Father Joe Conwell, S.J., has served in many roles since his 1964 spring in Florence – as teacher, counselor, author and priest. His sense of humor, it’s safe to say, never left him.

By Kathleen Autumn Jones (’10)

Father Joe Conwell, S.J., spent the spring of 1964 corralling the chaos in Florence. He sat bedside as five girls fought appendicitis, he advocated for three students arrested by Florentine police, and he wrote regularly of the need for more space for the students.

Arriving for the spring semester, Fr. Conwell stepped into a group of 69 profoundly connected students. With a six-week voyage across the Atlantic Ocean and down the Rhine River, followed by two-and-a-half months together in Italy, the students knew each other well.

“By the time they got to Florence they were good friends,” said Fr. Conwell. “I visited other university programs in Rome where their students flew in and started class. They didn’t know each other, not the way our kids did.”

As Gonzaga-in-Florence’s first assistant director, Fr. Conwell handled any number of student needs. Five girls suffered from appendicitis during the first spring semester. Fr. Conwell visited them in the hospital frequently.

“I wrote letters to their families letting them know that their daughters were OK,” he said. “They had the papal doctor and were in good hands, but five was a big number for just a few months.”

Fr. Conwell and Fr. Neil McCluskey, S.J., then director of G-I-F, piloted learning experiences and travel for Gonzaga students. They traipsed through Europe and the Holy Land during G-I-F’s inaugural year, exploring Florence and Rome, Spain and Germany, Jerusalem and Turkey.

“The whole group traveled together, all 69 of them,” said Fr. Conwell. “That was unique of this group. No other university traveled all together all the time.”

Student accommodations were one concern of Fr. Conwell’s. He wrote letters to Gonzaga’s president, Father John P. Leary, S.J., detailing the progress of buildings and the need for more space. That first year, the men lived on the third floor of the Jesuit house, attached to a parish. It worked well for the most part, said Fr. Conwell.

“The boys would sometimes sit out the windows with their shirts off, somewhat of an anomaly in Italian culture,” he said. “The Italian women complained that they were scandalized, but they didn’t have to look up!”

The females lived in tight quarters in a convent when they first arrived in Florence.

“The girls and the nuns didn’t get along all that well,” said Fr. Conwell. “McCluskey moved them out and into a house, where they were fed mystery meat. They were not pleased.”

Fr. Conwell was also in charge of helping distressed students. One girl from Spokane, supposed to arrive in Florence for the spring semester, was caught in a transportation and mail strike. The trains and buses stopped running and she had no way of communicating with Fr. Conwell about her tardy arrival.

“She came in a few days late with her hands full of bus tickets,” said Fr. Conwell. “Twenty cents to get somewhere, twenty-five cents to get to the next place. She was scared we were going to throw her out. I laughed my head off.”

Another group of students, out late one night, decided to bend Florentine road signs such that they pointed in the wrong direction. Arrested and jailed by local police, Fr. Conwell helped them navigate the Italian legal system. The case went to court, but the process was quite different from the U.S. legal system, said Fr. Conwell.

“In Italy if your trial hangs in the air without a decision and you leave the country, that solves the problem,” he said. “The only thing is you can’t come back. Years later, one of the guys joined the military and they shipped him to Italy. They wouldn’t let him back into the country.”

In the 50 years since its inception, G-I-F has grown into new buildings and updated residences. Students no longer live in the Jesuit house or a convent. G-I-F students concurrently have modern amenities and access to places of historical significance. They cultivate a new understanding of themselves and their environment, said Fr. Conwell, and they still develop the same deep connections to their G-I-F classmates.

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