Augustinians of Villanova: Father Kail Ellis


Fr. Kail founded Villanova’s Center for Arab and Islamic Studies and has worked at Villanova since 1979.

Olivia Sabalaskey, Staff Writer

“Villanova was my dream,” Father Kail Ellis, Ph.D., O.S.A., said. “It was always known not only as a great university, but also as a great Augustinian Catholic university. When I look back on my time here, I consider myself very fortunate in what I have been able to do.” 

This week, Fr. Kail offered Villanovans a glimpse into his 56 years as an Augustinian priest at Villanova University in the Augustinians of Villanova Column. 

Fr. Kail grew up with five siblings in Carthage, a small town located about 25 miles from the United States and Canada’s border in northern New York. Founded by the Order of Saint Augustine in 1873, Saint James Catholic Parish offered Fr. Kail and his family masses and a private Augustinian curriculum, namely the private school nearby, Augustinian Academy. 

“After I graduated from high school, I convinced my parents to send me to Lebanon for a year, given that they were both immigrants,” Fr. Kail said. “That’s when I really got interested in Middle East Studies. I lived with my uncle over in Lebanon for a bit, and it was a life-changing experience. I was only 18-years-old at the time, so I came back and attended a Jesuit school in Syracuse, New York called Le Moyne. My older brother went there, so I stayed with him my first year. My favorite subject was, of course, political science.”

Fr. Kail, inspired by the Augustinians from his hometown parish, joined the priesthood in 1967 after spending time at the collegiate seminary at Villanova. Once ordained, he went on to study at an Augustinian college in Washington D.C., located directly across the street from Catholic University.

“My interest was international relations, particularly Middle East studies,” Fr. Kail said. “My mother was particularly influential in cultivating my academic interests because, growing up, many in the Lebanese community in Carthage weren’t able to read, write or speak Arabic or French. However, my mother went to a school owned by French nuns, so she served as a translator for the community whose letters from Lebanon were written in an unfamiliar language.”

Fr. Kail enrolled in the Middle East studies program at Georgetown University, later earning his doctorate from Catholic University with a specialization in Middle East History. In 1979, he joined Villanova University as an administrator under then President Rev. John M. Driscoll, O.S.A.

 “I was first the Director of Summer School Programs here at Villanova,” Fr. Kail said. “Then, I became Dean of the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Traditionally, this role belonged to an Augustinian, and I had the honor to serve for 25 years.”

As the Dean, Fr. Kail helped develop Dr. Jack Doody’s revolutionary idea, the Augustine and Culture Seminar Program (ACS), and worked to integrate it into Villanova’s curriculum. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the ACS program. 

In 1983, Fr. Kail founded Villanova’s Center for Arab and Islamic Studies and served as its director until 1998. Also, he previously held the position of Vice President for Academic Affairs. Currently, Fr. Kail works as an assistant to the president, Rev. Peter Donohoe, O.S.A., Ph.D., an associate professor of political science and as the Chair of the Mendel Medal Advisory Committee.

“Named after Gregor Mendel, the award was established in 1928,” Fr. Kail said. “In 1993, we saw that it had faded away in 1968 for some reason. So, as Dean, my team and I really sought to see the award return. Now, every year, the Advisory Committee nominates and selects a candidate who has demonstrated distinguished service in the advancement of science.”

While Fr. Kail is an extraordinary administrator and professor at Villanova, he also works as an acclaimed editor of numerous academic journals and books. For example, he edits the Journal of South Asia and Middle Eastern Studies that is released quarterly. Other renowned faculty members from various surrounding universities contribute to the journal as well, all sharing a passion for studies relevant to the Middle East. Specifically, Fr. Kail enjoys topics regarding Christians in the Middle East.

“I also frequently participate in and lead conferences relevant to the Middle East,” Fr. Kail said. “One of the most recent academic conferences I attended was Christians in the Contemporary Middle East. I also had the honor of contributing to conferences on the Vatican, Islam and the Middle East and Lebanon’s second republic.”

In terms of his nearly 40-year career, Fr. Kail is most proud of his contributions regarding Villanova’s liberal arts curriculum. 

“My team and I wanted to show that the sciences are still very important in terms of research,” Fr. Kail said. “It makes me so sad that many colleges are now dropping the liberal arts foundation in their curriculum. Between science and religion, there is no intrinsic conflict. That is key.”