Growing in Faith

At the very heart of any organization is a mission statement, which defines that institution’s reason for being. It focuses the purpose of the group and guides the actions of its members. Within the Niagara University mission statement are words critical to the university’s overall purpose. These active phrases should not be taken lightly: “educates its students and enriches their lives,” “prepares its students for positions of responsibility,” “seeks to inspire its students,” and “seeks to develop the whole person, mind, body, heart and soul.”

A closer look at the first sentence of NU’s mission statement carries a subtle, yet powerful phrase: “ … informed by the Catholic and Vincentian traditions.” It’s these traditions that drive the university’s purpose and inspire the campus community. And it’s these traditions that define the university’s identity and draw people to Monteagle Ridge.

“I looked at a million schools. I don’t know what it was about Niagara, but this is where I was supposed to be,” says Lisa Paska, ’11. Through her time as an undergraduate, Lisa came to realize that it was Niagara’s Catholic identity that drew her to NU. “I don’t think I realized it at the time, but it was definitely that. There’s so much love here, so much faith and so much hope. I didn’t see it at first, but I know now.”

Within Niagara University’s current mission statement, there are four enabling goals that further illustrate the deeper purpose of the university. One directly focuses on the university’s Catholic heritage:

Catholic doctrine and its moral code inspire respect for the God-given dignity of every person and all faith traditions. Students experience the vision and reality of a Gospel-based, value-centered education.

When considering colleges, students of all faiths find themselves drawn by the charism of Niagara University.

“My mother was a little hesitant about me attending Niagara because it is a Catholic school and I am a Jew,” says Skylar Fairchild, a junior criminal justice major with minors in military science, psychology and American Sign Language. “The Vincentian values are instilled upon us the moment we set foot on campus. It is not about what religion you are; it’s about who you are inside. (Niagara) does not make a religious push; it just uses the values of the Catholic and Vincentian traditions to enforce the well-being of the people of NU. Niagara develops students into adults who are ready for the world and to serve others.”

Students also find that Niagara encourages their spiritual growth, regardless of their religious convictions.

“Although I was not Catholic, through the Campus Ministry program I was able to grow in my own faith and found commonality with many aspects of the Catholic and Vincentian mission, becoming inspired to do more in the local community,” says Michael DeLoia, ’09. “After graduation, this inspiration stayed with me, and I ended up returning to the Republic of Panama to do service work with grassroots organizations and the Vincentian priests.”

The university provides those who are Catholic with the opportunity to continue to grow in their faith and celebrate the rich traditions of the Catholic Church.

“I knew I wanted to attend a Catholic university because I wanted to be free to practice my faith and have that accessibility, such as Mass every Sunday and confession,” says Claire Hogan, ’11. “As I attended the first Mass held for our freshman class, I remember thinking that I was never alone; God, who was with me at home, was also with me here, and that was the one thing that remained constant.”

Claire’s thoughts echo those of her parents, Michael and Suzanne Hogan, who graduated from Niagara 35 years ago. Suzanne, who was drawn by “the presence of the Vincentians on campus and the availability of the sacraments and the chapel,” notes that “a Catholic university education was a very important stepping stone from youth to adulthood, giving Mike and me the basis to make decisions that would impact our lives for years to come.”

Employees, too, are attracted by the Catholicism evident across the university’s campus.

“You really believe that people are here for the Catholic and Vincentian mission of the institution,” says Ed McLaughlin, athletic director. "It’s stronger here than any place I’ve ever been. To me that was really appealing, to be able to be in a community where people believe the same things that I believe –– not just that you want to do right by the students, but the reason why you want to do right by the students.”

Daily interactions with the Vincentians are tangible reminders of the university’s mission.

“This is a special group of confreres,” says Joe Mihalich, men’s head basketball coach. “They show you that you can have God in your life and you can be a good Catholic, but those guys are like a family in itself — they really add to that here at Niagara University.”

A second enabling goal highlights Niagara’s Vincentian heritage:

As a Vincentian university, Niagara draws inspiration from St. Vincent de Paul, who organized his contemporaries to respond compassionately to people’s basic needs. Continuing this tradition, Niagara seeks to inspire its students to serve all members of society, especially the poor and oppressed, in local communities and in the larger world.

Howard Morgan, ’86, entered Niagara as a seminarian, expecting only to continue the Catholic traditions he had experienced in Catholic schools and at Sunday Mass with his family. “I knew the importance of prayers and Mass,” says Howard, “but my world was rocked shortly after getting here and realizing there was more than that to a Catholic education.”

Howard discovered what he describes as “face service” through NUCAP (the Niagara University Community Action Program), a service program that encourages participants to express their faith by action and then share what they experience with others. This, and his work with the university’s Justice and Peace Committee, convinced him that “people walk by faith here. Knowing that it was all driven by your faith and what you were being taught in the classrooms,” made the work he was doing even more meaningful.

Perhaps one of the most profound community service experiences comes through BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ), a program that sends students to urban or rural areas in the United States and the Republic of Panama to work side-by-side with the poor in Vincentian communities.

Senior biology/religious studies major Patrick Teixeira, who has been to Panama and Camden, N.J., with BASIC, notes that the experience helped him “to really see what’s there, see how people live, see how you can make an impact.” He found that he is now better able to understand the plight of the poor. “You get to understand their situation. They became people with names, faces, families, histories.”

Catherine Trzaska, a sophomore studying tourism/recreation with a concentration in special events and a minor in Spanish, says her BASIC experience instilled in her a lifelong dedication to service. “Experiences like those you never forget, and you know how they made you feel when you were helping people that you never would have interacted with otherwise,” she says. “I want to keep that feeling throughout my life and continue to serve others and just spread my faith because I’ve seen firsthand how it can really help people.”

In the summer of his sophomore year, a torn Achilles tendon kept Ian O’Rourke from competing as a member of NU’s NCAA swim team. “But I was able to take on new challenges, like going on a BASIC trip to aid and work with the underprivileged in Philadelphia. I soon realized that I wanted to change things for the better. I wanted to make an impact. I was not sure how I could, but I knew that helping others in one way or another was what I was meant to do.”

A crucial aspect of the BASIC experience is the reflection that takes place as part of the program. As Monica Saltarelli, ’86, campus minister and lecturer of religious studies, explains, “The reflection piece is really what St. Vincent de Paul says enables us to see Christ in the poor. When you encounter someone from the fringe of society, you may see him or her as repugnant, but when you flip the coin, you see the face of Christ! And hopefully we become Christ for that person as well.”

The university’s faith tradition, noted in another enabling goal, informs the institution as it develops in students a spiritual curiosity:

The university’s commitment to the Catholic faith provides perspective in the search for truth and meaning.

Traditionally, students attend colleges and universities during some of the most formative years of their lives. For many, these years are a time for introspective learning and discovery. At Niagara, students are encouraged to find this truth and meaning, whether it is new to them or a reaffirmation of their beliefs. For Caitlyn Kilkenny, ’11, NU offered the opportunity to reconnect with the beliefs she had learned as a child.

“I’ve always been Catholic, but kind of lost track of it in high school,” she says. She learned about Niagara’s RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) program when she was a sophomore and decided to participate so that she could be confirmed in the Catholic Church. This experience gave her a new understanding and acceptance of her faith. “Doing those classes made me more comfortable in being open in my faith in the NU community,” she says. “When I came here I knew I was a Catholic and I believed in it, but I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it.”

Others, like Chris Haggard, a senior criminal justice major, are inspired to become Catholic for the first time.

“Becoming Catholic originated from my curiosity to answer questions I had about the religion,” he says. “By learning at NU that faith is a continuous learning experience, I’ve come to find that I need to strengthen my bond wit God throughout my life. One of the most important lessons I could ever learn was that Catholicism is a lifelong learning experience. I’ve realized that I must continue to pursue my curiosity and strive to learn as much as I can.”

Although Niagara has a strong identity as a Catholic university and openly welcomes people who choose to practice the Catholic faith, it continues to inspire the “search for truth and meaning” for people of all religions.

“When I was home in a very non-Jewish area, I would travel with my family to the nearby city with a temple to pray,” says Skylar Fairchild. “When I came to NU and witnessed the power of prayer on students to bring them together, I missed that. Father John (Maher) invited me to his Mass on Sunday night. I sat down and was entranced with his sermon and realized how accepting NU is to any faith.”

Groups like Living in Faith Together (LIFT) offer opportunities for students of all beliefs to come together to talk about how they are living out their faith.

“It’s nice to find other people to talk with about faith,” says Patrick Teixeira, who is a group facilitator for LIFT. “It’s comforting to have someone in your peer group that you can dialogue with. They are in the same boat as you.”

The essence of Niagara’s mission statement can be found in its fourth enabling goal:

Niagara University seeks to develop the whole person, mind, body, heart and soul, for the benefit of one’s personal and professional life.

A key piece of this development happens in the classroom.

“In the business school, students need to be taught all the elements of how to build and manage profitable businesses,” says Dr. James Kling, associate professor of management. “Niagara University business graduates will also understand how a business that creates jobs and pays a living wage is helping to reduce poverty and enhance human dignity. The ultimate goal of a successful NU educated business alumnus is to create enough wealth to not only ‘give back’ to the community but also to be a leader in addressing community problems in the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul.”

Ian O’Rourke discovered that his passion for helping others could strengthen his professional development. “I am currently working on my master’s degree. As part of my studies, I am developing a program, and hopefully a book, that will help others reach their goals and dreams. I also help with the project Angel Shoes, which sends gently used sandals from the Cave of the Winds at Niagara Falls over to Third World countries. I am truly amazed at the projects I am working on and I am beginning to finally actualize my own dreams, which draw from my desire to learn, grow, and help others just like St. Vincent once did. Who would have thought time spent helping others would actually benefit us far more than just simply helping ourselves.”

Even after leaving Monteagle Ridge, the Catholic and Vincentian influence remains strong for Niagara’s graduates.

“The mission of Niagara University provides all its students not only with a passion for learning, but also with the resources to serve the less fortunate, to transform their communities, and to succeed in all their endeavors,” says Michael DeLoia. “Today, I work for a university-affiliated food pantry and dining room in Niagara Falls, continuing to serve those living in poverty and working with other groups that strive for social justice.”

And while Lisa Paska may not have recognized that it was NU’s Catholic identity that drew her to become a Niagaran, she sees it very clearly now. “It’s not something that you know until you experience it. I would have never known that I felt that way about my faith unless I’d come here.”