The Fordham University community mourns the death of Vincent M. Novak, S.J., the first dean of the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE), and a pioneer of post-Vatican II religious education.
Father Novak, who was born on August 3, 1924, died on August 6 at the age of 88.
Father Novak’s 40-year career cultivating Fordham’s first graduate program in religion stemmed from his early desire to rethink religious education.
A wake was held on Aug. 10 at Murray-Weigel Hall, and a Mass of Christian Burial took place on Aug. 11 at St. Clare’s Church in the Bronx.
In 1957, Father Novak—then a religion teacher at Fordham Prep—voiced his concern with the curriculum to his Jesuit superiors. With their blessing, he journeyed to Paris, Holland, and Brussels to learn new ways to communicate Catholic teaching to young people.
He returned to Fordham in 1959 with his ideas to revolutionize religious education.
“I [was given]carte blanche with two senior classes at Fordham Prep,” Father Novak said during a Jesuits in Conversation interview in February 2012. “So I experimented with some of the materials from overseas… I started writing immediately.”
In the early 1960s, he launched the Lord and King High School Religion series (Holt, Rinehart, Winston, 1964-1968), authoring two of its texts, Jesus Christ, Lord of History (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962), andJesus Christ, Our Life and Worship (Jesuit Educational Association, 1963), for ninth and tenth graders.
The series was incorporated into Catholic high school curricula nationwide, and soon drew the attention of Fordham University educators.
Along with his brother Joseph Novak, S.J., and John Nelson, Ph.D.—both co-editors on the Lord and Kingseries—Father Novak launched a summer institute at Fordham in 1962 that offered religious education training to high school religion teachers.
As attendance at the institutes climbed to well over 1,000, the trio established the Graduate Institute of Religious Education in 1964, which offered a master’s degree in religious education under the auspices of the Graduate School of Education.
“We’d fill the dorms with people from all over the country,” Father Novak said. “It pointed out to us the need for graduation programs [in theology and religious education.]”
The Institute eventually led to the creation of GRE, with Father Novak taking the helm as the school’s first dean in 1975.
GRE’s comprehensive curriculum—with courses including education, sociology, psychology, and pastoral counseling—as well as its associations with institutions of various denominations earned the school international renown and attracted students from across the globe.
“I have a map of the world in my old office, and I had pins that I put all over the map, and people would come in and marvel—71 different countries were represented over the years at the time of my stepping down [as dean]in 2004,” Father Novak said. “We’re very proud of that ecumenical dimension.”
Today, nearly 50 years after its founding, GRE offers three master’s programs, two doctoral programs, two certificate programs, and two fully online master’s programs.
Father Novak retired as dean of GRE in 2004, 40 years after the school’s founding. That same year, he was given the Archdiocese of New York’s 2004 Good Shepherd Award for his contributions to the mission of the archdiocese.
“Father Novak is a man of vision, integrity, and faith,” said Archdiocesan Director Sister Joan Curtin when he was honored in 2004. “He has exemplified the qualities of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd.”
Since his retirement, Father Novak has served as dean emeritus, as a visiting scholar at the University of California Los Angeles, and as an associate pastor at Corpus Christi Parish, Pacific Palisades, Calif.
A native of Jersey City, N.J., Father Novak graduated from Xavier High School in 1942 and entered the Society of Jesus the same year.
Burial will take place at the Jesuit Cemetery in Auriesville, N.Y.
Condolences may be sent to Father Novak’s sister, Antoinette Frees, at: