'Spirit of zeal' propels La Salle principal into affiliation in Christian brotherhood

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PROVIDENCE — Throughout his distinguished 40-year career in education, Donald J. Kavanagh, the principal of La Salle Academy in Providence, has attained many honors.

Kavanagh has been named Rhode Island Principal of the Year, the Distinguished Lasallian Educator of the Long Island-New England District and the Rhode Island Track Coach of the Year.

To his resume Kavanagh can now add the title of Christian Brother.

“It is indeed the highest honor we Brothers bestow,” Brother Thomas Casey, F.S.C., said as he presented the Letters of Affiliation to Kavanagh during a special Mass and ceremony on Oct. 13 at La Salle Academy.

Kavanagh’s family, friends, colleagues and members of the De La Salle Christian Brothers attended the affiliation ceremony that marked the highest and most rare honor bestowed by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, a teaching congregation founded in the 17th century by St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle.

To affiliate a lay or religious person is to recognize them as a spiritual son or daughter of St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle. The affiliated member has embodied the congregation’s beliefs and values that include religious faith, love for young people, enthusiasm for Catholic and human education, sensitivity to the needs of the poor and a commitment to Christ and His Gospel.

“I accept this honor for the many lay women and men who have dedicated their lives to touching the hearts of the young people we serve,” said Kavanagh, who has been the principal of La Salle Academy since 2000.

Kavanagh, a graduate of La Salle Academy’s Class of 1969, was a track coach and faculty member at La Salle from 1973 to 1984, when he left to become principal of St. Raphael Academy in Pawtucket, a position he held until 1993.

Brother Casey, an auxiliary visitor from the congregation’s district for Eastern North America, recalled being a rookie administrator at St. Raphael Academy at the same time with Kavanagh.

“Having worked with Don 30-plus years ago and maintained contact with him to the present-day...I know and I feel that that spirit of faith and that spirit of zeal resides in that man,” Brother Casey said.

To be affiliated into the Christian Brothers, the congregation’s superior general and his council, meeting in Rome, have to approve a recommendation made by district leaders. Brother Casey noted that the Christian Brothers serve in 79 countries around the world.

“The letters of affiliation transcend the local community here in Providence. They even transcend the state of Rhode Island.... It’s an international recognition,” Brother Casey said.

Monsignor Albert Kenney, S.T.L., the vicar general and moderator of the curia for the Diocese of Providence who served as the chaplain for La Salle Academy from 1997 to 2010, commended Kavanagh as a “true Lasallian who understands the needs that touch both the heart and the mind of every student” he encounters.

“For almost 40 years, you have shared your life with the dedicated and mission-driven De La Salle Christian brothers and their very talented colleagues who have mirrored their lives on our founder, St. Jean-Baptiste de La Salle,” said Monsignor Kenney, who was the main celebrant for the Mass. He was assisted by Father Thomas Woodhouse, the current chaplain of La Salle Academy, and Father David Gaffney, the rector of Our Lady of Providence Seminary and a graduating member of La Salle Academy’s Class of 1977.

Kavanagh is the sixth of seven children who grew up in Providence in a devout Irish Catholic family. Kavanagh and his siblings all attended Catholic schools.

“Catholic education was a strong value for our family,” said Kavanagh’s sister, Sister Christine Kavanagh, who is a member of the Sisters of Mercy.

Speaking about her brother, Sister Kavanagh said he attended the College of the Holy Cross, where he met his wife, Christine. After graduating from Holy Cross, Kavanagh returned to La Salle Academy to begin his teaching career.

“I have always thought of myself as a teacher. When asked what I do, I say, ‘I teach at La Salle,’” said Kavanagh, who joked that his wife often has to tell people, “He’s the principal.”

As a principal, Sister Kavanagh said her brother has created “great support systems” for faculty and students, listening to their concerns, making them feel welcome and taking a genuine interest in their lives.

“He has helped La Salle to be the friendly face of the Catholic Church and the Christian brothers,” Sister Kavanagh said. “He has done this by being a great listener, a protector, a great negotiator, a defender and as an innovator in meeting the current needs of students today.”

During the affiliation ceremony, Kavanagh was presented with four “symbols” — the congregation’s rule that serves as a practical application of Lasallian spirituality, a crucifix to serve as a daily reminder to live the Paschal Mystery, a copy of the New Testament and a six-decade Rosary that has the Brother daily reflect on the mystery of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

During his brief remarks, Kavanagh later became choked up, and kiddingly said, “I think we need to go have some hors d’oeuvres.” He also joked that he is probably best known as “Mrs. Kavanagh’s husband,” and added that he had been “blessed over the years with tremendous support” from teachers, coaches, administrators and his family.

“My role,” he said, “is to take care of things so that teachers can teach and they don’t have to worry about the rest.”