The Sacred & the Profane

Father Lawrence Biondi is praised for revamping the campus of St. Louis University and boosting its endowment. But the enemies he's made along the way claim that behind the fountains, statues and donations stands a Jesuit bully who's more interested in th

Then things got metaphorically medieval, as Beabout compared SLU's current dynamic to days of yore when "lords acted like they knew what was best for the serfs, making decisions for the serfs. In those days the lords lived in castles and rode on mighty white horses. Are we being treated like serfs today?"

"Yeah!"
"We have a lord who lives in his own castle at the other end of campus ... "
"Yeah!"

"... with a Jacuzzi with gold fixtures, driving a Lexus and a fleet of golf carts."

"Yeeaaaah!"
The students didn't need a TelePrompTer or cue cards to respond. They knew the reference was to Biondi's living in the Marion Rumsey-Cartier House, a plushly renovated three-story home, more than 100 years old, at 3838 W. Pine Blvd. Most Jesuits on faculty live in rooms in Jesuit Hall, a converted hotel at Lindell and Grand. They know that Biondi often rides around campus in a golf cart. When he's driving off campus, he's behind the wheel of his Lexus. As for the "Jacuzzi with gold fixtures," that's a common rumor on campus that Biondi could confirm or rebut, and he's not talking. But the fact that many believe it to be true may be just as important as whether or not it is.

"Chuck Knight with a collar"
When people bitch about Biondi -- and believe it, they do -- the stories revolve largely around his hypersensitivity, his vindictiveness, his unholy language and what could be termed his champagne tastes, though because he named his dog for a cheap Italian wine, Gancia, maybe that term is misplaced.

"He's mercurial and he's petulant," says one businessman who has dealt with him for years. "He's been good for the university in a lot of respects; he gets things done. But, by God, he wants it when he wants it, and how he wants it is on his terms. And if he doesn't get it, he just blows sky-high. He's got a very short fuse and a big temper."

His language, which includes the F-word, shocks some people, particularly non-Catholics who imagine that priests don't use profanity. Catholics usually know better. But in one compliment -- or insult, depending on your perspective -- a person familiar with Biondi thinks the Jesuit views himself as "Chuck Knight with a collar." According to this observer, the Emerson Electric CEO is "not only one of the most effective executives around but he's also one of the most overbearing and profane men I've ever seen." One property owner who has had some rough real-estate run-ins with Biondi refers to the Chicago native as "Father Capone."

Another businessman who had a contract with the university got involved in a dispute with Biondi over nonpayment of a bill. Biondi said he wouldn't pay the bill, claiming that the work performed was not up to standards. The businessman denied that charge, but Biondi dared him to sue.

"We decided to drop it and just take the hit," the businessman says. "Biondi told me one time it'd 'take $100,000 to fight me,' which is probably true. He knew where he was." The decision was made that taking on St. Louis University in court would be bad for business. "It's a no-win situation -- it's like suing your mother, locally. And it would be bad press."

But there was a meeting with Biondi, in which the priest blew the man away with a string of what are commonly called obscenities. "He used very foul language. God's name in vain, the whole gamut -- nasty, nasty, nasty. I think what he thinks is, once he takes that collar off, he can say anything he wants. Before he sat down, he took the collar off. That's just my gut feeling. But that's what it appeared like -- 'Now I don't have my collar; I can say or do anything I want.' I said, 'That's not a very godly way,' and he said, 'Leave God out of it.'"

One businessman who has property that Biondi wanted near the university couldn't believe that at one point the SLU president leaned forward to ask him, "How long would it take for you to move your business? Three weeks?" So far, he hasn't moved or been bought out. He offers this perspective: "My take on Biondi is that he's a real hard nut to crack. He doesn't smile, except if it's for what he wants. Boy, he can be a hardheaded, unforgiving businessman. He wants to go after what he wants. Someone once told me that if you're Catholic you can be forgiven for whatever sin you want by going to confession," says the businessman, breaking into a laugh. "So maybe that's how he gets by with it -- I don't know."

The pace of snatching up property, a long-standing tradition at SLU, has accelerated under Biondi. Usually he doesn't have to resort to political muscle, but he did in the case of Twenty North, the bar at 20 N. Vandeventer Ave. on the western edge of the campus. In the case of that funky venue, known as the home of the Grateful Dead cover band Jake's Leg, the threat of condemnation won the day.

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