The Very Rev. Christian Oravec would start his days with Mass, then head over to the cafeteria for breakfast alongside the students at the growing college that he led for decades.
“He made it a point to connect with the students to see how things were going in their lives,” recalled the Rev. Malachi Van Tassell, current president of St. Francis University in Loretto, Cambria County. While Father Oravec‘s resume lists a host of credentials, degrees and other accomplishments, recollections of such personal touches have poured in since news of his death on Saturday at age 77.
“Many alumni have commented on how they would enjoy seeing him in the cafeteria or other events on campus,” Father Van Tassell recalled.
Father Oravec, a Franciscan friar of more than half a century, served as president of St. Francis from 1977 to 2004, led his Franciscan province and chaired the boards of two Franciscan universities simultaneously. He died in his native Johnstown after experiencing complications from a collapsed lung, Father Van Tassell said.
Although St. Francis has had graduate studies since the 1960s, “it really came into its own as a university” under Father Oravec‘s tenure, expanding in such areas as training physician’s assistants and physical therapists, Father Van Tassell said. The institution changed its name from St. Francis College to reflect that change in 2000.
“When you thought of Father Christian or saw Father Christian, you would immediately think of St. Francis University,” Father Van Tassell said. “Literally half of our living alumni graduated when Father Christian was president. He handed diplomas to almost 8,100 graduates who are still living.”
He was born Robert Oravec on July 13, 1937, in Johnstown, the son of the late Andrew and Gabriella Oravec. After graduating from Johnstown Central High School in 1955, he became a Franciscan novice, receiving the name Christian. In 1960, he became a fully vowed member of the Third Order Regular Franciscans of the Province of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. He was ordained a priest in 1964 by the late Bishop J. Carroll McCormick at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Altoona.
He received a bachelor of arts from St. Francis College and a master’s from the nearby St. Francis Seminary, since closed. He received a doctorate from Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, writing a dissertation on the church theology of German Protestant minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That study reflected Father Oravec’s long interest in ecumenical unity.
In addition to his academic and administrative work, Father Oravec regularly ministered at parishes in Europe and in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
“He was blessed to live his life in an area he loved and made sure to reach beyond the bounds of the university campus and be involved in the region,” Father Van Tassell said.
He also served as minister provincial, or spiritual leader, of the Franciscan province for eight years. Part of the job duties involved serving as chairman of both St. Francis University and Franciscan University of Steubenville.
“He may have been the only person to be chairman of two universities at the same time,” Father Van Tassell said. “But he loved higher education, and if anybody could, he could.”
Father Oravec had taught theology at St. Francis from 1969 to 1976. He resumed teaching a course in religious studies last year and was scheduled to do so this fall.
“It really invigorated him,” Father Van Tassell said. “We were looking forward to having him in the classroom a few more years.”
Survivors include his sister, Theresa Rose Grandinetti, and his brother, Anthony Oravec.
Calling hours are from 3 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, followed by a vigil service in the Immaculate Conception Chapel, St. Francis University, Loretto. Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in the chapel.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416.