“‘Father D’ was a dedicated, gregarious teacher renowned for his wit and his sense of joy, as well as an academic adviser and mentor known for the pastoral care and concern he generously gave to so many students,” said Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham.
Father Denniston was raised in Westbury, New York, and was ordained a priest in 1979. He served at St. Mary’s in Manhasset, St. Anne’s in Garden City, Notre Dame in New Hyde Park, and as pastor of St. Patrick’s Church in Huntington.
He began his teaching career in 1984 as a member of the faculty at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York. In 1991, he earned his Ph.D. in theology at Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences with a dissertation titled “An examination of Calvin’s Theory of Knowledge in His Theology and Exegesis.” He joined the theology department as an adjunct assistant professor in 1996 and was an integral part of the teaching staff until his accident last year. He was the author of Give Them What You Have: Interpreting the New Testament for Today (Ligouri, 2008).
Beloved in the Classroom
Though he was an accomplished scholar and author, Father Denniston was best known for the classes he taught.
Faith and Critical Reason, a required course for all incoming first-year students, was his specialty. He taught three to four classes of 30 students per semester, a course load that never ceased to amaze J. Patrick Hornbeck, Ph.D., who was the chair of the department from 2013 to 2020.
“The amount of energy that he must have had to be able to do a high level of teaching multiple times in a row was always very impressive to me,” he said.
“You couldn’t know John and not know that he was a humorous, tongue-in-cheek, delightful man who really enjoyed life, and I think that he got a tremendous amount of energy out of his interactions with students.”
Brenna Moore, Ph.D., an associate professor of theology who served as associate chair of undergraduate studies in theology, said what was even more remarkable about this workload—he also taught classes about the Book of Revelations and apocalyptic themes in film—was how he managed to pay so much attention to individual students. They were not, he often reminded her, simply passive recipients of theology research.
“It was very transformative and very healing for me to start thinking about what I was doing in a very different way. He helped me just by telling me stories about his students, and asking me about my stories about students,” she said. “He also had hilarious stories about things students would say.”
Joseph T. Lienhard, S.J., a professor of theology who was on the faculty when Father Denniston defended his dissertation in 1991, said that calling him the “pied piper” of the department would be no exaggeration.
“His courses, even one as recondite as Eschatology, would fill up minutes after enrollment opened,” he said.
James Burris, a first-year student at Fordham College at Rose Hill who took Faith and Critical Reason with Father Denniston last fall, said even an 8:30 a.m. start time didn’t dull the experience.
“Father D loved to joke around and incorporate a lighthearted environment into his classes but I always walked away feeling like I had learned something from his lectures. He was an example of the Jesuit values of the magis and cura personalis through his devotion to his students and his University,” he said.
Making Connections Around Campus
Father Denniston split his time between residences at the Rose Hill campus and in Long Island, and as such, was a presence in many lives outside of the academic setting.
He served as chaplain for the men’s football team; former coach Joseph Moorhead, FCRH ’96, called him “a tremendous man of God whose intelligence, sense of humor, empathetic nature, and true care for the students of Fordham and Bronx Community will always resonate with me.”
Anne-Marie Sweeney, who was the theology department’s secretary from 2003 to 2020, said one of her fondest memories will always be when Father Denniston presided over her son’s wedding in 2016.
“I told him a few times that he not only taught the students about religious faiths but also gave them the tools that would help them through life’s journey, wherever it would take them. He was kind, humble, and had a great sense of humor and always had a smile on his face,” she said.
He made connections as well with his fellow priests at Rose Hill. He lived at the Salice-Conley residence hall, but Associate Professor of Theology Thomas Scirghi, S.J., said he joined the Jesuit community for dinner once a week.
“He’s a gregarious fellow. He walks into a room, he’s kind of like a Jay Leno smile that lights up a room, and he really enjoys meeting people and being with people,” he said.
“He was just one of the guys. He’s a diocesan priest but he fit in here so well, and so he’s remembered well by the Jesuit community here.”
Father Scirghi concelebrated a wedding in Stony Brook with Father Denniston in late September, and he said Father Denniston was determined to bring joy to the setting, even in the midst of a pandemic.
“The couple originally had a guest list of 250 and now it was whittled down to 50. So it was kind of sad, a little somber, but he helped raise the tone there to help make it a joyful occasion,” he said.
Father Denniston is survived by his nieces Melissa Paladino and Erin Crosby; nephew John Denniston; great-nephews James Wallace, Joseph Wallace, Ethan Paladino, and William Crosby; and great-niece Sophia Paladino.
Gifts in honor of Father Denniston may be made to the Rev. John J. Denniston, Ph.D., GSAS ’91 Memorial Fund.
Information on services can be found here.
—Chris Gosier contributed reporting.