At a Friday benefit celebrating his 85th birthday, Father Virgil Cordano received the sizable gift of a $1.1 million donation to the endowment bearing his name.

UCSB announced the donation from the J.E. and Lillian Tipton Foundation to the Virgil Cordano Endowment in Catholic Studies at a benefit at Coral Casino. The grant will fund a visiting professorship for one quarter each school year. Chancellor Henry Yang also announced that the university had approved a faculty slot for the establishment of a permanent endowed chair in Catholic studies.

The J.E. and Lillian Byrne Tipton distinguished visiting professorship will begin in Fall 2004 and the permanent chair should be filled by Fall 2006, said Wade Clark Roof, chair of the Religious Studies Dept.

Virgil Cordano is the former pastor of the St. Barbara Parish at the Santa Barbara Mission. He was an outspoken advocate of a Religious Studies Dept. before it was formed at UCSB in the late 1960s, Roof said.

“At the time, public universities didn’t have such departments, by and large. I’m told that many people didn’t recognize the value of religious studies,” he said. “People thought that studying religion might erode their faith. Father Cordano had a letter published in the newspaper saying it was important to study religion and have a dialogue among religions.”

The Cordano Endowment was formed five years ago. The chair in Catholicism will be the third in the department devoted to a specific religion, joining a chair in Sikh studies and one in Tibetan Buddhism.

Previous gifts to the Cordano Endowment include $1 million from Charles Schwab and large donations from Charles and Harriett Burke and Richard and Marguerite Berti, according to a university statement.

“We are extremely grateful to the Tipton Foundation and the many other devoted benefactors who gave so generously to this initiative,” Yang said in the statement. “The Tipton visiting professorship and the Cordano endowment will advance the understanding of Catholicism and bring international attention to our leading efforts in the important field of religious studies.”