Orders Leave Charisma as a Legacy to Schools

By Gibeau, Dawn | National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Orders Leave Charisma as a Legacy to Schools


Gibeau, Dawn, National Catholic Reporter


Many a football homecoming game would lack verve without a school fight song, and many halls of ivy would lose their identities as campus landmarks if the ivy disappeared. In the same way, some believe, the distinctive character of individual religious orders that stamps many Catholic colleges and universities could fade as the membership of those religious orders dwindles.

As a result of that concern, deliberate steps are being taken across the country to assure that the orders' educational institutions retain for tomorrow the congregational imprints that set them apart today and yesterday.

Already, almost one-third of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities' member institutions have lay presidents: 64 of 195. Sixty of the women presidents are religious and 17 are laywomen; the 118 men presidents comprise 47 laymen, 59 priests and 12 religious brothers.

Benito Lopez, executive director of the ACCU, said that in view of the changing demographics, congregations and colleges are increasing their efforts to instill in lay presidents and administrators appreciation of the charism and tradition of their institution. "It would be a mistake to suggest that the transfer to lay leadership has affected the existence or vibrancy of the charism of the sponsoring congregations," he said. "There is a conscious effort to insure that that charism continues."

Benedictine Sr. Colman O'Connell, president of the College of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, Minn., and immediate past co-president of the Association of Benedictine Colleges and Universities, said much attention is focused on the subject at meetings of the association and of the Neylan Commission, an organization of more than 100 colleges founded by women.

She said that more institutions founded by women's orders have changed to lay leadership than have institutions founded by men's orders. The difference is due in part to the desire of many younger sisters to serve the poor directly, she said. Nevertheless, O'Connell, like many administrators interviewed by NCR, contended that the presence of religious presidents and administrators is not vital to retaining a college's identity.

More than a sister

"If the tradition depends on a sister president, there's something pretty weak about the tradition," she said. "It hasn't been embedded in the college; it hasn't really shaped the life of the institution."

With vigor and enthusiasm, Mary Stuart is shaping the charism of Mount St. Vincent College in Riverdale, N.Y., a school founded by the Sisters of Charity. Although she is not a daughter of that tradition -- she wasn't even a Catholic until 1986 -- Stuart became president of the urban college two years ago. Since then, she has immersed herself in the institution's history by questioning people there and by reading histories of the congregation and its visionaries, Elizabeth Ann Seton and Vincent de Paul.

Stuart became attracted to Catholic institutions when she met religious who studied alongside her toward doctorates in higher education and when she attended conferences of Catholic groups such as the ACCU. It was through those contacts that she discovered that she "liked what they talked about, not just about enrollment and how to manage resources, but about value development, diversity, social justice issues." The Catholic agendas "were always about what an education really could do for people."

When Stuart interviewed for the presidency of Mount St. Vincent, she said, she was impressed by the sisters' interest in collaboration with lay leadership.

She delved into the college's heritage. A sister president lives the tradition; she's a visible sign of it, Stuart said. "I believe it was more critical for me as a lay president," she said, "to be able to consciously articulate the tradition, the legacy, the history, the mission related to the Sisters of Charity." She does that especially by telling stories in fun ways, she said.

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