Dr. Terence Nichols, a theology professor at St. Thomas for 27 years and the founder and co-director of the university’s Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center, died Saturday of cancer.
Nichols, 73, was diagnosed with cancer in January 2013 but continued to teach this academic year and spent spring break in Turkey during the last week of March, giving lectures and seminars. He was hospitalized earlier this month.
“Terry was one of the most important people in the history of the Theology Department,” said Dr. Bernard Brady, who succeeded Nichols as department chair in 2006. “He had an incredible work ethic and was one of the brightest people I have ever met. He introduced and was the first to teach courses at St. Thomas about Christianity and world religions, theology and the environment, and theology and science, and he was influential in developing bridge courses with other disciplines for our third core course requirement.”
A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, followed by lunch at a campus location to be determined. Visitation will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday in Kok Funeral Home, 1201 Portland Ave., St. Paul Park, and for the hour before the funeral in the chapel.
“We mourn the loss of a brilliant and wonderful colleague today,” President Julie Sullivan said. “On behalf of the university, I extend our sympathy to Terry’s family, friends and colleagues, and ask that they be kept in our prayers in the days ahead.”
A native of Edina, Nichols started college at Harvard and returned home to the University of Minnesota, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in humanities in 1967, but he did not immediately pursue an academic career. He worked in construction and owned a commercial roofing and waterproofing firm from 1971 to 1982. He and his wife, Mabel, opened Coat of Many Colors, a Grand Avenue shop that imports and sells Third World clothing, in 1978, and she still runs it today.
In 1982, Nichols decided to return to school to study theology at Marquette University. He received his doctorate in 1988 and joined the theology faculty at St. Thomas that fall. He was promoted to associate professor in 1997 and professor in 2003, and was department chair and a member of the Core Curriculum Task Force from 2002 to 2006. He was on the Faculty Affairs Committee from 1997 to 2001, serving as chair in his last year.
Brady said Nichols came up with the idea of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center in the aftermath of 9/11. The center’s mission is to foster mutual understanding and cooperation through academic dialogue grounded in the Quranic and Christian traditions and with the belief that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
“Terry took seriously what popes had said about the need for interreligious dialogue, particularly with Muslims,” Brady said. “He modeled the center off the dialogue that Catholics have had with Protestants for 50 years. He always would look for common ground, and he brought people together for rich discussions."
The center opened in 2007, and Nichols served as co-director with Dr. Adil Ozdemir of the Theology Department. The center sponsored speakers, panel discussions, workshops and trips to the Mideast to meet with religious leaders.
“Our dialogue partners in both Turkey and Iran are among the intellectual leaders in their countries,” Nichols said in a fall 2012 CAS Spotlight magazine story. “They are doing in their world what we do in ours: trying to teach others about God and pray that our efforts as Christians and Muslims will bring fruits of peace and understanding.”
In the last 27 months alone, Nichols, Brady and other St. Thomas faculty members made five trips to Turkey, Rome and Iran. Brady recalled how on their latest trip Nichols, despite his cancer, “was really engaged in everything we did. I’ll always remember him in front of 300 Muslims, explaining the Trinity to them. That’s how good he was.”
Nichols was a “multifaceted” teacher and scholar, said his son Peter, an adjunct instructor in philosophy at St. Thomas.
“He was involved in so many ways and on so many levels,” his son said. “He loved to teach, interact with colleagues and facilitate the work of the center. He also had a love of learning and an amazing breadth of interests.”
Nichols was the author of three books – That All May Be One: Hierarchy and Participation in the Church (1997), The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism (2003) and Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (2010). The latter book was the text this semester for his final class, Death and the Afterlife. His essay, “How to Understand Transubstantiation,” was published in the collection The Best Catholic Writing 2007.
He joined with Dr. Michael Naughton of St. Thomas and Dr. William Cavanaugh in 1999 to co-found Casa Guadalupana, a house of hospitality for homeless Latina women and children, on the West Side of St. Paul. Nichols made a down payment on the house and led a crew of workers to renovate it.
In addition to his wife and son, survivors include two daughters, Michele Cella and Theresa Nichols, and a grandson, Anthony.