Ewa Thompson Celebrates John Paul II’s Legacy with Charitable Gift to JPII Institute

UST’s new JPII institute offers the only program of its kind focusing on JPII in the context of Polish history and culture. With Ewa Thompson’s gift, the Institute will expand its offerings.

With her philanthropic gift of approximately $200,000, Dr. Ewa Thompson, professor emeritus of Slavic Studies at Rice University, is leading the way to putting the work of the University of St. Thomas’ Saint John Paul II Institute on solid and sustainable ground.

Thompson, and her late husband James (a mathematics professor), who served as a faculty couple at Rice for 40 years, had plans to leave a piece of property on the Blanco river in Wimberley, Texas, to the Institute in their will, but Thompson decided to offer the financial support now. The Saint JPII Institute presents an opportunity to give new life to the Slavic studies work she was deeply rooted in and has loved her entire career—especially the exploration of Polish history and culture.

Their charitable gift, known as the Ewa and James Thompson Endowed Fund, will enhance the Institute’s efforts to facilitate the understanding of the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II in the context of Polish influences.

“Prof. Ewa Thompson’s generous gift helps enable The Saint John Paul II institute to bring to life the many gifts of this great pope,” UST President Richard Ludwick said. “Her commitment to, and passion for, the richness of Polish society and its lasting contribution to our world is remarkable and will continue to inspire.”

The John Paul II Institute Offerings, Including Study Abroad in Poland

In 2017, The John Paul II institute was born out of a smaller program, the JPII Forum. Led by the acclaimed Dr. John Hittinger, the new institute offers a one-of-a-kind program.

Hittinger said, “The donation by Dr. Thompson is a great step forward for the new institute. As we are just finishing our first year of operation, we need to move forward with the support of the community to achieve our goals of becoming an outstanding testament to the study of Saint John Paul II in the context of Polish history and culture.”

Graduate students can comprehensively study the thought of John Paul II, including all of his 14 encyclicals. This online program is flexible for busy professionals and includes a capstone course.

 “Dr. Thompson’s donation sets up an endowment so that we can launch the Polish studies component of our Institute and expand our study abroad program in Poland when it is safe to travel,” Hittinger said. “Dr. Thompson is one of the top scholars of Slavic studies in the United States and she has contributed much over the past 40 years to the exploration especially of Polish culture and history. This endowment will honor her work and bring the thought of Saint John Paul II to many students in Houston and the United States.”

Ewa Thompson’s Life and Work

Born in Lithuania, her Polish parents were expelled from Lithuania by the Soviets after World War 2. As postwar refugees, they left all their belongings to flee to Gdansk (Danzig) on the Baltic Coast of Poland. Gdansk was a place left in ruins by the Russians. There, they lived in a poverty she describes as ”unimaginable in US” until her parents found better accommodations.

As life improved, Thompson earned a bachelor’s degree in English and Russian from University of Warsaw. She went on to earn an MFA from the Sopot Conservatory of Music in Piano. The future professor found her way to America on an educational scholarship and earned a master’s degree in English at Ohio State and a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Vanderbilt. There she met and married her husband James. She and James secured decades-long teaching positions at Rice.

During her tenure at Rice, Thompson, a world-renowned scholar on Polish and Russian Studies, launched and was editor of a top scholarly journal on Polish culture, the Sarmatian Review, published from 1981-2018. Among her numerous books and publications, Thompson authored Imperial Knowledge: Russian Literature and Colonialism (Greenwood 2000) on the connections between Russian Imperialism and Russian literature. The book was translated into six languages. Another work, Understanding Russia: The Holy Fool in Russian Culture (Univ. Press of America 1987), examined the blending of shamanism and Christianity in Russian culture. The book is now in its third Chinese edition and was recently translated into Polish. Thompson still travels to Poland every year, except this year with the pandemic. She frequently contributes to Polish periodicals, particularly to Teologia Polityczna.

Continuing Her Legacy and that of this Great Saint

Thompson said, “The legacy of JPII is not just a legacy of another pope. There have been quite a few popes, but not every pope leaves behind the stream of wisdom that John Paul II has left. By studying his features of civility, spiritual and physical, and his ability to relate to the individual, we can bring back these qualities for all.”

JPII’s Gift of Integrating the Spiritual and Physical

 “I am delighted about the Saint JPII Institute’s approach to introduce Pope John Paul II to the American public and students at UST,” Thompson said. “His legacy is extremely typical of the country he comes from. He was an ordinary priest with deep philosophical insight. He was able to combine physical and spiritual in a remarkable way in his writings. This balance of spiritual and physical should serve as a model for many thinkers who are going too far toward spiritualty. We are not fully human until we come to understand that human beings consist of these two inseparable components,” she said.

JPII’s Gift of Connecting to Each Individual Even in a Crowd

Thompson notes that some people have the ability to speak to individuals while speaking to an enormous crowd. She believes JPII possessed this gift.

“That art is extraordinary,” Thompson said. “When he spoke, everyone felt he was speaking to them alone. This trait is more typical of non-Germanic Central Europe than Western Europe.”

JPII’s Gift of Praying Humbly

Thompson also makes note that JPII was truly a spiritual man as can be seen in many pictures of him praying.

“He is so deeply at prayer,” Thompson said. “He doesn’t see his surroundings. There is a sincerity in him that has all but disappeared from Catholic parish life.

Thompson believes that these are the good things in Catholicism that need to be brought back and studied on American campuses.”

Strong Polish Presence in America, Texas and Houston

There are 10 million Americans of Polish descent in the United States. Poles immigrated to Texas in mid-19th century, among others to College Station, Panna Maria and Brenham where they were farmers. Houston has a large Polish population estimated at 80,000 Poles living here.

Today, many Polish companies are doing business in Houston in the oil and gas sector and with the Texas Medical Center. Houston has a Polish/American Chamber of Commerce. Two years ago, Poland opened a Polish consulate in Houston, and only five cities in America can claim the distinction. Houston’s Polish parish, Our Lady of Czestochowa, located on Blalock Road in Spring Branch, celebrates Mass in Polish.

Making UST a Hub for JPII and Polish Studies

Ludwick would like to make the University of St. Thomas a hub for Polish Studies in Houston. He is of the JPII Generation and has a genuine passion for the Saint.

“Much of my own formation was shaped by the great Saint’s pontificate,” Ludwick said. “In addition, my parish priest growing up, Fr. Raczek, was Polish and in an even more personal way I benefitted from those two Polish priests. I hope the JPII Institute will vivify for all and perpetuate the tremendous impact of St. Pope John Paul II, his theology, anthropological understanding, and inspirational gifts.

“The full richness of his life and works will require significant further study and inquiry. This institute will advance that work. Integral to fully appreciating the man and his enduring contributions, is what and how Karol Josef Wojtyla was formed. Namely, we must understand the entirety of more than one millennium of the Polish, Christian experience.”

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