John J. Denniston, Beloved Theology Professor, Dies at 74

Father Denniston passed away in February, leaving behind a legacy in schools and churches alike



Denniston, GSAS ’91, was known for his quick sermons, intense care for his students and his famous goodbyes.


The Rev. John J. Denniston, a professor of theology and Fordham Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ’91, died on Feb. 22, 2021, at Mather Hospital in Long Island, New York. He was 74 years old and died of complications from a car accident that occurred in October 2020.

University President Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., announced his death to the Fordham community on Feb. 25. “‘Father D,’ as students called him, was a dedicated, gregarious teacher, renowned for his wit and his sense of joy,” he said in the email.

Denniston grew up in Westbury, New York, and joined the Brothers of the Sacred Heart at an early age. He served as the assistant superintendent of Schools for the Diocese of Rockville Centre. In 1984, he began teaching at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York. Throughout his career as an educator, he taught at other higher education institutions in New York, including St. Joseph’s College and St. John’s University.

“He clearly lived for all those whom he served, whether they be the students currently studying with him, former students, student-athletes, parishioners, or other members of the Fordham community.” J. Patrick Hornbeck, special faculty advisor to the provost

After being ordained as a diocesan priest in 1979, Denniston worked as a pastor and priest at many churches on Long Island, New York, including St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, St. Anne’s Church, Notre Dame Church and St. Patrick’s Church. He also briefly assisted at St. Christopher’s Church in Hobe Sound, Florida. 

Denniston graduated from Fordham with a Ph.D. in theology in 1991 and began teaching at the university in 1996. As a professor, he became known for his courses on eschatology — the study of death and final judgment — and the Book of Revelation, while also leading core curriculum classes such as Faith and Critical Reason.

J. Patrick Hornbeck, the special faculty advisor to the provost, served as the chair of the theology department from 2013 to 2020 and said that Denniston’s courses always filled up early during registration.

“Fr. Denniston found ways to make theology relatable to the lives of his students and encouraged a critical, light-hearted, and open attitude toward questions of faith and meaning that many of us have been taught to approach with great seriousness,” Hornbeck said.

Hornbeck described Denniston as an enthusiastic, witty person with an infectious sense of humor who was always eager to tell stories about his students and their accomplishments.

“He has touched the lives of literally thousands of students over the years he worked at Fordham,” Hornbeck said.

a bride and groom facing each other at the altar with denniston in the background officiating
Denniston officiating the wedding of Sweeney’s son in 2016. He received many requests to officiate students’ marriages and baptisms throughout his career. (COURTESY OF ANNE-MARIE SWEENEY)

When Hornbeck would arrive at work very early in the morning, he often found Denniston already situated in the department office.

“He clearly lived for all those whom he served, whether they be the students currently studying with him, former students, student-athletes, parishioners, or other members of the Fordham community,” Hornbeck said.

Outside of the classroom, Denniston served as the chaplain to Fordham’s football team and engaged in campus life while residing in Salice and Conley Halls at Rose Hill. 

“I love how I can tell my son as he gets older that Uncle John is a big part of his life and we are his legacy and to make him proud.” Erin Crosby, niece of John J. Denniston

Denniston was known for his wonderful memory for names and faces and for recognizing students’ accomplishments. 

Many students have expressed their gratitude for Denniston on his Fairchild Chapel tribute wall.

“He was kind, humble and had a great sense of humor and always had a smile on his face,” Anne-Marie Sweeney, who served as the theology department secretary from 2003 to 2020, said.

She characterized his teaching method as not only instructing students on the world’s religious faiths but also supplying them with the spiritual tools necessary for life. 

One of her fondest memories of Denniston is when he officiated her son’s wedding in 2016; she said that he received many requests from former students to be part of their family’s marital or baptismal ceremonies.

Denniston also officiated the marriage of his niece, Erin Crosby, and her husband on New Year’s Eve in 2016. Crosby said the memory of Denniston at her wedding will always be close to her heart. He baptized Crosby’s son, William, as well.

denniston standing next to a man holding a baby in a church
Denniston with Crosby’s husband, Daniel Crosby, after baptizing their son, William. (COURTESY OF ERIN CROSBY)

“I love how I can tell my son as he gets older that Uncle John is a big part of his life and we are his legacy and to make him proud,” Crosby said.

Crosby described her uncle as a kind and wise man who took the time to explain things on each person’s level. She also admired his dedication to teaching: “He talked so much of his time at Fordham.”

“Uncle John was beyond smart and funny. He could make any room laugh when we needed it most,” Crosby said.

Denniston was a pillar of Crosby’s faith too, she said, as she could always lean on him when struggling. Crosby lost both of her parents prior to Denniston’s passing and said that the support he gave her during those times is something she can “never thank him enough for.”

As his niece, Crosby said she witnessed the legacy of Denniston’s impact in many churches. He was so well-known and admired that she often got questions relating to her maiden name. “At any church I went to, if someone found out my last name was Denniston, I would always get the question ‘any relation to father John?’ I would laugh and say: ‘oh, Uncle John!’”

She said that he was known for his “quick” Masses as far south as Florida. “The church down there speaks so highly of him. It’s truly amazing listening to everyone’s stories of him. I love seeing all the lives he’s impacted.”

Denniston was also famously known for his goodbyes. “He would always just disappear,” Crosby said. “He loved to sneak out whenever he could. No fuss, as he would say.”

Denniston is survived by his nephew John Denniston and his nieces Melissa Paladino and Erin Crosby, as well as his grand-nieces and -nephews Sophia and Ethan Paladino, William Crosby, and James and Joseph Wallace.