In memoriam: Acclaimed history professor and Laetare medalist J. Philip Gleason

Author: Dennis Brown

When University of Notre Dame historian J. Philip Gleason received the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the American Catholic Historical Association (ACHA) in 2019, he was cited “for the breadth and depth of his contribution to the study of the American past, for his prominence in the field of American Catholic history and beyond, for his extraordinary generosity as a scholar, (and) for the generations of students he has mentored and influenced.”

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Philip Gleason as the featured author at the Cushwa Center’s Seminar in American Religion in March 1996 on his book Contending with Modernity

One of those students, Rev. Steven M. Avella, a Marquette University historian, offered similar praise from his perspective as a doctoral candidate under Gleason’s tutelage, writing in a published essay: “Gleason the scholar was as formidable an intellectual presence as one would find on any major university campus. … As I look back on my graduate education at Notre Dame … I have come to realize more and more how truly generous and kind he was. He did not fling back dissertation chapters scribbled with caustic comments. There were no stormy confrontations over the scope or spin of research, nor even milder moments of exasperation when we intruded on his work time or called him at home. …We all experienced from him a consistent patience, generosity, and an unflagging encouragement.”

Gleason, a Notre Dame alumnus and much-admired professor in the University’s history department for 47 years, died Wednesday (Jan. 17) in Evanston, Illinois. He was 96.

John McGreevy, the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of Notre Dame and Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History, was a student of Gleason’s.

“Phil Gleason,” McGreevy said, “was one of the great figures in the Department of History’s history: a genuinely distinguished historian of American intellectual and religious life who graced the department with his presence for close to 50 years, and an equally generous colleague and friend.”

A native of Wilmington, Ohio, Gleason earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton. He then worked briefly for the U.S. Air Force and as an eighth-grade teacher before coming to Notre Dame as a graduate student, earning master’s and doctoral degrees in history in 1955 and 1960, respectively.

Gleason joined the Notre Dame history faculty in 1959 and chaired the department from 1971 to 1974. He was the author of numerous journal articles and books, including what the ACHA called his “magnus opus,” “Contending with Modernity: Catholic Higher Education in the 20th Century.” Other books included “The Conservative Reformers: German-American Catholics and the Social Order,” “Catholicism in America” and “Keeping the Faith: American Catholicism Past and Present.” He chaired the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs from 1986 to 1988, and Notre Dame’s history department presents an award in his name, the Philip Gleason Prize for the best published article by a graduate student.

As department chair, Gleason actively supported the work of his colleagues, including the creation by Professor Jay Dolan of Notre Dame’s Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, whose programming Gleason enriched by his regular participation through the years.

In addition to his ACHA honor, Gleason received an honorary degree from Dayton, as well as its Marianist Award, honorary degrees from Marquette and Loyola University in Chicago, and the Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., Award from the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Notre Dame has since 1883 annually presented the Laetare Medal to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church, and enriched the heritage of humanity.” Past recipients include President John F. Kennedy, Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, actresses Irene Dunne and Helen Hayes, jazz musician Dave Brubeck, and actor and activist Martin Sheen. It is Notre Dame’s highest honor and considered the most prestigious award accorded American Catholics.

The Laetare Medal has rarely been given to a member of the Notre Dame community. In 1999, Gleason was one of the exceptions. The citation honoring him read in part: “As the magisterial historian of American Catholic higher education, you have set a rigorous standard of faith-inspired scholarship; as an interpreter of American ethnicity, immigration, intellectual, and social history, you have won the praise of historians through Europe and the U.S.; for your insights into the assimilation of diverse peoples into a truly national community, (and) as a professor and alumnus of our University, you have earned and enjoyed the love of your students and colleagues and classmates.”

Gleason is survived by his wife, Maureen; four children, each a graduate of Notre Dame, Ann (Rick Regan), Dan (Susan Ansell Gleason), Margaret (Pat Loftus), and Philip (Renee Monson); and five grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian burial will be celebrated at 2:30 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 25) at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

Originally published by Dennis Brown at on January 20, 2024.