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A Hindu musician plays an instrument during a concert on the St. Thomas campus.

Fostering understanding, cooperation and friendship

Mission and History - Jay Phillips Center

Mission of the Jay Phillips Center

The Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies at the University of St. Thomas serves the campus community and hosts events open to the general public. The center has a collaborative relationship with the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, with which it shares the common mission to foster understanding, cooperation and friendship among people of diverse religious identities through academic study and civic engagement. Both centers do this by sponsoring a host of activities, including artistic performances, lectures, panels, conferences, research, and engagement programs. In so doing, the Jay Phillips Center is carrying out a mandate of the Vatican Council II (1962-1965) and subsequent official Roman Catholic teaching, and it is thereby supporting the Catholic identity of its host university.

Since Vatican II the importance of interreligious encounter, understanding, and dialogue have been emphasized by many church leaders, especially Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis. The council document Nostra Aetate, issued in 1965 and also known as “The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions,” calls upon Catholics to engage in “dialogue and collaboration with followers of other religions.”

Nostra Aetate claims that the Church is “ever aware of its duty to foster unity and charity among individuals, and even among nations,” and it challenges Christians to “acknowledge, preserve, and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians” while at the same time “witnessing to their own faith and way of life.”

The Jay Phillips Center has its roots in UST’s Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, which was established in 1985. While remaining deeply committed to the enhancement of Jewish-Christian relations, the center is now equally committed to its expanded mission of carrying out the wider interreligious and interfaith mandate of Vatican II as an essential feature of Catholic identity – and therefore of UST’s identity – and as an indispensable means of strengthening the fabric of community and to promote the common good.

History of the Jay Phillips Center

The Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies at the University of St. Thomas has its roots in the university's Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, which was established in 1985 upon the recommendation of St. Thomas president Msgr. Terrence J. Murphy. The center was endowed by a number of Jewish and Catholic benefactors led by Sidney R. Cohen and Thomas P. Coughlan. Rabbi Max A. Shapiro served as the center's director from its beginning until his retirement in 1996. Arthur E. Zannoni served as the center's associate director from 1985 to 1991, followed by Karen L. Schierman from 1991 to 1996.

In 1996, under Rabbi Shapiro's guidance and upon the recommendation of St. Thomas president Fr. Dennis Dease and Br. Dietrich Reinhart OSB, president of Saint John's University (SJU), the center became a joint enterprise with Saint John's University in Collegeville, MN. It was renamed the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning in honor of the Jewish philanthropist who had contributed greatly to the center, and also had endowed the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies at Saint John's University. Rabbi Barry D. Cytron served as the center's director while also holding the chair in Jewish studies until his retirement in 2009. Throughout Rabbi Cytron's tenure at the center, Dr. John Merkle, professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University, and Karen Schierman, based at St. Thomas, served as the center's associate directors.

In 2009, at the request of Edward Phillips and U.S. Congressman Dean Phillips, grandson and great grandson of Jay Phillips, and upon the recommendation of President Fr. Dease and SJU president Fr. Robert Koopmann OSB, the center's mission was expanded beyond the promotion of Jewish-Christian learning to interfaith learning in general and it was given its new name to reflect that expanded mission. Dr. Merkle was appointed the center's director while Karen Schierman continued in her role as associate director until her retirement in 2010. Dr. Hans Gustafson was appointed the center's new associate director in 2011.

In 2017, at the suggestion of Dr. Merkle and upon the recommendation of St. Thomas president Dr. Julie Sullivan and SJU president Dr. Michael Hemesath, the center was divided into two partner centers. Dr. Merkle was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John's University and Dr. Gustafson was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas.

In 2020, to reflect the establishment of the growing academic field of interreligious studies, the birth of the new multifaith Iversen Center for Faith at St. Thomas, and to maintain consistency with the other academic centers and institutes in the College of Arts and Sciences, the center was renamed the Jay Phillips Center for Interreligious Studies.