Monsignor James Lavin, who devoted his life to serving the University of St. Thomas community, died Monday, Sept. 17, at the Little Sisters of the Poor residence near downtown St. Paul. He was 93.

Lavin had suffered from congestive heart failure and died of natural causes at the end of a 5:45 a.m. Mass celebrated in his room by Father Joseph Johnson, pastor of Holy Family parish in St. Louis Park.

“We got to the end of Mass,” Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Go in peace,’ and he breathed his last.”

Lavin’s funeral service will be at 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Paul campus, with a reception to follow in the field house of the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at O’Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home, 575 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul.

Memorials can be made to the Little Sisters of the Poor or two University of St. Thomas funds: the Peanut Butter and Jelly Fund or the Monsignor James Lavin Endowed Scholarship Fund.

Survivors include two nieces and four nephews.

“Monsignor Lavin was one of the most beloved figures in the history of St. Thomas,” said Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas. “His paramount concern was always purely and simply for the welfare of students. They always knew that they could come to him with problems large and small, and he provided common-sense counsel in a soft-spoken but firm voice. He exemplified total dedication.We shall not soon forget him.”

Lavin arrived at St. Thomas in 1936 as an undergraduate student and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English in 1940. He returned to campus in 1946 after his ordination and taught religion until 1967, when he became an academic counselor. He went to work for the St. Thomas Alumni Association in 1988 as a special assistant to the president and a university ambassador who attended countless events, funerals, weddings and baptisms.

Known widely as “Scooter,” he lived in Ireland Hall as an undergraduate from 1936 to 1940 and as a faculty member and administrator from 1946 to 2002. He began to offer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, also known as “Lavin Burgers,” in 1967 to residence hall students one or two evenings a week. Scooter’s restaurant – the original in Murray-Herrick Campus Center and the new version in the Anderson Student Center – carries his name, as does an annual award for volunteer service to the Alumni Association.

“He remains the face of the institution to generations of alumni, a priest of deep faith and consummate compassion who came to know thousands of students by name by simply living with them,” says a profile written about Lavin for a 2009 book on St. Thomas’ 125 years. “He carried his lifelong ministry with him into a nursing home, saying Mass, hearing confessions and leading the Rosary.”

When George Moskalik, a member of St. Thomas’ class of 1939, received the Monsignor James Lavin Award from the university’s Alumni Association in 1994, he said: “I can’t imagine St. Thomas without Monsignor Lavin – he is truly loved.”

A story in the autumn 1993 issue of St. Thomas magazine, written at the time of Lavin’s 75th birthday, said that his unofficial motto was: “I’ve got my feet on the ground; the prayers rise up to heaven.”

Born on the Iron Range

Five days after Lavin was born in Aurora, Minn., on Nov. 12, 1918, his mother died in a flu epidemic. He and his older brother, Edward, and stepbrother, Dennis, were raised with the help of a widowed housekeeper and later stepmother, Mary Jane St. Arnaud O’Brien.

During the Depression, his father moved the family to Minneapolis and took any construction field office job he could get, coming home for Christmas and Easter. The younger Lavin went to De La Salle High School, graduating in 1936 (he was named to the school’s Hall of Fame in 1990). He enrolled at St. Thomas, where he had minors in Latin and Greek in addition to his English major.

As chapel sacristan, Lavin had “time to talk to God,” he once said. “The idea of being a priest came in my sophomore year.” When he wrote from St. Thomas to his father in Wyoming that he had decided to enter the seminary, it was the first his father had heard of the subject. But Lavin received, by return mail, “a wonderful letter in which my father said he had always prayed to God that one of my boys would be a priest.”

Lavin attended the St. Paul Seminary and was ordained on Aug. 18, 1945. He soon began teaching at St. Thomas and moved back into Ireland Hall.

His work experience included teaching at St. Joseph’s Academy, the College of St. Catherine and St. Thomas Academy. He also earned a master’s degree in counseling. In 1967, he was named director of student counseling until the department divided and he became director of academic counseling in 1973. He “retired” in 1988 and immediately went to work in the Alumni Association office.

Honored as St. Thomas’ “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1973, Lavin also is perhaps the only priest to have a pub named after him. In 1988, the alcohol-free “Scooter’s” opened in the lower level of Murray-Herrick. Lavin didn’t remember who first named him “Scooter,” but the nickname surfaced in 1963 and referred to his brisk walk. “When I first came to St. Thomas,” he said, “I was called ‘Jumping’ Jim but I slowed down some and became Scooter.”

He was well-known for his life’s work with students, taking them on rock-climbing or snowshoeing expeditions. He was an avid hiker and mountain climber and during summer vacations he climbed to the summit of three 14,000-feet peaks in Colorado as well as Glacier Dome and Camp Mountain in British Columbia’s Purcell Range.

In grade school, Lavin had walked with a limp and doctors at the Mayo Clinic concluded he probably had contracted polio at some time. Surgery helped his walk, but for years he used exercise as therapy for his legs. To prepare for one of his mountain climbs, he left a leather chair in the doorway between his two rooms in Ireland Hall. The idea was to climb over the chair every time he moved from one room to another, and by the time he left for his trip, he was in shape to bushwhack through mountain brush.

He led a nightly prayer in Ireland Hall and was a friend to students and their families in times of crisis and grief. He loaned students money to fix their cars and buy their textbooks, regarding the money not as a loan but as a revolving fund (most paid it back). He also bailed students out of jail and accepted collect phone calls from dropouts anxious to re-enroll at St. Thomas.

“I don’t push myself on students, but I am always around,” he said at the opening of Scooter’s pub in 1988. “By living with them I am far more in touch with what they are thinking and how their lives are going than I would be in the formality of an office visit.”

“Finding God is a matter of knowing him by what he does,” Lavin said on another occasion, “and if we make a great effort to keep the commandments, a lot of problems of losing faith disappear. Deep down the roots of faith are there. Once you have them, you can, like dandelions, dig out the top, but below they are still growing, still alive.”

It would be impossible to estimate the number of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Lavin served outside his Ireland Hall room for 35 years before he moved out; the sandwiches still are served today. Each week, the hungry students chomped their way through 25 loaves of bread, 15 pounds of peanut butter and 10 pounds of jelly. Except for occasional contributions, Lavin paid for it all.

He was just as connected to another St. Thomas landmark, the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas – as a student he served as its sacristan and as a priest he celebrated Mass there almost daily. The chapel was nearly 80 years old when the university commissioned a book to serve as a detailed guide to the theological themes found in its art and architecture. Lavin authored the extensively illustrated book, The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas: Discovering its Message, published in 1997.

“Walk into the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas,” he wrote, “and you’ll see … in the windows, walls and ceilings … an artistic course in Catholic theology portraying nothing less than ‘the whole plan of God’s dealing with men.’ ”

Two Alumni Felt a Special Connection

Two alumni – Tim Fischer ’84 and Fred Soucie ’73 – said that Lavin indeed was “always around.”

“He made everybody feel close to him,” said Fischer, a senior gift officer in the St. Thomas Development Office. “You couldn’t avoid but be drawn in by the twinkle in his eye and his eagerness to get to know who you were and what you were all about.”

Fischer lived in Ireland Hall as a freshman and sophomore, and recalled their first meeting. Fischer had returned to campus in the early-morning hours, having been “pretty overserved” at a local bar, he admitted, and took pool balls from the basement to the second-floor hallway, where he set them up on the floor.

“On that terrazzo floor, you could hear every bounce of the pool ball,” Fischer said. “Laying down, I felt a tap at my ribs. I looked around and it was Father Lavin. ‘What in the world do you think you’re doing?’ he asked me. ‘Playing pool,’ I said. ‘Pick ’em up and follow me,’ he said. I followed him upstairs and he quietly proceeded to fix me a sandwich, sat me down and explained how things worked at St. Thomas. From that time on, he was a mentor and a friend.”

As a sophomore, Fischer said, he struggled with his Introductory to Theology course and went to Lavin to ask where he could find a tutor.

“He told me that he’d be happy to help me, and he also said, ‘Everybody has a gift, and your gift seems to be in the weight room,’ referring to how I liked to work out. ‘You may have to spend a little more time with the books.’ He then would sit with Father (Roy) Lepak (the professor who taught the course) at lunch, find out the next lesson in class and tutor me. I think I got a C, and we both celebrated.”

Fischer returned to campus to work in 2006. “One of the things that always happens in my job is that people ask, ‘How is Father Lavin doing?’ and it was great because I could tell them. Everybody has a Father Lavin story — about his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or about loaning gas money or letting them use his car for a first date. I just feel lucky that I have more than one story.”

Soucie was one of those students who received “loans” from Lavin.

“He had a sixth sense about him,” said Soucie, who received the Mr. Tommy Award in 1973 and today is a lawyer in Coon Rapids, with two daughters (Sarah and Ruth) as fellow St. Thomas graduates. “He had his fingers on the pulse of the campus in a remarkable way, and he knew which kids needed help the most. He always knew when I was broke, and he would have me run errands for him and give me $10. That was a fortune back then. He would go to bat for kids all the time, and he also would ask me to help him to look out for students.”

Soucie recalled how he had a puppy in Ireland Hall his junior year, against the rules.

“I named him Becket (after St. Thomas Becket, a 12th century priest), Soucie said. “Father Lavin would stop by my room with a treat for the puppy, and then we’d go outside and play. Father Lavin not only looked the other way, but he brought Becket treats!”

Soucie went to see Lavin last Thursday.

“When I walked in his room, he was asleep with his head back, and I went over and sat down next to him and said, ‘Hello, Father.’ He looked a little glazed, and then his eyes recognized me. We gave each other a hug and I kissed him on the forehead. We had a great visit. I gave him water and said, “I know it’s hard for you to speak. I’ll do the talking.’ So we talked – we told Annie Scanlan stories (about a campus nurse in the 1960s and 1970s) and we laughed — not very loud or long, but we still laughed.”

Prayers and Mass Filled His Final Hours

Johnson visited Lavin on Saturday and decided to stay overnight with him on Sunday. The Little Sisters of the Poor have a tradition of praying with a resident who is dying, Johnson said, “and so we prayed all night.” Lavin was conscious much of the time.

“I celebrated the Mass for the Dying,” Johnson said, “and was able to give him Communion, which is called Viaticum when it’s given to a dying person. It’s the grace for the final passage.”

Johnson recalled having talked with Lavin about death over the summer, and again when he was in the hospital last month with heart problems.

“When he came back to the Little Sisters residence, we were getting him settled and he looked at me and said, ‘That’s the last time,’ meaning the hospital. He was ready. A couple of weeks ago, when he had another heart episode, the sisters told him, ‘It’s time to take you to the hospital,’ and he said, ‘No, sister, I’m ready.’

“He was a priest. He knew his whole life journey was toward eternity. He enjoyed nearly a century here on earth, but he always knew that his destination was somewhere else.”

Editor’s note: We will continue to update this story as we receive more information.

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33 Responses

  1. P.J. Montville

    A big heart, a friendly ear, a great mind, and an eternal soul. God bless Fr. Lavin. We are all blessed because of you.

  2. tom corley

    Father Lavin was (is) a Saint. We are all better men for having the opportunity to live in his midst in Ireland Hall……..

  3. Chris Lentz 93

    I remember fondly living two doors down from Father Lavin for 3 years. I would have moved out of any other dorm, but Father was the face of Ireland Hall, and a greater resident the campus never saw. God grant you eternal rest old friend.

  4. Dan Ireland

    I got back from a trip and was clearing out my e-mails when I saw the notice that Fr. Lavin had died.
    He was a good, caring , saintly man. The world was a better place because of him, it’s all any of us can ask for.

  5. Robert Hart

    It was a trip seeing myself and others I lived with in the video above about Ireland Hall. I met Fr. Lavin several years before starting school at St. Thomas. I’ll always remember him as a gentle man with a great deal of patience. I never understood how he could live with a bunch of noisy men 18 – 22 in Ireland Hall and with a lot of grace.

  6. Mike Toay

    Fr Lavin and I went camping in Taylor’s Falls after Christmas one year, must’ve been 1978 (or 1980). Anyway, it was close to 20 degrees below zero! He always stopped and had the butcher cut porterhouse steaks in Lindstrom. As usual, we had metal plates, and when we “plopped” that hot steak on the metal plate it instantly melted the snow underneath, only to freeze almost instantly. We laughed as those plates weren’t very easy to pull off that frozen table. The steaks were pretty darn good though. We had a great trip. It wasn’t the only time we hiked and camped. We are all blessed to have known him.)

  7. Vince Gramling

    I lived in Ireland Hall during the years of ’78 and ’79. I was young and foolish. I gave up on college and dropped out. Father Lavin didn’t give up on me. He worked with me and I returned years later. I owe my my college degree to him and I will never forget what he did for me. Later in life when I was in the hospital I got an unexpected visit from him. It amazed me that with all the students he dealt with he didn’t forget me. He was remarkable Priest/person. May he rest in peace.

  8. Tom King

    How wonderful the prayerful dismissal by Fr. Joseph at Msgr. Lavin’s last Mass: “Go in peace….”!

    The Right Reverend “Jumping Jim” Lavin leaps clear into heaven to claim the reward he so richly deserves, exemplifying as he did, lifelong, each of the Corporal Works of Mercy.

    He did them all…fed the hungry, visited the sick and imprisoned, buried the dead, lent his car keys…

    He heard my brother’s final confession and put him at peace with the Lord.

    He touched my life, first as my teacher at St. Thomas back in 1956, and later as a friend who needed a ride somewhere.

    He reminded me once, when I complained about losing my car keys, that, more importantly, I hadn’t lost my faith. Fr. Lavin was one reason I haven’t.

    Please continue to keep us in your prayers and intercessions, Father Lavin!

  9. John J. Murphy '78

    My wife and I have two daughters enrolled as freshmen at St. Thomas this year. During “move in” weekend it was hard not to be overcome with emotion thinking of all the fine people at St. Thomas who helped me along the way. When I was a sophomore, my father died of a heart attack and Fr. Lavin came to my room to tell me he had died. He was kind, caring and sympathetic, but firm. He told me his mother had died when he was young and that I must go on. My father would want me to. My mother and sister needed me to. My prayer is that my daughters learn the values Fr. Lavin taught me. It is the best way to honor him.

  10. JP Zandlo

    I remember serving Mass as an alter boy for Msgr Lavin at Immaculate Conception in Columbia Heights 35 years ago. We were Blessed to share a faith with this great man and servant to God.

  11. Jim Hougen

    I remember Fr. Lavin as the rector of Ireland Hall. He was a great man. I remember seeing him again at the ’55 class reunion when I became a member of the ‘Old Guard’.

    Last week I thought about the various priests who affected my life. It was strange because I had not thought about Fr. Lavin since that reunion.

    May he rest in peace.

  12. Jerry Farrell

    We will never see the likes of him again. He was a treasure at St. Thomas. A wonderful man with a kind and generous heart. His kindness & generosity to students is the stuff of legends.
    Rest in Peace, Father Lavin, and thank you for helping so many of us.

  13. David Torgerson Class of 1968

    I took Father Scooter for Theology of the Sacraments in 1967. Everyone on campus in the late 1960s knew stories about him. He would dispose of the beer bottles that littered the campus on many Saturday nights so the dean of students would not investigate and discipline a student. He talked about the faithfulness of his father in tough circumstances. He lived out that same gift of faithfulness in his priesthood. His heart was not on his sleeve–his heart was too big to fit on his sleeve. He lived the grace of God the Father in exemplary fashion. We have an opportunity to honor his memory and automatic admission into heaven by performing one Scooterlike act of kindness today.

  14. John Goodman Class of 1970

    What little Father Lavin asked of you -you wanted to be sure to do it for him. It usually was something simple, a ride to school or a funeral. One time the funeral was a relative that Father Lavin was very close to. It had the earmarks of being a coincidence, a chance meeting. It all became much more than a ride…it was ordained. Things were not really ever a coincidence with Father Lavin. Things always ended up being very meaningful. He used up his life helping people. I don’t know of anyone else that can compare to Scooter.

  15. Scott Hull

    I was so lucky to work directly at his side for the seven years I worked at the UST alumni office. He was one of the best friends I ever had and obviously one of the greatest people any of us ever knew. Get some rest Father Lavin!

    • Beth

      Hey Scotty,
      My heart is heavy today. I have been thinking about you and hoping you had heard. Father Lavin was a blessing to us all, wasn’t he? Sending love to you & Dana.

  16. Tom Lach

    When I first visited St. Thomas I met with Fr. Lavin. He made me feel at home. When he found out I was from Immaculate Conception Church in Columbia Heights where he said mass weekly. He insisted the only choice for me was St. Thomas. Before I knew it he had me signed up for my cources and I was enrolled. Thanks to Monsignor Lavin if it wasn’t for him I probably would not have gone to St. Thomas and had such a wonderful career.

  17. tom glennon

    It is the only time I ever went snow shoeing.

    It was my first winter in Minnesota. I was probably mildly depressed. He invited me to the bluffs of the Mississippi
    and we went snowshoeing.

    His kindness, attention, generousity and , dare I say it,
    his love for others….
    Inspired me.

    Thank you UST…………Rest in Peace Msgr Lavin

    Tom Glennon

  18. Joseph Schisler

    He was truely a great person and a true friend to all the CST students. Proud to have been a resident of 3rd floor Ireland Hall while at CST. He made a difference in my life as he did so often with many others. We knew who we could turn and was always confident that he would be there to help.

    He was one of a kind and I doubt if we ever see another like him again.

    Joseph G. Schisler

    Class of 1975

  19. Tim Trusk

    For 3 1/2 years I called Ireland Hall my home, and “Scooter” will forever be a part of all my memories of those happy times. Countless were the times his “Lavin Burgers” fed us through all night study sessions. More importantly — he was there when you needed someone to help if you needed it. He was a good man, He was a greater soul… A role model for those who want to know what it is to be a priest.

    He will be missed. Rest in peace Fr. Lavin.

    Class of 1980

  20. Justin Rush

    Being an alter boy in the 90’s at St. Micheal’s Perish i have to say Monsignor you will be missed. Our time together will never be forgotten, you have given me advice that i will carry to the grave.

  21. Fred Gill

    Monsignor Lavin was one of the neatest guys I ever met. I recall him calling me in to his study in “72” He wanted to know why I was occupying a seat at St. Thomas while some one else really wanted to study. I left St. Thomas then with a prmoise that if I ever wanted to come back he would see to it that I could. PS 116:15 Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.
    Till we meet again, rest in peace.

  22. Larry Connolly Jr

    Father Lavin was much more than an advisor to this new freshman in 1967. He provided logical direction, when times were hard and spiritual inspiration when needed. His sandwiches were his portal to a conversation and always worked. With both parents working, I sometimes would bring my little sister to campus. Friends would babysit her while I attended classes and we would often visit Father where he would make her giggle and feed her his, crust cut off, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He predicted that she would make her family and the College of St. Thomas proud as she grew up and as life would be she recently received her Masters from the University of St. Thomas. Funny how right he was.

  23. Seth Grabek

    I started at St. Thomas in 1995. I had a few bad experiences during freshman year. Father Lavin brought me into his room and talked about things with me.

    His compassion towards a complete stranger was something that always stayed with me. God Bless you Father Lavin!

    Seth Grabek

    Class of 1999

  24. Eric Curran-Bakken

    I remember my days in Ireland Hall fondly and I especially remember the nights when Father Lavin put out the pbj’s. Once in a while we got “caught” and said the rosary with him. I wonder how many students were saved from starvation. He also had a great ear and would listen and provide inspiration whenever it was needed. RIP Monsignor Lavin.
    Eric Curran-Bakken Class of 1982

  25. Ken Stilling

    “Scooter” as he was known affectionately to all of us , was a true inspiration. He will be missed by so many Tommies. A number of us have a trip planned to go back for Homecoming this year and I was praying that we would get the opportunity to see Father one last time and thank him for all that he did for me and for all students over the years at St. Thomas. We love you Father and we will miss you, but we will never ever forget what you did.
    Ken Stilling / Class of 1967