• Bishop Matthew H. Clark congratulates a St. Bernard’s graduate during the school’s May 11 commencement at Sacred Heart Cathedral.

St. Bernard’s looks to future

By Amy Kotlarz/Catholic Courier    |    07.27.2012
Category: Back to School


In September 2010 a celebratory dinner took place at the end of a successful campaign to raise $30,000 in scholarship money -- in honor of Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s 30th anniversary as Bishop of the Rochester -- for St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry.

During that dinner, St. Bernard’s board member Jane Napier stood up and challenged those around her to aim higher.

Why not raise $75,000 for the bishop’s 75th birthday, she asked? She also offered up $20,000 of her own money to match new gifts to the Bishop’s Scholarship Fund.

Two years later, the school was again able to celebrate success, having raised the full $75,000 before the bishop's July 15 milestone birthday. At a celebratory dinner in June, Napier spoke up again, announcing she would match the full amount of money raised.

The $150,000 fund will provide scholarships for students to attend St. Bernard’s. Sister of St. Joseph Patricia A. Schoelles, president of the Pittsford school, said although tuition -- $1,638 per full-credit course -- is competitive with that of graduate schools nationwide, students going into ministry typically are not highly compensated.

"Every dollar we raise that we can assist students is very valued, and we can promote the best candidates for ministry because we get some very talented people here," Sister Schoelles said.

In addition to expanding its scholarships, St. Bernard’s has been working to expand the geographic area it serves. In 1989, aided by the longtime friendship between Bishop Clark and Albany Bishop Howard J. Hubbard, St. Bernard's opened an extension program in Albany. In 2011, St. Bernard's opened another extension site in the Diocese of Syracuse at LeMoyne College.

St. Bernard’s recently hired Christina Schmidt, formerly the youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in Penfield, to serve as an enrollment officer and recruiter. She will spend several days a week in the Syracuse Diocese spreading the word about the school.

Such extensions are keys to St. Bernard's future, Sister Schoelles said.

"The geographical expansion is significant because the number of students preparing for ministry is small," she noted.

Leading St. Bernard’s march east was Bishop Clark, who has championed training the laity to help the church better adjust to declining priest availability. Sister Schoelles, who was hired by the school in 1993, said St. Bernard's continued existence is a major part of Bishop Clark’s legacy.

"We will miss him as a friend, companion and great supporter of us," Sister Schoelles said of Bishop Clark, who submitted his letter of retirement July 15, though he will continue leading the diocese until a new bishop is named.

St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry traces its history to the 1893 founding of St. Bernard's Seminary. The school became one of the first seminaries in the nation -- Catholic or otherwise -- to allow nonseminarians to enroll, and it established a nongraduate master of divinity degree in 1969, according to a historical sketch of the school.

In 1981, escalating costs and low enrollment of seminary candidates led Bishop Clark to close the four-year priestly formation program of St. Bernard Seminary, at which he had studied from 1957 to 1959. Yet a need still existed for local training of permanent deacons and lay men and women.

Later that year, the former seminary was renamed St. Bernard's Institute and moved to the Rochester campus of its new partners: Colgate Rochester Divinity School-Bexley Hall-Crozer Theological Seminary. And in 2003, the school moved into a new building on French Road next to the Nazareth College campus and was renamed St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry.

With the declining availability of priests and women religious to serve in leadership positions at parishes and schools, laypeople have taken on more complex roles, Sister Schoelles said.

"You need people with more skill sets, because as parishes are stressed financially the youth minister might also be the parish visitor," she noted.

This local experience is part of a larger national trend. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Washington's Georgetown University notes a national increase in formation programs to train laypeople for professional church ministry. During 2011-12, 111 dioceses and archdioceses in 45 states had 17,452 laypeople enrolled in degree- and certificate-granting programs, in addition to more than 3,000 aspirants and candidates in diaconal-formation programs.

"Since the first study of lay ministry formation in 1985-1986, the number of these programs has increased by more than 50 percent, and the number of participants in these programs has grown more than threefold," CARA reported.

In his 2009 book Forward in Hope: Saying Amen to Lay Ecclesial Ministry, Bishop Clark noted that local and national critics claim laypeople are usurping leadership roles traditionally belonging to priests. Yet the bishop cited a speech in which the late Cardinal Avery Dulles said that this type of ministry had been part of church tradition for centuries. Cardinal Dulles had given the address as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted "Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry."

"The presence of our lay ecclesial ministers in nearly every facet of our mission extends what we can do, not only numerically but also in terms of the unique gifts and contributions lay ecclesial ministers bring to the Church," Bishop Clark wrote in his book.

St. Bernard's, which offers three master's degrees and four certification programs, is continuing to attract new segments of the population that are seeking advanced training, Sister Schoelles said. For example, health-care facilities and colleges have recently been seeking laypeople trained as chaplains, she said. This fall, St. Bernard’s is offering a new course for hospice workers through a partnership it has forged with Visiting Nurse Service.

Other partnerships include the school’s long-standing cross-certification with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and North Eastern Seminary at Roberts Wesleyan College, allowing students to get credit for classes taken at all three of the institutions.

The school also is reaching out to students of other denominations. This spring it offered a 40-hour certificate course on the Bible, drawing participation from a wide range of Rochester churches, including Emmanuel Baptist, Central Church of Christ, Community Church of Christ and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Parish, and the House of Mercy’s Social Outreach. Participants learned to better lead Bible discussions and studies.

St. Bernard's student Gerry Clark, who is active in the House of Mercy’s worship community, said the certificate course got started when he asked Sister Schoelles about the possibility of discounted classes for some of those connected with the Hudson Avenue shelter. The program grew to involve many churches, he said.

"Thirteen people completed it, and now we are saying, ‘How are we going to go further?’" Clark said.

To help extend its reach throughout the Rochester Diocese, St. Bernard's regularly uses video-conferencing technology to allow students to participate even if they are far from the Pittsford campus. Four sites with this capability have been established at Hornell, Apalachin, Watkins Glen and Auburn, and video capabilities also are available at LeMoyne College.

The Watkins Glen satellite site has made it possible for Pennsylvania resident and retired registered nurse Beverly Hawkes to take St. Bernard's classes. Hawkes volunteers as a chaplain at an Elmira hospital, and learned from a friend about St. Bernard's master of arts in pastoral studies program.

Speaking over a video screen that allows her to talk to and hear the professor and other students, Hawkes said she doesn't mind the commute of an hour and 15 minutes.

"It has worked out well for me," she said.

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