Never in the 166-year history of Saint John’s University – let alone the 110 years since the College of Saint Benedict was founded – has a sitting head of a national government ever visited campus. But that will change on Monday (Dec. 11), with the guest of honor coming from a country more intertwined with the two schools than any other.
Prime Minister Philip Davis of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas will lead an entourage of about a dozen dignitaries to visit Saint Ben’s in the morning and Saint John’s in the afternoon, culminating with his appearance as the speaker for the 17th annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture on Monday night in the Stephen B. Humphrey Theater. The lecture, followed by a question-and-answer session with Brittany Merritt Nash, an assistant professor of history, is free and open to the public however a ticket will be required for entry.
While The Bahamas still recognize King Charles III of the United Kingdom as monarch and head of state, Davis’ appearance coincides with the 50th anniversary of Bahamian independence and highlights roots that run much deeper. In 1891, Fr. Chrysostom Schreiner was sent from Saint John’s to become the first Catholic priest assigned to The Bahamas. He and others who followed opened Catholic schools, and some students from those schools went on to further their studies at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. Some became priests and nuns, returning to perform parish duties and teach throughout the islands, launching a cyclical synergy that continues today in a country of about 400,000 people that encompasses a 500-mile chain of islands east of Miami.
Saint Ben’s alumna Telzena Coakley ’62 co-founded Benedictine University College, which operated there from 1974-2000 and provided a way for Bahamians to take much of their curriculum at home but also spend a semester or year at CSB and SJU to graduate from the institutions. More than 1,600 natives of The Bahamas have earned degrees from Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s – by far the most of any nation outside the U.S. Currently, there are 57 Bahamian students on campus hoping to follow in their footsteps. And Nash is in the process of writing a book about more than 130 years of history between CSB and SJU and The Bahamas.
“It’s a major event for Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s to have the prime minister visit, and it’s also a major event for The Bahamas and will go a long way to concretize the relationship between them,” said Philip Galanis ’75, a member of the CSB and SJU boards of trustees, who served 15 years in parliament, is in his second stint as chair of The Bahamas Trade Commission and for 25 years has been managing partner of a company that provides accounting and financial advisory services throughout the islands. “I think he recognizes the contributions by the Benedictines to our national development. When I suggested he visit the campus, he said, ‘Yes. I will come because it’s time.’ He has seen the enormous impact our Bahamian graduates have made in returning home and helping develop our nation.”
Davis, 72, an acclaimed corporate and human rights lawyer, became leader of the Progressive Liberal Party in 2017 and took office following general elections in 2021.
“This visit shows that he cares about the next generation of Bahamian students by taking time out of his busy schedule to come and speak to us,” said A’Jani Culmer, a sophomore computer science major from Nassau, who serves on the CSB Senate. “We are trying to further our education and competencies to make a positive impact for The Bahamas. We represent future business and government leaders, and the relationship with Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s is very significant as we have many alumni that are in key positions in Bahamian society who can attest to the quality of the education that is offered here. I chose this university because of how former attendees spoke so highly of the schools.”
While Davis ironically attended St. John’s College (High School) on The Bahamas’ most populous island, New Providence, he’ll only have to look as far as the members of his traveling party to learn much about CSB and SJU. Among them will be: The Hon. Neville Adderley ’67, a former Supreme Court justice who is chair of the Securities Commission; Creswell Sturrup ’74 and Luther Smith ‘72, both permanent secretaries in the Office of the Prime Minister; Samantha Rolle ’04, executive director of a Bahamian business advisory service, who already was working for the Office of the Prime Minister less than 10 years after she graduated; and Barry Griffin ‘09, who is the current vice president of the Bahamian Senate. The Bahamian ambassador to the U.S., Wendell Jones, also will be on hand – not coincidentally because his grandson, Kennedy Rolle, is a sophomore at SJU.
Eagerly awaiting Davis will be Prince Wallace ’68, who came to SJU from The Bahamas on a full scholarship in 1964, married a Minnesota native (his wife of more than 55 years, the former Sandra Hiemenz) and stayed for a successful business career as owner of several companies in the Twin Cities.
“I’ve known the Prime Minister since we were young,” said Wallace, who served as an SJU trustee from 2007-15 and in 2018 received the Walter Reger Distinguished Alumnus Award – the highest honor given by the alumni association. “I haven’t spoken with him about exactly what he is going to say when he’s here, but I’m sure he is going to appreciate what the Benedictines have done for our country. I didn’t experience indoor plumbing until I went to high school. I grew up studying by kerosene lamps, and I have two of them at my house still as a remembrance. That’s where we started, and the Benedictines said, ‘We are going to educate you, the Bahamian people.’ Education is the magic key that unlocks the padlocks of poverty. Nothing else is as effective. When you look at the economy of The Bahamas and compare it throughout the Caribbean, we are right at the top. This can be an opportunity to say thank you, and I think Minnesotans need to hear that from the Bahamian people.”
Twice in the past seven years, the Bahamian government signed a memorandum of understanding with Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s that committed government scholarships of between $11,000 and $16,000 for priority majors.
Ilan White, a sophomore political science and communication major from New Providence, has received government scholarship support and played a pivotal role in initially suggesting Davis as a McCarthy speaker.
“There are vast stories of success for Bahamians who have come through these schools,” said White, who serves in the SJU Senate and will be part of the Washington D.C. Summer Study program in 2024. “We’ve been seeing these results for almost 100 years, and these are nation builders we’re talking about. Many of our teachers were educated here, went back home and taught others who then came here. It will be most meaningful for the prime minister to see with his own eyes the community that has helped forge our country.”
Davis will come to Minnesota on Sunday following an appearance at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Dubai. He is expected to meet with state business, government and education leaders Sunday night in suburban Minneapolis, then visit CSB and SJU President Brian Bruess, Abbot John Klassen and Prioress Karen Rose and other board members early Monday at Renner House. A Bahamian TV crew is expected to follow Davis throughout the day. His stops will include the Multicultural Center and lunch with student leaders at CSB. At SJU, he’ll see the Abbey and University Church, the Abbey Woodworking Building, The Saint John’s Pottery studio, the McCarthy Center and SJU Library to experience The Saint John’s Bible. The prime minister also will meet with students from Extending The Link and view parts of a documentary they created about The Bahamas.
In his speech Monday night, Davis is expected to address climate change, economics and other challenges related to The Bahamas – and how the relationship with Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s could help find solutions. He'll have a prominent example on hand in Jervon Sands ’23, who last week was named the second Rhodes Scholar in SJU history and just the fourth in the history of The Bahamas.
Sands plans to pursue a Master of Sciences (MSc) in Environmental Change and Management, and an MSc in Sustainability, Enterprise and the Environment beginning next October at Oxford. Upon completion, he expects to return to The Bahamas and put his skills to work for the government.
“We’ve had a wonderful record of outstanding public leaders, elected officials, activists and journalists address the McCarthy Center lecture,” said Matt Lindstrom, director of the McCarthy Center for Public Policy and Civic Engagement. “Because of the incredible relationship our schools have with The Bahamas, I think you can probably say this is the most important guest we’ve had.”
The annual McCarthy Lecture carries forward former U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy’s commitment to the ideals and principles of democratic government. It seeks to inspire a new generation to pursue fresh ideas, challenge the status quo and effect positive change while – like McCarthy – leading with honesty, integrity and courage.
Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis (left) receives a package of gifts from CSB and SJU President Brian Bruess during a trip to The Bahamas by a group of Saint Ben's and Saint John's officials last March.