If ever there was anybody capable of wrapping her arms around an entire campus in one big bear hug, Mary Humenay would get the vote from many folks from Ithaca College.
Love has been the main ingredient of Humenay’s 10-year tenure as the college’s director of campus ministry, which will conclude July 1 due to health and family concerns. Humenay, 65, has ministered on campuses for the better part of three decades, beginning in 1979 at Villa Maria College in Erie, Pa. She later served the former all-women’s college as dean of students, at which point she realized her calling was not in administration but as an everyday presence to students.
“It’s being there. Campus ministry is about presence. Those incredible moments, you’ve got to be there,” she commented. “You come into their lives at such a vulnerable stage. They’re trying to build their own value system, their own way of life. You become a mother, you become a friend, you become a mentor, a companion on their faith journey. Some of the most privileged moments have been walking with young people in RCIA — you see a transformation.”
Humenay’s compassionate approach has yielded many poignant memories, such as the young woman who once came to see her just before Christmas.
“She was in tears and didn’t want to go home. She said, ‘When I go home there’s going to be a Mercedes-Benz waiting for me from my parents. All I want is three little words, “I love you.”‘ She had never heard them,” Humenay recalled.
Many more young adults have sought Humenay’s shoulder to lean on over the years.
“Last week I spent hours and hours with students who had had a bad weekend,” she said in early May. “If I hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have had that adult input — ‘what do you think, Mary, help us think this through.'”
Kris Williamson, an Ithaca College student for the past five years, said he has known of many people who were “tremendously touched by Mary’s words of wisdom, her consolation, her stories, her insights on life and the faith.”
“I’ve seen her take an hour out of her busy schedule because a student came in and was upset. That’s just the type of person she is — she’ll do anything for anyone, and she always puts her students ahead of herself,” added Melissa French, who recently ended her junior year and, like Williamson, is highly active in the college’s Catholic community. “She really is like a mother to all of us.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Humenay said she received a call on Mother’s Day from a 2003 Ithaca College graduate who wished to extend best wishes to her “Ithaca Momma.” Humenay credits her own parental tendencies to her parents, Joseph and Veronica, as she was raised in Grassflat, a coal-mining town in central Pennsylvania.
“Our family’s arms were always opened. We were always hugged. We had loving parents,” Humenay said. “If I ever learned anything about love and hospitality, it came from my parents.”
Humenay, a former Sister of St. Joseph, moved in 1986 from Villa Maria College to Edinboro University, also in Pennsylvania. She was involved in campus ministry for seven years there, then served another four years as director of faith formation for the campus parish.
She came in 1997 to Ithaca College, where she has helped foster a solid campus ministry with renowned programs in such areas as social justice; Bible study; development of conscience and ethics; and student outreach, particularly to young Catholics who have fallen away from the church.
“A lot of young people aren’t attending church, but there is a spirituality in them that is incredible,” Humenay said.
She’s especially proud of having seen students thrive in their faith after college, such as Billy Robinson, who has begun a popular young-adult group in the Archdiocese of Boston. Humenay said that giving students leadership roles in campus ministry “gives them wings to succeed not only in college, but afterward. That sense of empowerment is what gives me life.”
Humenay has been accompanied her entire time at Ithaca by her dog Journey, a Shih Tzu that she got for emotional support based on the advice of her sister, Betty, while her sister was dying of leukemia in the mid-1990s. Humenay said the dog has been a source of support for students as well: One day she found Journey in the campus chapel next to a student who was sobbing her eyes out.
“My little dog’s been a minister here also,” Humenay said with a laugh.
Now it’s time for Humenay and Journey to journey back to the Erie area.
“I’m struggling with breast cancer, and I just need some time to take some stress off. And my mother is aging (her father is deceased), so I want to go home,” Humenay explained.
She plans to use e-mail as one way to keep in touch with her many friends.
“The neat thing about this technology is that we’ll stay connected,” she said.
Humenay also emphasized that she’s not retiring. She said that despite dealing with a recurrence of her breast cancer from 16 years ago, “I’m doing fine. I did it once, I’ll do it again. I’m going to find a job, although I have no idea what it’s going to be. I’m a people person, so I might be a receptionist at a doctor’s office or even work with hospice. At this point the Lord hasn’t given me any direction, and I’m leaving it open. I’ve never been able to say that before.”
Whatever the outcome, “God has never let me down, and he won’t let me down now. He is my buddy. I walk closely with the Lord,” she said.
Based on the calls she received from all over the country last fall — while she was out on leave due to her illness — Humenay realized she has lots of other buddies as well.
“My mother said to me, ‘Honey, if you’ve ever doubted their love, remember this,'” she recalled.
That reassurance also was evident at a student-organized farewell party on May 6, as Humenay was presented with a binder of nearly 50 letters from well-wishers past and present, including Bishop Matthew H. Clark, along with numerous photographs.
“I was very, very moved by the letters’ incredible depth. It was incredible,” she said. “I’ve shed many, many tears.”
Williamson noted that he was the point person for this surprise gift to Humenay, which was begun by the aforementioned Robinson.
“The amount of incoming mail was incredible. It was a true testimony to me about how much she meant to so many people,” Williamson said. “I can only imagine how many more she affected in her other years in ministry.”