” Msgr. Lavin once quipped.
He also taught at St. Joseph’s Academy, the College of St. Catherine, St. Thomas Academy and the Diocesan Teachers’ College. He later earned a master’s degree in counseling and served as St. Thomas’ director of student counseling.
Friend to students
Msgr. Lavin is best remembered as a spiritual shepherd and friend to students. Many remember his famed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – “Lavinburgers” – that he served to Ireland Hall residents after they joined him in praying a decade of the rosary.
In the dorm, he led a nightly prayer and was a friend in times of crisis and grief. He would lend students money to fix their cars and buy their textbooks, took them on rock climbing and snowshoeing expeditions in his early days and even bailed them out of jail.
Honored as St. Thomas’ “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1973, Msgr. Lavin also is perhaps the only priest to have a pub named after him. In 1988, the alcohol-free “Scooter’s” opened in the lower level of Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Msgr. Lavin said at the time that he didn’t know who first named him “Scooter,” but the nickname surfaced in 1963 and referred to his brisk walk.
Msgr. Lavin “retired” in 1988 and immediately went to work in the St. Thomas Alumni Association office. He ministered to fellow residents of Holy Family Residence until just a few weeks ago.
Following Friday’s funeral service, a reception will be held in the field house of the university’s Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex.
Msgr. Lavin is survived by six nieces and nephews: Carolyn (Chuck) Dutrow, Michael (Kay) Lavin, Patrick (Annie) Lavin, Kathleen (Richard) Johnson, Thomas (Angela) O’Brien, and Michael (Mary) O’Brien.
Memorials can be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor or two University of St. Thomas funds: the Peanut Butter and Jelly Fund or the Monsignor James Lavin Endowed Scholarship Fund.
Information from the University of St. Thomas archives contributed to this story.