Saint John’s @ 150 – Bahamas January 19, 2008

Distinguished Executive Members of the Bahamas Chapter of the Saint John's University Alumni Association

Beloved alumni of Saint John's and wives / girl friends, friends and parents of Saint John's alumni and  students, 

and, since all of our paths intersect, most welcome alumnae, parents and friends of our sister College of Saint Benedict: 

It is a great honor to be with you tonight in Nassau, to celebrate the Sesquicentennial of Saint John's University with such lively, creative, open-hearted and generous members of the extended Saint John's community.  Thank you, Mark, for hosting this wonderful  celebration.  And thank you, Basil and Archbishop Pindar, for your deeply moving reflections.   

Our theme tonight is history.  Since August of 2006, I have been everywhere from New York to Hong Kong and points in between to celebrate Saint John's 150th birthday. This remarkable series of parties has gathered thousands of alumni, parents and friends in twenty different locations to celebrate a communal identity that is remarkably precious and life-giving.  Your presence here tonight testifies to one of the great characteristics of Saint John's history - the tendency always to spread outward.  The 37 students from the Bahamas currently at CSB/SJU follow a long line of predecessors dating back to the mid-1920's.  And like their predecessors, they find their horizons expanding and their expectations of themselves increasing.  I think you know the dynamic.

We are still close enough to Saint John's University's sesquicentennial year - 2007 - that the story of our founding bears re-telling.  In 1856, five Benedictine monks arrived in St. Cloud to establish a monastery and serve the growing population of German Catholic immigrants. Our founders understood that it would be through education that they could make the greatest contribution to these recent immigrants. Their goal was to produce leaders of vision, compassion, skill and faith for both the Church and society.

By November of 1857, five young men-Henry Emmel, Anthony Edelbrock, Joseph Duerr, Henry Klostermann and Andrew Stahlberger-had enrolled at the newly chartered Saint John's Seminary.  They lived, worshiped and studied religion, history, English, Latin, Greek, astronomy, rhetoric and math under the guidance of one of the founders, Fr. Cornelius Wittman, OSB, in just one lonely building on the windswept prairie.

Fast forward 150 years to AY 2007-08.  We are still committed to preparing such leaders, although times have changed in countless ways.  There are now 1,917 undergraduate students at Saint John's.  With 2,049 students at the College of Saint Benedict, we have become the largest undergraduate liberal arts college in the United States.  Saint John's students are now named Berrando, Samir and Jaime, as well as Henry and Andrew.

The School of Theology•Seminary, which has made historic contributions to the life of the Church in liturgical renewal and ecumenism, now numbers 185 students and includes students named Susan and DaHai along with the traditional Davids and Josephs.  Over the last decades the Church has increasingly called lay people to serve with priests and religious in positions of leadership and Saint John's has changed to meet that need, offering lay men and women the same excellent education, spiritual formation and support we have always provided for our seminarians.

Our students now hail from 41 states and 46 countries, including, of course, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.  Our students live, study and worship in 41 buildings - including the new Abbey Guesthouse  - located on 2,700 acres of forest, oak savannah and restored prairie, wetlands and lakes.  And Fr. Cornelius would be astounded to learn that our faculty now numbers 294 full-time and 65 part-time professors offering courses in 60 areas of study with 40 majors.

As you know, Saint John's and the Bahamas share a powerful and long-standing relationship.  Saint John's  involvement in the Bahamas began in 1891, with the arrival of Fr. Chrysostom Schreiner, who had led the University from 1884-1890.  In 1892, as the story goes, Fr. Chrysostom faced shipwreck on a voyage from San Salvador to Nassau. He vowed to devote the rest of his life building the Catholic community here if he was spared. He was spared, and he stayed true to his vow. The remarkable story of the communal service of the monks of Saint John's in the Bahamas from 1891-2005 (and the continuing pastoral service on behalf of the monastic community by Fr. Mel Taylor) has often been told.  It is a story of the founding of the Bahamian Catholic Church, deeply intertwined with the birth of this nation, a story of enduring importance. 

My story is a humbler one, a part of that larger story, precious in its own right.  It too goes back to Saint John's Bahamian founder, Fr. Chrysostom Schreiner, who in the mid-1920s encouraged the young Bahamians, Saudi Baker, Useph Baker and Etienne Dupuch,  to make the journey north to Collegeville to become the first Bahamian Johnnies.  What a distinguished tradition began as a direct outgrowth of Fr. Chrysostom's love for the people of the Bahamas.  Approximately 650 young men from the Bahamas have attended Saint John's throughout our history, going on to become the doctors, lawyers, teachers, politicians, civil servants, business and religious leaders that a stable and prosperous society depends on.  There are many examples of this here tonight.  You just have to look around  you.  Let me point out two individuals: Basil Christi, who has taken the lead in planning this event and the renewing the energy of the alumni of the Bahamas, and Prince Wallace, who as  a Regent of SJU is working  hard to strengthen the educational experience of the Bahamian students at SJU/CSB.

I know there are more than I can list in the time allotted me, but let me simply recognize We can be proud of  a relationship between the Bahamas and Saint John's that is now into its second century.  That relationship has certainly changed, but our close and important connection has endured and will continue to flourish.   Dare we have the courage to say its best days could be ahead?

A sesquicentennial is a good time to look back and take stock...but it is also a time to look forward and to plan, creatively and ambitiously, for a bright future.

In 2008 we are faced with a different set of challenges than those faced by our founders - not the challenges of a fledgling institution establishing a foothold on a geographical frontier, but those of a long established Catholic, Benedictine university preparing students for life on the frontier of a new century -- technology-driven, hyper-connected, globally-intertwined,  in which changes are bewildering and occur at lightning speed.

We must prepare our students to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders in a world rent by war and terror and misunderstanding.

We must educate our students  to be wise stewards of the natural resources of this precious earth, capable of making courageous decisions so that there is an eco-system strong and resilient enough to support human life. 

And we must care for our students'  ethical development, so they can see beyond the lure of material well-being and comfort to something deeper and more compelling, and join with others to shape ethical practices in business and government and to participate in centers of worship and spiritual teaching - to participate in these important arenas and renew them - along with centers of community and hospitality to the poor and the marginalized.  The fate of our societies, of our souls, depends on this:

How will all who believe in the mission of Saint John's address the challenges and opportunities of this unfolding century?  Certainly with energy and the best creativity we can muster, and with a focus on five key areas, each of which we share with our partner College of Saint Benedict:

  1. Providing scholarship support in order to:
  • remain affordable and accessible to students from all walks of life,
  • attract outstanding students and
  • increase the geographic, cultural, racial and ethnic mix of the student body.
  1. Strengthening our liberal arts curriculum in the humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and fine arts so it prepares students exceptionally well for careers, family and service to the larger community.
  2. Fostering the kind of faculty in the future who have made Saint John's great in the past -- scholars deeply conversant with their discipline, committed to our Catholic Benedictine liberal arts mission, yearning as their first priority to teach and mentor students known by their first name.
  3. Giving focus and new energy to the monks' historic legacy of bringing the resources of Catholic and Benedictine tradition - at its best - into dialogue with the hopes and dilemmas of the young, so as to foster faith, conscience and character strong enough to last a lifetime. 
  4. Strengthening gender education and development at Saint John's and St. Ben's, in two colleges unique in America - a college for men and a college for women, attending with extraordinary care to the well-being, creativity and generosity of men and women, separately and together, for the sake of the lives they will live long after leaving campus.

None of us can predict what SJU will look like 150 years from now.  But I am convinced that wise and generous support for scholarships, curricular renewal, faculty vitality, the transmission of Catholic and Benedictine values, and the formation of men and women will go a long way to ensuring that Saint John's educational mission is pursued with vigor and imagination long after we all have passed on to a far distant shore.

Saint John's is an internationally significant Catholic liberal arts college, anchored in a place of great natural beauty, nurtured by the witness of faithful monastic life, inspired by world-class theological education, and renewed by deep encounter with the art and culture that makes human lives worth living.

As we care for each of those precious characteristics of Saint John's we look back with gratitude to the initial founders and their great and generous successors in every age who made this possible.  But what you need to know is that none of this would have been possible without you.  It was the effort to educate you and the alumni before you, to keep up with your remarkable, unpredictable growth and development, that kept Saint John's alive, on its toes and always stretching.  Your finger prints are all over everything that we are and everything that we strive to become. 

Whenever I spend time with alumni I become more deeply convinced that - far more than what we plan - it is the trajectory of your lives that sets the horizon for Saint John's hopes.  And when I spend time with the parents of alumni and, of course, with their wives, I meet those who know far more intimately than I ever can the significance of Saint John's long-standing mission commitment "to prepare students for full, integrated lives of faith and reason, action and love."

Because of the quality of your lives, years from now people will look back with gratitude to the alumni and spouses, parents and friends of this era and number us too in that remarkable lineage of persons across time whose hopes and dreams, risk-taking and generosity have made Saint John's - at times almost in spite of itself - into such a force for good in the world.  

And so as we celebrate this Sesquicentennial there is perhaps no act more appropriate than to spend time with you, to look into your eyes as deeply as I can, and to say "Thank you!"  I think the best is yet to come.