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With a characteristic absence of fanfare, Denise Carmody quietly retired from Santa Clara University August 31, bringing to a close a stellar and varied career that included making history as the University’s first female Religious Studies Department chair and first female provost.
Carmody was a highly regarded professor and role model to many, having taught ecclesiology, spirituality, and church history before her career took a more administrative path. Students felt lucky to be taught by her, many said, because she was not only wise but also inclusive, welcoming, and exceptionally informed—for instance having personal friendships with some of the theologians who influenced Vatican II.
“She brought grace into the room—grace in terms of being gracious and listening to us, but also grace in terms of our faith, where she really reinforced that we are the church,” said Marie Bernard, executive director of Sunnyvale Community Services and a former pastoral-ministries student of Carmody’s.
Carmody was tapped to be provost in 2000, when Stephen Privett, S.J., left to become the president of the University of San Francisco.
She was known for her quiet fearlessness and for writing a mind-boggling number of books—more than 60 in total—on many topics in spirituality, theology, feminist theology, and ethics. She co-authored many, such as Mysticism: Holiness East and West, with her husband, John Carmody, from whom she was inseparable until he died in 1995 of cancer. Their book Ways to the Center: An Introduction to World Religions is still taught today, 31 years after it was first published. Its 7th edition is due out in October.
“She really did model what it meant to be a teaching scholar, by being an excellent teacher and a prolific writer,” said Paul Crowley, S.J., her colleague in religious studies who has known her since the 1970s when he and John attended Stanford together.
As a scholar, she sometimes tackled lightning-rod issues. She wrote Seizing the Apple: A Feminist Spirituality of Personal Growth in the mid-1980s, advocating that women assert their own autonomy. Her writings also explored the difficulties of being both a feminist and a Catholic.
In the Religious Studies Department, Crowley credits her with doing an excellent job building on the strengths of the past and moving the department into a new phase, including bringing about a greater working unity among the various religious-studies disciplines. “She is an insightful leader, who listens and takes counsel, and at the same time can make firm decisions,” said Crowley.
Later in her life, Carmody played an historic role at Santa Clara University as the first woman provost and vice president, said Don Dodson, SCU’s former provost who is now presidential professor of global outreach and professor emeritus of communication. “She brought to this role a long record as a distinguished scholar and teacher, high academic standards, a sharp intelligence and a keen wit, an impatience with cant, a willingness to stick her ground and engage in a good fight, and a great ability to find humor even in difficult situations,” recalled Dodson.
As provost, she promoted the goal of integrated education by supporting the expansion of residential learning communities and by launching the process that resulted in the current undergraduate core curriculum, Dodson said. She also made great contributions to the work of faculty by supporting the creation of the Faculty Development Office and approving a more generous and flexible sabbatical policy.
Her scholarship and teaching earned her a number of prestigious awards, including the Catholic Theological Society of America’s highest honor, the John Courtney Murray Award; the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Teaching; and the President’s Special Recognition Award from SCU in 2006. She held the Bernard J. Hanley Professorship from 1994 to 1997 and held the Santa Clara Jesuit Community Professorship from 1997 until she relinquished it in 2000, asking for it to be given to a publishing scholar.
Prior to coming to SCU in 1994, she was chair of the department of religious studies at Wichita State University and later at the University of Tulsa, where she started the Warren Lectures—which became the model for the Santa Clara Lectures held annually at SCU to this day. She also taught in the philosophy and religious studies departments at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Boston College, and Pennsylvania State University.
She has a master’s degree and a doctorate in philosophy of religion from Boston College and was a summa cum laude graduate from the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.
Her friends say they expect her to continue to be a faithful participant in an array of University events. She lives close by, and even was instrumental years ago in getting a traffic light installed for safety at Santa Clara and Lafayette—spurring Crowley to dub the intersection “Carmody Square.”
Carmody recently accompanied the Board of Fellows to Ireland, and said she expects to travel, read up on her backlog of theology books, and continue her regular daily routine of exercise, mass, and prayer. (Her ability to do two of those at once—reading and walking the campus—is an endless source of amazement for observers, who often expect her to walk into a tree.)
Offered a chance to reflect, Carmody said she’s grateful for her years at Santa Clara. “They have been rewarding both in the classroom and in administration,” she said. “I feel blessed to be part of the Santa Clara community and plan to continue to ‘read’ my way across campus—especially en route to the Malley Center.”
“The department will really miss her wisdom, common sense, and experience,” said Crowley. “She has insights that take many years to acquire.”