St. Bernard's in Albany - 20 Years of Service

Located in the very heart of the Albany Diocese, St. Bernard’s has consistently sought to meet the challenges of a changing Church in a changing world. As an extension of St. Bernard’s in Rochester, it continues the mission of Christian formation, preparing men and women for service to the Church and the larger community. New York’s capital city has proven to be an excellent location for student field work, as it is the home of several hospitals, numerous schools and many churches. In addition, the school’s proximity to the diocesan offices of the Pastoral Center places St. Bernard’s at the center of Church activity.

The original St. Bernard’s was established as a Roman Catholic seminary in 1893 by Most Reverend Thomas J. McQuaid, the first bishop of Rochester. Bishop McQuaid, known for his innovative views on education, set the tone for the decades ahead. In 1967, following the second Vatican Council, non-seminarians were admitted for the first time, and in 1981 it was restructured as St. Bernard’s Institute for Theological Studies. From the time of its founding, St. Bernard’s has benefited from a succession of visionary bishops, including Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen who was instrumental in the seminary’s post Vatican II transition. An agreement signed in 1981 with the Colgate Rochester Divinity School, and St. Bernard’s subsequent move to the Colgate campus, established an ecumenical tradition. Under Rochester’s current bishop, Matthew H. Clark, the school relocated in 2003 to its own new facility on French Road. However, the spirit of ecumenism has continued and flourishes at the Albany extension site, opened in 1989.

As the only graduate school of theology in the Capital District, St. Bernard’s at Albany serves a diverse student population ranging in age from 20’s to 60’s and beyond, and representing various Christian denominations in addition to the Roman Catholic tradition. St. Bernard’s is accredited by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Those who come to study go out to serve the Body of Christ in numerous ways, professional and volunteer, at work and in daily life. We of the Albany Diocese are indebted to the vision and effort of Father Thomas Powers and Sister Danielle Bonetti, who had the first dream, and to Bishop Clark and Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, whose support enabled St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry to come to Albany. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of that leap of faith which has brought so much spiritual and academic growth to our area.

The first director of the Albany site was Sister Margery Halpin, RSM. Her many years of experience in the field of education made her a natural choice for the job, but when she arrived at her new office, she found a virtually empty room, “without even a paperclip,” as she later recalled. Gradually, the space evolved to become an efficient workplace with a secretary, but that first year of planning was a new experience for all involved. Under the guidance of bishops Matthew Clark and Howard Hubbard, along with Father Tom Powers, a unique opportunity developed for the Albany Diocese. There was now a place where the future ministers of the Church could be trained, in a location convenient to area residents.

The response was greater than anticipated - one person applied even before there was a schedule in place! Over the course of the first year, more than 100 students showed up. Sr. Marge remembers the “many faith-filled people” she encountered during her eleven years as director, both faculty and students, who added the richness of their life experience to the educational programs at St. Bernard’s.

Three courses were offered for the opening fall semester of 1989. Both “Synoptic Gospels,” taught by Sr. Eileen Flanagan and Marcus Gigliotti, and “Contemporary Moral Theology,” taught by Lois Daly, were presented at St. Anthony-on-Hudson in Rensselaer, while only “Introduction to Pastoral Counseling,” taught by Rev. Anthony Chiaramonte, was in the Pastoral Center.

Fr. Chairamonte, a licensed clinical psychologist and the first teacher hired for the Albany site, is still instructing students in care-giving skills. “I like to teach,” he explains, “because it forces me to learn what’s new in the field.” He believes that students have experiences to share and he advises them to “stay open and continue to learn.”

Another early member of the St. Bernard’s faculty was Rev. Christopher DeGiovine, now Dean of Spiritual Life at the College of Saint Rose. As vocation and formation director, as well as director for the Formation for Ministry Program for lay leadership, Fr. DeGiovine recognized the need for graduate theological study in the diocese, particularly for the laity. In the spring semester of 1991, he taught “Ministry as Leadership and Community Building,” a fitting subject for the new school. Five years later, as the Hubbard Interfaith Sanctuary was under construction on the Saint Rose campus, he would remark, “Let our experience challenge our theologies and our theologies challenge our experience…As we get to really know each other…who knows where we will be led.” How apt for both the Sanctuary and St. Bernard’s, in light of the ecumenism they have fostered. We are fortunate to have Fr. DeGiovine here, continuing to teach our graduate students.

When all is said and done, the real measure of success for any school is found in its graduates. In May of 1992, St. Bernard’s of Albany witnessed its first graduating class of two students, Joseph Coray and Deacon William Gorman. The following year, there were nine more. By the time the school celebrated its tenth anniversary in 1999, 67 degrees, M.A. or M.Div., had been awarded and 200 students were registered for classes.      Many of these early graduates are now serving in ministries in the Albany area.  Susan Schultz (‘93) serves as a chaplain with Community Hospice of Rensselaer County, while Rev. James Clark (‘92) is the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Hoosick Falls. Walt Chura (‘94) heads of the Thomas Merton Society of the Capital Region.  Elizabeth Simcoe ('96) serves as Diocesan Chancellor for Pastoral Services.

As the third millennium approached, St. Bernard’s of Albany said farewell to Sr. Margery Halpin and got ready to welcome Joseph Piccolino as its new director. Dr. Piccolino brought to the job his own personal experience of the school: he received his M.A. in theology from St. Bernard’s in 1996. Under Sr. Marge’s leadership, St. Bernard’s had grown into a thriving graduate school offering, in addition to Master degrees, a certificate program, educational lectures, yearly retreats, and “St. Bernard’s on the Road,” designed to offer learning opportunities to parish clusters within the diocese. Sr. Marge currently serves as Pastoral Associate at The Church of St. Catherine of Siena in Albany.

St. Bernard's second director, Dr. Joseph Piccolino, began his tenure with the spiritual vision characteristic of the school, a vision he described as “Theology for today.” That is an appropriate term for an educational program conceived to address the needs of Christian communities in the current age. By building ties to the people throughout the diocese, as well as to other Christian denominations, St. Bernard’s brings together students from many varied backgrounds whose common interest in the Mission of Christ supports their call to service and their love for one another.

The school’s opening convocation each September adds an opportunity for the public to experience, without cost, a lecture on a timely subject presented by a visiting scholar. In addition, St. Bernard’s sponsors a number of workshops that are available for a small fee. The faculty also remain active throughout the diocese, presenting at various events, such as Spring Enrichment and Parish Convening.

The current director of St. Bernard’s, Sr. Katherine Hanley, CSJ, PhD, was appointed in the summer of 2005. Her former position at the vocations office was a fitting prelude to heading an educational structure dedicated to preparing students for ministry; Sister Kitty also brought twenty years of experience as professor and graduate dean at The College of Saint Rose. Since 2005 St. Bernard's has seen a significant increase in the number of students seeking the M. Div degree as well a greatly expanded St. Bernard's on the Road option which offers as many as thirty presentations to parishes all over the diocese, on-line catalogue materials and course outlines, and a greatly enhanced website at stbernards.edu.  Continuing education presentations have assisted members of the diocese to explore Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, the United States Bishops' publication on lay ecclesial ministry.

A vital part of the student body at St. Bernard's are the men who are in discernment and preparation for ordination to the diaconate.  These men, along with their wives, have always taken at least four courses at St. Bernard’s and a significant number have continued to earn degrees.  Under a new diaconate curriculum established in 2008, chaired by Dr. Joe Piccolino and on which Sister Kitty served, diaconal candidates now take ten courses at St. Bernard's, now coming to near completion of their degrees by the time of ordination.

A key to the success of St. Bernard’s Albany extension is the continuing support of Bishop Howard J. Hubbard. Throughout the years, Bishop Hubbard has been an inspiration to many individuals called to Christian ministry. On the occasion of his twentieth anniversary as Albany’s bishop, a full tuition scholarship toward a master’s degree at St. Bernard’s was awarded to Brenda Rotolo, a hearing-impaired student.  Rotolo became the first-ever recipient of the Bishop Howard Hubbard Scholarship on September 11, 1997. A new venture, to be launched in the spring of 2009, will designate as "Hubbard Scholars" a number of beginning students who will receive significant financial aid for their first courses.

St. Bernard's is, then, both a school and a resource for the diocese. The graduate programs, the heart of the ministerial endeavor, offer deep grounding in the Christian intellectual tradition.  As a resource, St. Bernard's is able to offer lectures, workshops, short-term courses, speakers at Spring Enrichment and Parish Convening, spiritual directors, and consultants, primarily through the faculty but through graduates as well.

The Diocese of Albany has much to be grateful for. St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry continues to serve not just the needs of the Roman Catholic community, but in the true spirit of Vatican II, the needs of the ecumenical Christian community. In the words of Walt Chura (‘94), “[M]y love of theology never died. I yearned to get a graduate degree in it. But there was no way to do that - UNTIL - 1989. Then the Holy Spirit inspired two bishops to bring St. Bernard’s to Albany - obviously to fulfill my dream!” May the joy that is St. Bernard’s continue for many years to come, and may the Holy Spirit inspire us all.