Catholic studies chair reiterates global message

After almost 30 years, the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan was nearing retirement as the 11th bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond.

Members of his congregation at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, near the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, wanted to give him a gift to mark the occasion.

VCU President Eugene P. Trani, Ph.D., called together fellow parishioners to discuss the possibilities, recalled John Thomas West IV.

“We met with President Trani, and he relayed that he had spoken with Bishop Sullivan. Instead of a gift of an automobile or a vacation, Bishop Sullivan said what he would like to see come to fruition was a chair in Catholic studies established at VCU,” West said.

That idea thrilled West.

“But then Dr. Trani told me how much it would cost: $1 million!”

Despite the daunting goal, West was honored to assist in that effort and started making calls.

“I was pleasantly surprised … we ended up with 37 pledges and a little over $1 million,” he said. “A large number of those pledges came from individuals who were not Roman Catholics but just were friends of Bishop Sullivan. Everyone that I spoke with willingly participated.”

Now, the first holder of the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies in VCU’s School of World Studies has arrived on campus.

R. Andrew Chesnut, Ph.D., is an internationally recognized expert on Latin American religious history and served as a professor of history at the University of Houston. Chesnut hopes to enlighten students about Catholicism and Christianity in general through his teaching and research.

“This was a great opportunity to develop Catholic studies in a global context and at a large public university. Catholic studies must not be confined to Catholic colleges,” he said.

That type of thinking is exactly what West envisioned when he started raising money for the chair.

“Regardless of what faith you practice, everyone is equal in God’s eyes, and I want to learn more about different religions. So if I do, I’m sure others do, too,” he said. “I appreciate the fact that VCU now offers Judaic studies, Catholic studies and Islamic studies. In world events, in politics and for your own knowledge, if you can listen to and understand what others believe … that’s so important in life, especially today in our world.”

Chesnut clearly admires Sullivan, is honored to be the first holder of this chair and is grateful to those who made it possible.

“This is an excellent opportunity to carry on the global and ecumenical perspective of Bishop Sullivan,” he said. “Faculty support funds are immeasurably important! They enable professors to disseminate research in their fields to wider sectors of the community and provide faculty with greater resources to further develop their own research.”

To make a gift to the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies or the School of World Studies, contact Lois Badey, director of development for the College of Humanities and Sciences, at (804) 827-0856 or