A dedicated scholar, keen wit, 'rising star'

Colleagues remember Peter D'Agostino fondly

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A professor remembered
Peter R. D'Agostino had both a powerful mind and a gentle nature.

The southeast Oak Park resident was killed last week at age 42 as he was coming home from his job as an associate professor of history and Catholic studies at University of Illinois at Chicago where he had been on the faculty since 2001.

"His colleagues saw him as a rising star; his friends saw him as a lively and kind person," said Christopher Boyer, a colleague in the UIC history department and one of approximately 10 members of the department who live in Oak Park.

"He had a really wry sense of humor. He was a serious person who knew how to throw in a zinger once in awhile. That made him so much fun to socialize with," Boyer said.

D'Agostino was a path-breaking historian whose research and writing focused on the development of the Catholic Church in America, colleagues said. His book "Rome in America: Transnational Catholic Ideology from the Risorgimento to Fascism" won the Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize of the American Society of Church History in 2003 and was a widely praised work that challenged past interpretations and broke new ground.

The Chicago Tribune described the book as a "well regarded and expansive history of Catholicism in America." Commonweal magazine called it a "book of landmark significance" and described D'Agostino as "an intellectually courageous historian."

D'Agostino was as dedicated to teaching as he was to his research.

"He was a terrific colleague and an incredibly talented teacher," said Eric Arenson, the chairman of the history department at UIC. "He took his teaching so seriously and he was so dedicated to it. He was earnest. He was dedicated. He took what he did very seriously, but he also had a element of levity."

His students at UIC said that he was a teacher who made a big impact. His love for history shone through his lectures. But so did his love for his wife and young daughter, both of whom he often spoke of in class according to one student.

"He was a valued colleague to people in several departments and was particularly well-liked by his students," UIC Chancellor Sylvia Manning wrote in an email to the university community at large.

D'Agostino grew up the youngest of five children in Staten Island, N.Y. He received his bachelor's degree in religious studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I. In 1987, he earned a master's degree in religion at the University of Chicago and he received his Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from the University of Chicago in 1993.

At the U. of C. D'Agostino became a student of, and research assistant to, Martin Marty, generally considered the leading scholar of American religious history.

Marty has directed many dissertations and said that D'Agostino ranked among the best of all his students.

"He was one of the best of the 115 I had in 35 years," said Marty, who remained friendly with D'Agostino. Marty said D'Agostino was one of the most interesting students that he ever taught.

"He was always a good student and tenacious scholar," said Marty who is now emeritus professor of religious history at the U. of C. "He was a delight in seminars, always prepared. He was just a plain interesting guy."

D'Agostino spent a year in Rome immersed in the Vatican archives doing research for his dissertation. He taught himself archaic forms of Italian so he could read the old documents. For him it was a labor of love.

"He loved the archives," said Marty.

But he also had other interests. D'Agostino enjoyed playing bluegrass violin and mandolin and could be coaxed to entertain at the parties Marty would sometimes host for his students. D'Agostino was active at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

D'Agostino's book argued that the Vatican's influence on the developing Catholic church in America was greater than most previous historians had believed. His research and writing focused on the development of the Catholic Church in America. His work linked Church history with the history of immigration, especially the history of Italian-Americans.

While D'Agostino was a bold, brave scholar unafraid to challenge past interpretations he always maintained a sunny disposition that usually was apparent on his face.

"He had a very winning, impish smile," Marty said.

Nathelda McGee, who works at the U. of C. divinity school, also remembered his smile. "He was charming," said McGee. "He was Italian and that really came through."

D'Agostino's combination of intellect and personality made him a special person.

"He could relate to people on so many different levels," said Gary Peluso-Verdend, a friend from D'Agostino's graduate school days. The two shared a special bond because of their shared interests and shared Italian heritage. "He was a very winsome personality, very warm, genuine. He wasn't shy to speak up in the classroom. I will remember Peter's careful scholarship, keen mind, sense of humor, smile, and gentle personality."

Peluso-Verdend compared D'Agostino to Nathaniel, the disciple of Jesus, who the Bible describes as an Israelite without guile.

After a year as a visiting professor at UIC, D'Agostino taught for six years at Stonehill College, a small Catholic college in North Easton, Mass.

"In those six years he made his mark," said Martin McGovern, spokesman for Stonehill College. "It was obvious that he was an exceptional teacher and scholar. He was very bright, very, very capable as both a scholar and a teacher. He was respected by both colleagues and students."

D'Agostino was hired by UIC in 2001 and was awarded tenure in 2004.

In addition to his award-winning book, D'Agostino published a number of scholarly articles and contributed chapters to other scholarly works.

He is survived by his wife of approximately three years, Mary Mapes, an adjunct professor of American history at Lake Forest College, his 1-year-old daughter Rita Grace, his parents Vincent and Rita D'Agostino, and four siblings: Vincent, Catherine, Michael, and Susan.

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