The Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas has its roots in the university’s Center for Jewish-Christian Learning, which was established in 1985 upon the recommendation of UST president Msgr. Terrence J. Murphy. The center was endowed by a number of Jewish and Catholic benefactors led by Sidney R. Cohen and Thomas P. Coughlan. Rabbi Max A. Shapiro served as the center’s director from its beginning until his retirement in 1996. Arthur E. Zannoni served as the center’s associate director from 1985 to 1991, followed by Karen L. Schierman from 1991 to 1996.
In 1996, under Rabbi Shapiro’s guidance and upon the recommendation of UST present Fr. Dennis Dease and Br. Dietrich Reinhart OSB, president of Saint John's University in Collegeville, Minnesota, the center was reconfigured as a joint enterprise with SJU and renamed the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning in honor of the Jewish philanthropist who had contributed greatly to the center and also had endowed the Jay Phillips Chair in Jewish Studies at SJU. Rabbi Barry D. Cytron served as the center’s director while also holding the chair in Jewish studies until his retirement in 2009. Throughout Rabbi Cytron’s tenure at the center, Dr. John Merkle, professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, and Karen Schierman, based at UST, served as the center’s associated directors.
In 2009, at the request of Edward Phillips and Dean Phillips, grandson and great grandson of Jay Phillips, and upon the recommendation of UST president Fr. Dease and SJU president Fr. Robert Koopmann OSB, the center’s mission was expanded beyond the promotion of Jewish-Christian learning to interfaith learning in general and it was given its new name to reflect that expanded mission. Dr. Merkle was appointed the center’s director while Karen Schierman continued in her role as associate director until her retirement in 2010. In 2011 Hans Gustafson was appointed the center’s new associate director.
In 2017, at the suggestion of Dr. Merkle and upon the recommendation of UST president Dr. Julie Sullivan and SJU president Dr. Michael Hemesath, the center was divided into two partner centers. Dr. Merkle was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at Saint John’s University and Dr. Gustafson was appointed the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning at the University of St. Thomas.