Are you a Southern Tier resident who’s intrigued by the curriculum offered through St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry, but uneasy about the long drive to suburban Rochester for classes?
Your problems may soon be over for some classes, thanks to an initiative where the graduate lay institute is teleconferencing with St. Mary of the Lake Church in Watkins Glen.
The inaugural course for this venture began June 21 and will conclude July 15. Titled “Mixed Marriages and Ministry” — on the subject of interreligious marriage — it is taught by Deacon Thomas Driscoll, who serves as St. Bernard’s director of community education. He conducts the evening class for students at the St. Bernard’s facility in Pittsford, where he is stationed, as well as for those connected via television at St. Mary of the Lake.
The two facilities are linked by a high-speed cable connection, high-definition televisions and remote cameras. Deacon Driscoll reported that the first session went off with no technological glitches and that the students seemed to adjust well.
“We had no problems. The sound quality was excellent and the picture quality was good; that allowed for some good interaction,” Deacon Driscoll said, noting that the cameras’ wide-angle capabilities helped involve the entire class.
In order to ensure a smooth flow of dialogue, he said, “Learning to jump in from the remote site is a skill some of the students are going to have to learn.” He added that due to the set-up, “Dynamic-wise, as a teacher, I had to change my style a little bit,” such as remembering to ask anyone at the Watkins Glen location if they had any questions. However, he said, “After an hour it became very easy.”
The St. Mary’s campus is wired in three areas for teleconferencing use: at the church complex; in a double classroom at the parish center; and in the parish-center gymnasium for larger gatherings. Deacon Driscoll is thankful for the commitment made by St. Mary of the Lake — not only for providing space, but also for donating $2,000 worth of equipment and providing staff members to assist with technological aspects.
“We have a number of students in the Southern Tier and would like to be able to get to a point where students don’t have to drive as far. Videoconferencing offers us that opportunity, and St. Mary of the Lake has generously come forward,” Deacon Driscoll said.
Father Paul Bonacci, pastor of Schuyler Catholic Community (St. Mary of the Lake as well as St. Benedict’s, Odessa), recalled that he had pitched the idea to Deacon Driscoll last year.
“I knew that St. Bernard’s had looked into the possibility of teleconferencing, and felt this was a good location, central to different areas,” Father Bonacci said.
The pastor added that he knew many people from St. Mary’s as well as nearby parishes who were driving to St. Bernard’s and getting home very late at night. “They were trying to balance work, family, home and driving,” he remarked.
Father Bonacci said his proposal for this project got a thumbs-up from his staff and parish pastoral council: “They are very enthusiastic — they see it as cutting edge, see it as growth potential.”
Additional classes via teleconference will be offered beginning in the fall (see sidebar). The classes are open to the public, and graduate credit is available as well. One course being offered this winter will introduce a new wrinkle, in which Father Bonacci and Father Patrick VanDurme — another Southern Tier priest — will be instructors stationed at Watkins Glen.
“We want to be able to offer classes that are taught at St. Mary of the Lake and broadcast back here (to Pittsford). Our hope is that we will have teachers in both locations,” Deacon Driscoll said.
Deacon Driscoll emphasized that Watkins Glen can serve as a base for students in Finger Lakes as well as Southern Tier parishes. He and Sister of St. Joseph Patricia Schoelles, president of St. Bernard’s, plan to tour area parishes this fall promoting the new opportunity.
Deacon Driscoll hopes for St. Bernard’s to eventually offer more courses via teleconference and also expand to Bath, where St. Bernard’s utilizes classroom space at the Catholic Charities building.
“That way, no one in the diocese would be more than an hour from a class,” he said, adding that teleconferencing may also extend to St. Bernard’s satellite facility in Albany.