Perhaps because the Rev. Thomas D. Stegman had undergone surgery for a brain tumor years ago as a seminary student, and had seen then the role of prayer and support, he surprised his Boston College colleagues by being publicly open about his diagnosis in 2019, when he learned he had a brain cancer again — a terminal kind, this time.
This illness, he said, made his prayers “more genuine” as he learned, more than ever before, to bear witness to the teachings of his faith and to savor the gift of each day.
“I say now one of my first prayers in the morning is, ‘Lord, thank you for keeping my heart pumping through the night,’ ” he said in an interview for a Boston College Magazine podcast in March 2022.
“I am appreciating birdsong in the morning, waking up to birds or the gentle breeze,” he added. “That’s a reminder to me of God’s presence, God’s spirit.”
Father Stegman, a Jesuit and well-known New Testament scholar who stepped down in 2022 as dean of BC’s School of Theology and Ministry, was 60 when he died April 8 in the Campion Center in Weston of a glioblastoma brain tumor.
“His enthusiasm for scholarship, for teaching, and also for pastoral ministry was really amazing,” said Sister Margaret Guider, an associate professor in the School of Theology and Ministry who had been one of Father Stegman’s professors during his graduate studies.
She praised his “sensitivity toward people, especially in troubled circumstances. He was always there for everyone, both as a listening ear and by responding in any way he could to make things easier for people.”
Father Stegman also tried to put everyone at ease — family and friends, colleagues and students — since he was diagnosed in July 2019, saying in a 2021 presentation that coping with illness had left him with “a sense of God being with me and strengthening me.”
In a video of that talk, posted online by the Agape Latte national faith storytelling series, founded at BC, he recalled that a good friend and colleague asked him what it’s like, when he’s alone, to cope with the finality of his illness.
“I do spend time alone, because I spend time praying,” Father Stegman said. “And what I find myself experiencing, actually, is more and more gratitude, because life itself is a gift.”
He had used his gifts early on as a star baseball player and an accomplished student in his small hometown in Nebraska, and then as a scholar in college, seminary, and graduate school.
Rising swiftly in academia, Father Stegman began teaching in 2003 at what was then the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. He was among the original faculty when BC’s School of Theology and Ministry opened in 2008.
A New Testament professor and professor ordinarius — a professor of the highest rank — he chaired the school’s ecclesiastical faculty before his tenure as dean began in 2016.
The Rev. Michael C. McCarthy, a Jesuit who succeeded Father Stegman as dean of the School of Theology and Ministry, said for the tribute that “it would be difficult to overstate just how loved and respected Tom was” in the school’s community.
“His legacy here is tremendous,” McCarthy said, “but one of the greatest gifts he left us was an example of how a Christian may approach diminishment and death: with an abiding faith and trust in God and hope in the resurrection.”
Born in Newton, Kan., Father Stegman grew up and went to high school in Holdrege, Neb., where his father, Dennis Stegman, was a petroleum representative for the Farmland Industries agricultural cooperative and his mother, Kay Pfeifer Stegman, managed a savings and loan branch.
“If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said a St. Louis Cardinal. I was a pretty good baseball player,” Father Stegman said in the video.
A lefty and a first-baseman, and the cleanup hitter, he played on an American Legion team that won the state championship.
Even then everyone in his family “knew that he would be a priest,” said his brother Mark of Elkhorn, Neb. “If the baseball thing wasn’t going to work out for him, he was probably going to be a priest.”
Father Stegman spent a year at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and then attended Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Pennsylvania, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree.
He added a master’s in philosophy from Marquette University in Milwaukee, a master’s of divinity from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and a doctorate in New Testament studies from Emory University in Atlanta.
His love of sports — he was a St. Louis Cardinals and Green Bay Packers fan — and his early years of playing baseball provided useful metaphors, lessons for life, and guidance as an academic administrator.
“Being dean was nothing I ever aspired to,” he said in the BC Magazine podcast, adding that he had been “summoned from the bullpen.”
An inductee into the Phelps County Sports Hall of Fame in Nebraska, he formerly coached junior varsity baseball at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha.
Being a dean “is a lot like being a coach,” he said in the podcast. A good administrator, he said, doesn’t ask people “to do things they’re not good at or passionate about. You learn what their strengths are and you play to that.”
“Tom managed to create an atmosphere of collegiality, of joy, of generosity of spirit, and of companionship,” Guider said. “He set the bar pretty high and he met it himself, and he hoped all of us would do so as well. In that regard, he accomplished what he set out to achieve.”
In addition to his parents, Dennis and Kay, who live in Elkhorn, Neb., and his brother Mark, Father Stegman leaves another brother, Mike Stegman of Columbus, Neb., and a sister, Patti Hasty of Elkhorn.
A funeral Mass for Father Stegman will be celebrated at 12:15 p.m. Thursday in St. Ignatius Church in Chestnut Hill.
Near the end of Father Stegman’s life, he and his brother Mark gathered belongings from his Boston College residence to take to the Campion Center. Among the keepsakes he brought, Mark said, was a framed photo of his baseball team and its state championship trophy.
“He could still rattle off who they all were,” Mark said.
Along with teaching New Testament classes, Father Stegman wrote and edited several books, among them “Opening the Door of Faith: Encountering Jesus and His Call to Discipleship” and “Texts Less Traveled.”
And in the end, he said in the podcast, illness taught him new ways to teach and express his faith through how he lived each day. “Words are valuable,” he said, “but example, and embodiment of faith, is much more eloquent.”
He recalled that a student had asked if his illness had left him angry at God. “I have so much to be grateful for,” he replied.
“No, I’m not angry at God, because God has been so good to me,” he said. “In some ways this is bringing me closer to God.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.