Longtime former SFU president dies

LORETTO – Saint Francis University’s longtime president who died Saturday will be remembered for his leadership, friendships, intelligence and success.

The Very Rev. Christian Oravec, president of Saint Francis from 1977 to 2004, died at Conemaugh Hospital in Johnstown after becoming ill.

“It was very sudden,” the Rev. Malachi Van Tassell, current Saint Francis University president, said Sunday night. “He went into the hospital on Friday.”

Oravec’s death resulted from lung-related and breathing difficulties,

Van Tassell said.

He was 77 (See obituary, Page A5).

“Father Christian was an absolutely wonderful man,” said Bud Shuster, retired Ninth District congressman who remains on the board of trustees at Saint Francis University.

“We worked closely together over the years,” Shuster said Sunday from his home in Bedford County. “Saint Francis today is not a little college stuck up on the mountain, but a great university, because of Father Christian and his 27 years as president. He was a leader in every respect.”

Van Tassell, who professed vows as a franciscan in 1999, said he remembers becoming acquainted with Oravec.

“When I entered the community as a young friar, he was university president at the time. And he was every inch, the president,” Van Tassell said. “I remember seeing him at all kinds of events, athletic, academic … He had a love for the university and when you saw Father Christian, you immediately thought of Saint Francis University.”

Tony DeGol, secretary of communications for the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, described Oravec’s contributions to Saint Francis as immeasurable but also commended his service to the local business and arts community.

“We were stunned and saddened by the passing of Father Oravec,” DeGol said in a statement issued Sunday night. “His passing is a great loss.”

Like Shuster, Van Tassell also credits Oravec and his leadership for turning Saint Francis College into Saint Francis University, the title the school started using in 2000.

“Under his leadership, the health sciences grew, in particular, the physician’s assistant program. It really came into its own,” Van Tassell said. “And during his tenure, the student population increased, too, to the point that the college built a new dormitory and called it Father Christian Hall.”

Bruno DeGol Jr., who currently serves on the board of trustees, and his family were acquainted with Oravec not only as a priest, but also as a friend of the family.

“My father and Father Christian were good friends,” Bruno DeGol said. “That’s how my acquaintance started with him. Father Christian, he was a warm and special guy … an interesting character and someone who was fun to be around.”

DeGol, whose family has a long history of providing financial support to Saint Francis, said Oravec and his father laughed for years about what they referred to as “the $2 million hamburger.”

“Father Christian invited my father to lunch one day,” DeGol said, “and he asked for a donation.”

Van Tassell said he last saw Oravec on Wednesday, when the franciscans held an event in recognition of Oravec’s 50th anniversary of being ordained into the priesthood. He said he talked with Oravec about a developing project that involves contacting the school alumni and Oravec was excited, thinking it would give him a chance to be in touch with some people with whom he had lost contact.

“He left big shoes to fill,” Van Tassel said.