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Faith in Action Blog

Faith in Action Blog

Rev. Andrew De Silva (’03) offers Palm Sunday Mass
for soldiers at the Army Reserve Center in Staten Island, New York. Rev. Andrew De Silva (’03) offers Palm Sunday Mass for soldiers at the Army Reserve Center in Staten Island, New York.

“I have always been drawn to the Armed Forces,” says Rev. Andrew De Silva (’03). “And one reason I was drawn to my ministry to American soldiers is the great need for good Catholic chaplains among our men and women in uniform.”

The College’s 73rd and most recently ordained alumnus priest, Fr. De Silva serves in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey, as well as in the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps. He is the parochial vicar at St. Agnes Parish in Clark and a chaplain to the Army’s 8th Medical Brigade in Staten Island, New York. It was his lifelong admiration of the military that helped lead him to the Army chaplaincy — and almost kept him from attending Thomas Aquinas College.

For as long as he can recall, the College has been a part of Fr. De Silva’s life. His father, Dr. Norman De Silva (’75), was a member of the first graduating class and an early member of the teaching faculty. His mother, Maureen (Barlow ’76), was a fellow graduate, and after Dr. De Silva died of cancer in 1985, she married a classmate, James Finley (’76).

Yet, despite these ties to the College, when he graduated high school, his affinity for the Armed Forces brought him instead to the Virginia Military Institute. He had heard that the first year at VMI was “one of the toughest military experiences you could have” — a challenge too appealing to let pass.

Triumphing over this obstacle, however, proved to be a fleeting satisfaction. “I found myself seeking something more intellectually or philosophically challenging,” Fr. De Silva says. “I decided I would rather search for the truth at Thomas Aquinas.” Thus he transferred to the College as a freshman, where he developed “the ability to think about something and articulate my thoughts on whatever it was that I was studying” — talents, he says, that would serve him well in the years ahead.

After graduating in 2003, Fr. De Silva spent the next three years as a manager for a large-scale wine retailer in Virginia. He had become lackadaisical in his practice of his faith, he admits, until two friends from the College independently surprised him with the same question: “Have you ever considered becoming a priest?”

“For the first time, I actually asked myself that question: ‘Is God calling me?’” Fr. De Silva muses. “The answer came back very clear: ‘Yes.’” With the help of a friendly deacon, he began a 30-day Lenten Ignatian retreat that included three hours of prayer squeezed between shifts in his fulltime work schedule. “At the end of those 30 days of listening to God, I was ready to say back, ‘Yes, I’m going to give my life to You.’”

He left the wine business and became a brother with the Community of St. John in Princeville, Illinois. The community sent him, first, to study theology in France, and then to serve as a campus minister at Seton Hall University, where he earned a master’s degree in pastoral ministry and biblical studies. He was also commissioned, while still a brother, as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain Corps — and began to discern a vocation to the diocesan priesthood. In 2016 he became a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Newark.

On Saturday, May 25, 2019, His Eminence Joseph W. Cardinal Tobin, C.Ss.R., conferred Holy Orders upon Fr. De Silva at Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart. In his first assignments, he is the parochial vicar at St. Agnes while also working with those at the Army Reserve Center on Staten Island. “I’ve dealt with soldiers who are addicted, or soldiers who are suicidal,” Fr. De Silva reflects. “Soldiers struggle on different levels, and I pray that my presence among them will bear good fruit.” 


Thomas A. Alexander (’99) Thomas A. Alexander (’99)Thomas A. Alexander (’99), whom this blog profiled last month, is the subject of a new story on the Cardinal Newman Society’s website, Pentagon Leader: Faithful Catholic Education Provided ‘Fundamentals to Succeed.’

“Thomas Alexander is a top leader in the Pentagon who is the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense on special operations, counterterrorism, and more around the world,” writes Kelly Salomon, the Newman Society’s director of education and advocacy. “He credits his education at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, which is recommended in The Newman Guide, with preparing him with the ‘fundamentals’ he needed to ‘succeed’ in his work.”

In the story, Mr. Alexander refers several times to the College’s program of Catholic liberal education. “Thomas Aquinas College,” he says, “gives you the ability to quickly analyze, break down a particular issue into its parts, put it all back together in a way that makes sense, reach a conclusion, and then go forward.”

The full story is available via the Cardinal Newman Society.


Patricia Kessler (’87)Please pray for the repose of the soul of Patricia Kessler (’87). A senior attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, on assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania, she had taken a short vacation to do some scuba diving in the Red Sea. On November 1, when fire broke out on the boat, it appears that she helped other passengers to escape, but did not make it off herself. Her family presumes that she died in the ordeal.

After her graduation from the College in 1987, Patty earned her juris doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. She then joined the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where she served as senior defense counsel, department head, and advisor to the Judge Advocate General. For the next seven years she worked as an assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Department of Justice, followed by eight years in private practice. She returned to the Justice Department in 2015 as a senior trial attorney in the Asset Forfeiture Section of the Criminal Division.

A lifelong friend has paid tribute to Patty saying,

I have poignant memories of long, philosophical conversations with Patty during college. She studied TRUTH. It gave her pleasure to examine: “What is Truth? How do we know the truth about anything? What does it mean to seek truth? Why should we seek truth? Should we seek truth for truth’s sake? What if the truth does not change the outcome of a situation?” She concluded that seeking the truth, speaking the truth and acting on the truth, and constantly wrestling with the truth is what we all must do to achieve a happy life, or our world will devolve into the Hobbesian description, which is “nasty, brutish and short.”

Please keep Patty in your prayers, and please pray for the consolation of her family, especially for her two daughters.

 

Eternal rest, grant unto her O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon her. May her soul and all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace.


Andrew Emrich (’93) Andrew Emrich (’93)

Alumnus attorney Andrew Emrich (’93) returned to the California campus last week to offer advice to students who hope to pursue careers in law or public policy.

In a presentation that covered topics ranging from choosing the right law school, to law-school admissions, and how to remain grounded as a lawyer, Mr. Emrich shared how, despite his early plans to enter criminal law, he made a career, first, in public service and, later, in representing corporate clients. “You can have a perfect idea of what your trajectory is going to be, and it may not turn out that way — and that’s fine,” he advised. “Sometimes those experiences you don’t expect and don’t chart out turn out to be the most valuable.”

A partner at Holland & Hart LLP in Denver, Mr. Emrich earned his juris doctor from the University of Wyoming College of Law in 1996. He then went on to serve for four years as legislative counsel for Sen. Michael Enzi, followed by four more as counsel to the assistant attorney general at the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2005 he left public policy for private practice.

In the course of his discussion, Mr. Emrich outlined six “traits of good lawyers” — all of which happen to be among the common fruits of liberal education: integrity, good listening, problem-solving, good judgment, effective advocacy, and resilience. “You are getting one of the finest educations, really, in all of academia,” he said. “I practice in a field where many people went to the most prestigious schools in the United States, and I have found people much brighter than I am, to be sure, but I haven’t yet found any one who, I would say, had a much better formation than I did.”

As students plan their careers, Mr. Emrich urged, they should meditate over the words of Jeremiah 1:5 — “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you” — and consider the verse’s implications for both their spiritual and professional lives.

“As you are trying to discern your own profession and what steps you take to advance in it — all these other life choices — realize that you are here because the God of the universe intended you to be here from all eternity,” he advised. “You are willed to be here by the Creator of the universe, and that should give you some comfort. All these other things will work out. Make good choices and be prudent, but always keep that in mind.”


Aaron Dunkel (’06) Aaron Dunkel (’06)“There is something beautiful about local politics: When you are focused on very tangible decisions — whether to fix a road, or hire a new police officer — ideologies that can become very distracting in state or national politics are minimized,” reports Aaron Dunkel (’06). A newly appointed member of the Planning Commission for the City of Santa Paula — hometown of Thomas Aquinas College, California — he appreciates the municipal emphasis on the common good. “While people obviously bring opinions to any discussion, everyone is seeking something good. That has been very motivating for me.”

A native of Northern California, Mr. Dunkel made Santa Paula his home shortly after graduating from the College in 2006. For two years he worked at an advertising business in neighboring Ventura and got to know his fellow Santa Paulans while tending bar at a local restaurant during off hours. In 2010 he began working for his alma mater, first as the Development Office’s database manager, then in alumni relations, and now in the IT department.

All the while, he has developed a greater interest in the workings of the city, its roads, its zoning decisions, and its governance. A few years back he began attending City Council meetings and, inspired by the potential to do good, ran for one of three open seats on the council in 2018. “I entered the race about six months too late, in a field of six dominated by two lifelong residents with widespread name recognition,” he says. Not surprisingly, he lost the election, but he made many meaningful friendships with the city’s residents, including his fellow candidates, which convinced him to deepen his involvement in local politics.

That involvement came to a head last winter, when the city considered a proposal to permit the sale of medical and recreational marijuana within its boundaries. Although most observers considered the initiative’s passage an inevitability, a community-wide group called Safeguard Santa Paula — which included a large contingent of Thomas Aquinas College families — rose to oppose the measure. Uniting a broad swath of the city, Safeguard Santa Paula overcame the well-funded and coordinated efforts of the commercial cannabis industry, persuading the City Council to defeat the measure.

“During that time I realized, through the many great testimonials that people made before the Council, that there really is a strong idea out there of what Santa Paula is and what it could be,” says Mr. Dunkel. “Safeguard Santa Paula wasn’t a movement against something; it was a movement for something, for a stronger vision of community. That inspired me to look for ways to do more.”

So when an opening arose on the Planning Commission this spring, Mr. Dunkel put in his name for consideration. After interviewing with the council, its members — including four who had not long ago been vying with him for a council seat — voted unanimously to award him the position.

As a member of the commission, he works with his colleagues to ensure that development in Santa Paula, such as the placement of streets and the permitting of businesses, is carried out in an orderly fashion and in accordance with the city’s General Plan and Development Code. The commission also advises the Council and makes policy recommendations.

In working through complicated issues, Mr. Dunkel says he finds himself harkening back to lessons learned in classroom discussions at the College. “Sometime in politics, when you choose something, all the other possible choices that get passed over are cast in a bad light,” he says. “But most people are honest and of good will, and in most cases, many or all of the options we consider may be good, but we can only choose one. My education here trained me to approach situations and my neighbors charitably, and that helps me to do this work for the community.”


Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86) Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86)
Photo credit: @ec_minister/Twitter
On January 2, in the final hours of the 115th Congress, the U.S. Senate easily approved the nomination of Thomas Aquinas College alumna Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86) as the new chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ). Widely considered the administration’s senior environmental official, the CEQ chairman coordinates the country’s environmental policy and oversees regulations across various federal agencies. Miss Neumayr has been effectively functioning as the council’s chairman since her appointment last year, one year after being named its chief of staff.

Prior to becoming the highest-ranking woman at CEQ, Miss Neumayr spent eight years working for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she held several senior roles, including, most recently, deputy chief counsel for energy and environment. Previously she held positions in the Energy and Justice Departments of the George W. Bush Administration. In her spare time, she is a member of the College’s Washington, D.C., Board of Regents. 

In a letter of recommendation to the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, a bipartisan group of eight former general counsels at the Department of Energy and assistant attorneys general at the Department of Justice praised Miss Neumayr’s nomination. The group said, “Through her service on Capitol Hill, at the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Justice, and most recently as Chief of Staff at CEQ, she has developed and has exhibited the knowledge and skills to be a highly successful CEQ Chairman.” Moreover, the group of four Democrats and four Republicans continued, “She treats all people and all stakeholders with dignity and respect, and her integrity is absolutely above reproach.’’

At her confirmation hearings last summer, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, indirectly referenced Miss Neumayr’s parents — Thomas Aquinas College co-founder John W. Neumayr and his wife, Bridget — as well as her alma mater. “The roots of her qualities reflect her loving and vibrant family,” he said, “and her faith and thoughtful education.”


Michael Swanson (’93), city attorney of Klamath Falls, Oregon, with his wife, Sharon Michael Swanson (’93), city attorney of Klamath Falls, Oregon, with his wife, Sharon

The city of Klamath Falls, Oregon, has a new City Attorney: Michael Swanson (’93). The City Council named Mr. Swanson, who previously served for 20 years as a deputy district attorney, to his new position at its September 17 meeting. He began the very next day.

“We are extremely excited to bring Mr. Swanson on to our City of Klamath Falls team,” said Council President Phil Studenberg. “He brings over two decades of commitment to this community and many strong partnerships.”

Upon graduating from the College in 1993, Mr. Swanson enrolled in law school at the Willamette University College of Law. “It just seemed like a natural outgrowth from what we learned at TAC,” he says, “as far as the logic and philosophy, reading texts closely, forming arguments, and being able to support them from the text. It appealed to me.”

A native of Oregon City, he then joined the District Attorney’s Office in Klamath Falls. “I wanted an opportunity to give to a community,” he recalls. “Being a deputy district attorney allowed me to serve people who had been harmed in our community, and at least let them get some closure for what had occurred to them.”

Yet after 20 years of practicing criminal law, he is grateful for a change of pace. As city attorney, he is responsible for all of the city’s legal affairs, including contracts, employment, and land use. “Every day there is a challenge,” he says. “There is something different to review, something to look at. I’m rediscovering my research skills!”


Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86) Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86)
Photo credit: @ec_minister/Twitter
After serving for one year as the chief of staff at the federal Council on Environmental Quality, Mary Bridget Neumayr (’86) is poised to become its next chairwoman. On Wednesday, President Donald Trump appointed Miss Neumayr to the position, which coordinates the country’s environmental policy and oversees regulations across various federal agencies.

Prior to becoming the highest-ranking woman at CEQ last year, Miss Neumayr spent eight years working for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she held several senior roles, including, most recently, deputy chief counsel for energy and environment. Previously she held positions in the Energy and Justice Departments of the George W. Bush Administration.

Although her new position will require Senate confirmation, early signs suggest a favorable outcome. “Throughout the entirety of the Trump Administration, there has yet to be a Senate-confirmed senior environmental official in the White House,” notes the Washington Post, adding, “that may soon change.” Citing former colleagues on the Hill who praise her for her professionalism and her ability to work well with political foes and allies alike, the Post concludes that she “appears far better positioned to win Senate approval” than did previous appointees.

“Mary Neumayr will make a strong leader at the Council on Environmental Quality,” says Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. “Her significant experience at the White House and on Capitol Hill will serve her well in this key environmental policy position.”


Br. Augustine, O.S.B. (Philip Wilmeth ’13) with brother John Parker (’15) and his fiancée Br. Augustine, O.S.B. (Philip Wilmeth ’13) with brother John Parker (’15) and his fiancée

Five years ago, just months after graduating from Thomas Aquinas College, Philip Wilmeth (’13) departed for Norcia, Italy, where he joined the Benedictine Order at the Monastery of San Benedetto. Two years later, he made his first vows and took the name of Br. Augustine, O.S.B. And one year after that, he was in Norcia — birthplace of Saints Benedict and Scholastica — when the city was devastated not once, but twice, by earthquake.

Now, as his monastery and region rebuilds, Br. Augustine has committed himself to serving both for the rest of his earthly life. On Friday, the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, he made his final profession, taking the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and pledging himself to a life of prayer in this thriving community of Benedictine monks, where he works as the brewmaster for the order’s world-renowned beer.

Thanks be to God! Please pray for Br. Augustine and all of his confreres, especially fellow alumnus Br. Mary Evagrius Hayden, O.S.B. (’08).


Nnadozie Onyekuru (’17) poses a question to Rep. Brendan Boyle, from the University of Notre Dame Keough School of Global Affairs website Nnadozie Onyekuru (’17) poses a question to Rep. Brendan Boyle, from the University of Notre Dame Keough School of Global Affairs website

Class of 2017 graduate Nnadozie Onyekuru is quoted in a recent story in Scholastic, the student magazine at the University of Notre Dame, where he is one of 38 students in the inaugural class at the University’s Keough School of Global Affairs.

A citizen of Nigeria, Mr. Onyekuru has an abiding interest in international relations, particularly the role of the Church and Church teaching in global affairs. While at Thomas Aquinas College, he and some friends launched Cor Unum, an annual event that celebrates both the Universal Church and the College’s international reach.

“It is difficult to understand in America the role that religion plays in the world because Americans are very careful about religion,” the article quotes Mr. Onyekuru as saying. “But it does play a role, and depending on the actors, that role can be good or bad. … That is, in a sense, why the Keough School exists, to be able to train people to not be deficient in that.”

Mr. Onyekuru also appears on the Keough School website, which recently posted the above photo of him questioning a visiting congressman, Rep. Brendan Boyle. The recipient of a Donald & Marilyn Keough Fellowship, Mr. Onyekuru is working toward a master’s degree in global affairs.


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Isaac Cross (’19) -- quote 1

“The Discussion Method gives you a sense of finding the truth for yourself, and thereby owning it, rather than being told what to think.”

– Isaac Cross (’19)

Leominster, Massachusetts

NEWS FROM THE COLLEGE

“With an academic program as rigorous as Thomas Aquinas College’s, and with a long line of successful alumni, Thomas Aquinas College is essential to the health of our Church in the United States and beyond.”

– The Most Rev. Thomas Daly

Bishop of Spokane