Colleges weigh Catholic identity - Catholic Courier

Colleges weigh Catholic identity

Bearing the names Nazareth and St. John Fisher, it’s a fair bet that Pittsford’s two colleges were founded as Catholic institutions.

Yet many people may not realize that the schools have been independent of church affiliation for more than three decades, even though many elements of their Catholic origins remain.

How closely do the colleges currently reflect — and expect to reflect in the future — their Catholic origins?

That was the very question taken up by a committee formed at St. John Fisher last year to assess the college’s Catholicity, striving to ensure it doesn’t diminish “as we’ve grown in size and our presence in the community has expanded,” said Donald E. Bain, president.

At Nazareth College, meanwhile, the question of identity has been a key component in the institution’s strategic-planning process, according to Daan Braveman, president. While acknowledging that the possibility of a name change had been discussed during the planning process, “there are no plans to change our name,” he said.

Nevertheless, Braveman remarked, “Some people said that as long as we have our name, people misperceive us as a religious school.”

Independent for decades

Nazareth and St. John Fisher are the only colleges within the 12-county diocese to have been founded as Catholic institutions. They are located a mere mile apart in Pittsford, on Monroe County’s east side.

The Sisters of St. Joseph opened Nazareth in 1924 as an all-women’s college. Its name is derived from the school’s original location on the campus of Nazareth Academy, a high school in northwest Rochester that continues to operate under the auspices of that religious order.

St. John Fisher was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil in 1948 as an all-men’s institute. The college was named in honor of the patron saint of the Rochester Diocese.

Diocesan bishops took active roles in the founding of both colleges — Bishop Thomas F. Hickey with Nazareth and Bishop James E. Kearney with St. John Fisher. Yet because each was started by a religious order, the Rochester Diocese has never had any direct jurisdiction over Nazareth or St. John Fisher — either before or after they became independent — noted Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor.

Neither college is listed under “colleges and universities” in the Official Catholic Directory — the definitive national guide to what is or is not Catholic — and therefore cannot be considered Catholic institutions. St. John Fisher declared its independent status in 1968, and Nazareth in 1971.

These moves reflected actions taken during the 1960s and ’70s by many Catholic colleges, as the Second Vatican Council promoted a greater openness to other faiths. Other elements of this transformation were the addition of lay people to colleges’ boards of trustees and faculty; dropping of mandatory Mass attendance for students; and less stringent requirements for Catholic theology courses.

In New York state, such changes also were fueled by the new availability of sizeable state grants — known as Bundy Aid — for private colleges. Yet Catholic colleges were not eligible for such aid unless they were clearly distinguished as non-sectarian institutions.

St. John Fisher made such adjustments as diversifying its board of trustees and decreasing core academic requirements involving philosophy and Catholic theology. Otherwise, changes weren’t obvious to the average student, according to Basilian Father Joseph Trovato.

“There was no noticeable difference at all,” said Father Trovato, a language professor who also founded St. John Fisher’s campus ministry. He served at the college from 1959-89 and remains on its board of trustees.

At Nazareth, many of the changes had begun even before the school became independent, noted Msgr. William H. Shannon. By 1971 he was teaching world religions, and students and faculty had become much more religiously diverse, said the emeritus professor of theology. During his early years there, the college had been all Catholic except for “one Protestant student, who took pride in the fact she was the token Protestant,” noted Msgr. Shannon. A noted scholar and author who also served for many years as college chaplain, he taught at Nazareth from 1946 until his 1982 retirement.

Catholicity still evident

Nazareth currently enrolls approximately 2,000 undergraduate students and 1,000 in graduate programs. St. John Fisher has 2,500 undergraduates and 850 graduate students. Both colleges switched to coeducational status shortly after becoming independent — St. John Fisher in 1971 and Nazareth in 1973. Each emphasizes openness to all races and religions, and neither officially tracks percentages of Catholics in the student population.

St. John Fisher’s campus ministry is all-Catholic in both staff and religious services offered. For a few years, Father Trovato recalled, a group of non-Catholic students requested and received the right to organize their own on-campus services. Though that didn’t last, Basilian Father Joseph Lanzalaco, the current director of campus ministry, said he senses that non-Catholics “feel very welcome” at St. John Fisher, and that he helps them find appropriate religious services near campus.

Father Lanzalaco’s position is funded by the college and has always been held by a Basilian priest.

Campus ministry at Nazareth is much more diverse, with Catholic ministry offered alongside Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and Zen programs. Nazareth also is home to the Center for Interfaith Study and Dialogue, which strives toward research, education, dialogue and community building to promote a peaceful coexistence among the world’s many religions.

“We’re living in a time that the Catholic subculture our parents grew up in no longer exists,” observed Jamie Fazio, Catholic chaplain at Nazareth.

Yet Catholic campus ministry is highly emphasized as well: Fazio pointed to Nazareth’s chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society; the William H. Shannon Chair in Catholic Studies; and a religious-issue lecture series also named after Msgr. Shannon.

In addition, Nazareth elevated Fazio from part- to full-time status as of July 1. Although appointed by Bishop Matthew H. Clark, Fazio is paid by the college.

“To me, that’s saying something very important about the (college’s) religious values and Catholicity,” Msgr. Shannon commented.

Each college’s campus ministry is assisted by the diocesan Office of Young Adult and Campus Ministry. Under the direction of Shannon Loughlin, the diocesan office offers a range of resources to all colleges in the diocese.

“We are absolutely delighted that we have Catholic ministries at both Nazareth and St. John Fisher, and that the administrations of both colleges support those ministries,” said Doug Mandelaro, diocesan director of stewardship, development and communications.


Religious diversity at Nazareth signifies the fact that “we have a religious heritage and are no longer religious,” as Braveman put it. Yet he said he’s not sure what share of the general public views the college that way.

Nazareth’s strategic plan is due to be presented to the board of trustees in October 2006. Among the points listed under the goal of identity, the plan states that it seeks to “examine and clarify the role of religion and spirituality as they apply to Nazareth College” and “assess how the name of the College affects faculty, staff, students, and prospective partners.”

“Names are powerful, aren’t they? They have meanings. I think it could be a healthy discussion to ask what’s the meaning of the name ‘Nazareth,’” remarked Carmelite Father Matthew Temple, who has been a Nazareth biology professor since 1984 and also lends sacramental assistance on campus.

Braveman, who was installed as the college’s president in October 2005, said any possible name change would be a decision of the board of trustees. Yet he said such a proposal has not gone beyond the discussion stage.

Sister Janice Morgan, president of the Rochester Sisters of St. Joseph — and also a board member at Nazareth — said the sisters “know of no plans at this time to change the school’s name.” She added that “as founders of Nazareth College, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester care deeply about the institution and its future. The Sisters of St. Joseph are confident in the Nazareth board, and know they would not make any decision that would be harmful to the school, its reputation, its history or its future.”

Sister Morgan also noted that the order’s recent sale of land and buildings to the college doubled the size of the campus. The former SSJ motherhouse — now named the Golisano Academic Center — greatly increased Nazareth’s space for conducting worship services and other campus ministry-related programs.

Yet Msgr. Shannon said he has complained to Nazareth administration in recent years about the scant mention of the college’s Catholic heritage in its promotional materials. Promotional materials for St. John Fisher, by contrast, frequently emphasize the college’s Basilian roots.

“We’re very committed to diversity in all forms, but at the same time equally proud of that heritage,” Bain said, calling it “what I consider to be the grand Catholic tradition.”

Last year St. John Fisher’s board of trustees formed an ad hoc committee to study “the history of the college; the role of the Basilian fathers; and the influence Catholicism has had on the development of the institution,” Bain said, adding that while the study is ongoing, he does not view any perception of St. John Fisher as a Catholic college to be problematic.

“I’m very comfortable with the identity we have in the Catholic tradition,” he said, adding that the influence of the Basilian Fathers “is central to the values we maintain.”

Bain became St. John Fisher’s president in November 2005 after serving on an interim basis following the September 2004 death of his predecessor, Katherine Keough. Fathers Trovato and Lanzalaco agreed that during her eight-year tenure Keough was instrumental in restoring the college’s emphasis on its Catholic heritage.

“It certainly was Katherine Keough’s desire to want to be a great Catholic college, very strong in the Basilian tradition,” Father Trovato added.

Father Lanzalaco noted that Keough’s revitalization plan involved new academic programs “but also getting back in touch with the Catholic roots of this college,” saying she insisted that “you don’t refer to it as ‘Fisher.’ It is ‘St. John Fisher College.’” This, he said, was an important component in the college’s success in doubling its enrollment during the past 10 years to the current all-time high. Keough also instituted an incentive program offering a four-year scholarship to any diocesan Catholic high-school student who graduates with at least a B average, he said.

“It takes a vision, and our Catholicity was a part of that vision,” Father Lanzalaco said.

Will heritages endure?

Though the numbers have dwindled over the years, each college continues to have members of its founding religious order on its board of trustees and faculty. Four Sisters of St. Joseph sit on Nazareth’s board and four are teaching, whereas three Basilians are on St. John Fisher’s board and six are teaching.

Although Father Lanzalaco said there is “nothing in writing,” he and Bain both said they expected the relationship between St. John Fisher and the Basilians to continue indefinitely.

Meanwhile, Sister Susan Nowak, SSJ, addressed Nazareth’s ongoing focus on ethics and values in the fall 2005 issue of the college magazine. “Can the faculty always trace this commitment back to the Sisters of St. Joseph? No. But is the heritage still alive? Yes,” wrote Sister Nowak, an associate professor in Nazareth’s religious-studies department.

Bain and Braveman also emphasized their respective colleges’ emphasis on community service. Bain lauded St. John Fisher’s Service Scholars Program, through which incoming freshmen who have dedicated themselves to community service earn four-year partial scholarships. While the program was Keough’s idea, “It really, I think, is a continuation of the Basilians’ tradition of serving,” Father Trovato observed.

Fazio said that the service component of Nazareth’s Catholic campus ministry, which promotes work retreats during the school year, “does a great job of getting the students involved.”

“Giving back to the community — a lot of schools talk about it, but not all do it,” Braveman said, adding that this influence, found in both the campus ministry and curricula, can be traced back to the Sisters of St. Joseph. “So much of that heritage is still with us, what the sisters started in 1924,” he said.

Father Temple added that Nazareth’s current challenge is “needing to address the needs of the moment, and at the same time making sense of how the college was founded.”

“It’s not an ‘either-or,’ but ‘both-and,’” he emphasized.

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