St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, inaugurated a new prayer space for Muslim students this week, co-designed by the Saudi Student Association.
The new prayer space, which is equipped with sinks for ritual foot-washing and separate areas for male and female worshippers, was built in memory of Father Joe DeFrancisco, a professor of comparative religions who died last July at the age of 69.
The school said that the prayer room was named in honor of the priest “as an acknowledgment of his efforts to promote the universality of faiths throughout a 27-year career as a St. Ambrose professor of Theology.”
According to senior Student Government Association President Matthew Mahoney, the idea for a dedicated Islamic prayer space began with a suggestion by DeFrancisco himself, who felt that Muslim students “didn’t really have a substantial enough prayer rooms on campus.”
“This is a truly appropriate way to honor Fr. Joe,” said Sister Joan Lescinski, president of the college. “His openness to all members of the Quad Cities faith community was a living example of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.”
“Former students still talk about the impact visits to temples and mosques had on them as members of his Comparative Religions class,” she added.
“Being able to say that we’re committed to these Muslim students, and to all students—students of all different faiths—is really outstanding,” Mahoney said.
“It’s uniquely Ambrosian, and it just sort of shows our commitment to all different faiths.”
While praised by many for its open-mindedness, the school’s decision to open a Muslim prayer space did not sit well with all Catholic observers, some of whom claimed that the move effectively waters down the college’s Catholic identity and mission.
Writing for the Daily Wire, Paul Bois said that “it seems counter to a Catholic school’s mission statement to provide sex-segregated ‘safe spaces’ for Muslim students to conduct prayer.”
Offering a dedicated Muslim prayer space basically turns the school into “a secular institution with a crucifix on it,” Bois wrote. “Either it’s teaching students to become better Catholics or it’s teaching students to become good millennials; it can’t do both.”
While in theory the space is open to students of all religions, the university explained that the facility “is built to suit the specific needs of students of the Islamic faith.”
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