Brother William Mann, FSC
First of all, I want to say how deeply grateful I am for your presence here today. Your good wishes, your prayer, and your love support and enliven me; and I very much appreciate that you are here with me as this new and significant chapter opens for me and in the life of Saint Mary’s University.
It should be no great surprise to those of you who know me well that I want to begin my remarks today with a story, a story that I heard a number of years ago. It’s about a youngster, a fairly religious young man – he might even be called a little pious – who was forced by difficult family circumstances beyond the family’s control to wear tattered, hand-me-down clothes, who didn’t have extra spending money, who didn’t have the newest or best gadgets, and the condition of whose house was a bit embarrassing.
Some of his not-too-kind companions were one day mocking him for his poverty, taunting him that even though he was so obviously concerned a great deal about God, God, from the looks of things, had obviously forgotten him, and seemingly forgotten about his family.
The youngster stood there silently taking the hurt in, but after a few moments, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he looked at those taunting him and said, “I don’t believe that God forgot me. I think that he probably asked somebody else to help me, to help my family, and they forgot us.”
Now I share that story because, for me, it cuts to the heart of why the Catholic Church of Winona founded this institution in 1912 and why Saint John Baptist de La Salle founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools and why Lasallian schools, like Saint Mary’s, continue to exist in 82 countries of the world. We were founded upon the conviction that no young person and no family – no matter how economically, affectively, intellectually, or spiritually in need – should ever have cause to think that they have been forgotten, should ever have to wonder whether or not their family has been passed over by God, or by the rest of us.
This story is a reminder to me that, yes, Lasallian schools are fundamentally about the education of the least, the last, and the lost, but, also, a reminder that here at Saint Mary’s University our commitment to the education and formation of our students, to the dialogue that we promote and that, as a Catholic university, we foster between faith and culture, belief and reason, the commitment we have and the attempts we make to awaken, nurture, and empower “learners to ethical lives of service and leadership,” our striving to educate well-informed, clear-thinking, faith-filled, morally-upright, compassionate, just, entrepreneurially creative, and socially responsible citizens – this is our way as a Lasallian institution of higher education of guaranteeing that no member of society should ever have cause to fear “that God forgot them” or that – although God nudged or inspired somebody else to reach out in solidarity to their families – that “they forgot.”
In a world more and more disheartened by the corruption, greed, and reckless of some, by religious intolerance, partisan infighting, and indifference to human distress so characteristic of others, we are proud at Saint Mary’s to be a value-driven and person-centered university, situated within an international Lasallian network, that strives to empower our students to make a world of difference in our little corner of the globe, to inspire our learners with the vision and with the intellectual and moral stamina to truly make a positive difference in our world.
A Plan for Saint Mary’s University
Over and over again these past few months, people have asked me, “What is your plan for Saint Mary’s, what agenda do you have?” And I keep stating something that I said when I arrived here in Minnesota last January for my first meeting – I’m tempted to say “unveiling” – with faculty, staff, and students. My commitment is to engage with a faith-filled and full heart with the members of our board, administration, faculty and staff, students, families, alums, and benefactors, so that “together and by association” our plan and our agenda emerges, gains momentum, and propels us to be the best university that we can be and the one that can and will inspire others to partner with us.
To this end, I have been working with the Cabinet to identify some six or eight short-term priorities; and I am happy to announce today that I will, in the weeks ahead, be convoking four “roundtable” discussions where representatives of the faculty, student body, staff, alums and parents will be invited to examine with me whether or not the priorities presently being proposed are the right priorities for Saint Mary’s. These four smaller gatherings of about 40 persons each will be followed by two “town-hall” kind of gatherings, one on the Winona campus and one on the Twin Cities campus, where each and every member of the Saint Mary’s Community will be welcome to contribute their insights as our proposed priorities evolve.
As I have said from the beginning, I want to know you, to see each of you, to listen to as many of you as possible. I believe that good work and good leadership is relational. I am convinced that we are capable of calling the best out of one another; and that remains my commitment to you all.
We Are La Salle Today
If I could, I’d like to tell you another story, one that concerns a visit I had in May of 1991 with our young Brothers in Thailand. It should be no surprise to any of you that, as I have been doing here at Saint Mary’s, I was trying to get to know the names of the people with whom I was visiting. One young Brother came to speak with me, and he said, “Brother, I would like to tell you my name.” “But I already know your name,” I said, and he replied, “Not my Thai name, but my Christian name.” His Buddhist father had worked at one of our La Salle schools in Thailand, and he had died when this young Brother was in elementary school. The son grew close to the Brothers in secondary school, and he decided that he wanted to be baptized a Christian; and for his Christian name at baptism, he took the name “John Baptist de La Salle.”
Now, as you might imagine, I have been waiting for many years to meet John Baptist de La Salle; but I never thought that I would meet him in Thailand or that he might have been a Buddhist. I was reminded in that encounter of something that I read when I was a young Brother freshman in college. In 1967, The Brothers of the Christian Schools: A Declaration was published; and one of its great teachings was that the charism and living dynamism of John Baptist de La Salle was not primarily to be found in his 17th-century writings or in the relics we have of him. Rather, the living charism of our Founder was to be found in “the living members” of our community. We Lasallians are the living and vital spirit of John Baptist de La Salle today.
These are auspicious, perhaps even frightening times. Although on this peaceful day – surrounded by so many wonderful people and such awesome natural beauty – we can be lulled into ignoring it, we are as a nation and as a world faced with complex issues and decisions of great consequence for the future good and well-being of our country and of the whole human family.
This is why here at Saint Mary’s we remain committed to a continued expansion of our graduate and professional programs in response to the needs of so many persons for professional updating and retooling. We’re even now hoping to be able to grant in the near future three different doctoral degrees; and we remain committed to a radical improvement and expansion of our science facilities and to the continued development and enhancement of our cultural and our intercollegiate athletic facilities and programs. Nothing less than sound minds and sound bodies are needed for the important work of the years ahead. We are La Salle today, and together we can make a real difference in this world of ours. We Lasallians of Saint Mary’s University have a great treasure and a great legacy to share.
As a Lasallian university, Saint Mary’s is in a privileged position to be able to contribute to the vitality and the excellence of the whole Lasallian educational network. As we’re seeing in Washington today, tomorrow is not good enough. Today is the day to begin to address the empowerment of our laity in the future of the Church, the future of this institution, and the future of this Lasallian Family. In response to the call of the International Assembly of 2006 and the 44th General Chapter of 2008, I am happy to announce today the creation in the Saint Mary’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs of a new Institute for Lasallian Studies, an Institute within which we are prepared to provide opportunities for graduate degrees in Lasallian studies and Lasallian educational leadership on the master’s and doctoral level. We’re poised to begin to do that as early as this spring and this summer. After all, a university is about education and learning; and this university needs to integrate within its educational core courses and degrees of Lasallian studies.
Furthermore, I’ve instructed the Cabinet to explore the expansion of our efforts to make Saint Mary’s affordable to mid- and lower-economic families – an expansion of the Brother James Miller scholarships – and God willing and with the support of our friends and benefactors, I’d love to make it easier for graduates of the Miguel, Nativity and Cristo Rey schools of our Region to enroll and succeed at Saint Mary’s.
Let no one doubt that this Lasallian Catholic university – under the protection and inspiration of Mary, our patroness, and of John Baptist de La Salle, patron of teachers – stands committed to educate and form our students, and to forge partnerships with our families, our alums, our benefactors, and our friends to educate students to be agents of global transformation, to be part of the solution and not part of the problems that plague society in these opening years of the 21st century.
Again, thank you for being here today. Thank you for the opportunity given to me to go forward with you in confidence and in hope. God bless you all, and God bless Saint Mary’s University!