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THE LEGACY AND PROMISE OF THE SACRED HEART AT USD: Plenary Address for the National Meeting of the Associated Alumnae/i of the Sacred Heart

Seventy years ago, in June 1939, Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill spoke to the Sacred Heart Alumnae in Chicago, uttering a theme she was to repeat throughout her life; that is, the solemn duty of Catholic educators to work with the Creator in developing all the powers of the human mind and heart, leading students to realize God’s gifts of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth.  To be sure, as alumnae of Sacred Heart schools, you were blessed to receive an education and formation that cultivated within you attributes, virtues, and sensibilities that are the hallmark of a Sacred Heart education.  The stunning beauty of each school’s physical environment was intentionally designed to reflect the values being taught in the classrooms.  So, when I became the president of the University of San Diego, I also became a trustee of this legacy and, over the past six years, have grown to appreciate it more and more.

But today, I would like to assume that you already know and appreciate this dimension of your education.  Perhaps, you may even take it for granted, sensing that beauty, graciousness, and quality are synonymous with Sacred Heart Education.  I have learned this to be true, but I also wanted to know how this came to be and what relevance—if any—these characteristics had for a contemporary university.  It has been a significant exploration for me both professionally and personally because, as the leader of USD, I wanted to know if the Sacred Heart character of USD was merely part of its history or had meaning for its present and future.

I have made it a priority to begin each presidency (this is my third) by immersing myself in the history of my new institution.  I have discovered that understanding how and why the university originated are keys to understanding its development, its culture, and its aspirations.  In the case of USD, I was very fortunate because its history is relatively brief, and its archives and records have been meticulously maintained.  The charter to establish the San Diego College for Women and the University of San Diego College for Men and School of Law was granted in 1949, making this year, our sixtieth year, a special anniversary for us.  But, the aspirations for establishing a Catholic institution of higher learning began much earlier when the first bishop of the newly created San Diego Diocese, Charles Francis Buddy, visited the San Francisco College for Women—Lone Mountain—in 1937 and spoke with Mother Rosalie Clifton Hill, then superior of the Western Vicariate which included all of the communities of the Sacred Heart from Chicago to the Pacific Coast.  Bishop Buddy’s mother and sisters had been educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in St. Joseph, Missouri, so he knew of the Society’s reputation for excellence.  At the time of his visit, Bishop Buddy had only been San Diego’s prelate for one year, yet he had a vision for Catholic higher education which he shared with Mother Hill, requesting that—when the time was right—she accept his invitation to establish a college for women in San Diego.  She agreed, though the formal request was not to arrive until 1942.  For those among you who would like to know more about this story, I refer you to a wonderful book by Sister Helen McHugh, RSCJ entitled The Founder’s Tale, in which she offers a splendid biography of Mother Hill and her role in founding the university.   The correspondence between Mother Hill and Bishop Buddy chronicles their mutual commitment to higher education, the challenges they confronted throughout the planning process, and the deepening relationship and mutual respect they developed throughout this collaboration.

I have read and reread the history of USD and benefited from conversations with some of those pioneers responsible for realizing the founders’ dream.  What strikes me as a particular characteristic of this early history is the strength of the relationship between the founders, their mutual respect, willingness to compromise,  and generosity toward one another; all directed to a common ideal.  But this history also reveals the many difficulties each encountered throughout the process.  There are women in this audience who could recount for you details about those early years far better and far more accurately than I, but suffice it to point out that the creation of this university did not come without great personal and communal sacrifice. However, these burdens were shared—perhaps not equally—but shared nonetheless.  The Sisters, as you might expect, lived austerely yet lavished upon their students a bountiful feast of the intellectual life and surrounded them with everything beautiful, a common experience for the alumnae of any Sacred Heart school.  Like any of your schools, the San Diego College for Women and the College for Men developed because of the relationships they enjoyed between and among the Society, the local Church, the students and their families, and many generous benefactors. 

When, in 1972, the men’s and women’s colleges merged, the trust and confidence in these multiple relationships were severely tested, resulting in a new organization with a corporate governance quite rare within Catholic higher education.  Those of you who are alumnae of other Sacred Heart colleges know the more common story; that is, your colleges were often acquired, closed, or reconfigured as secular institutions. The San Diego experience differed because both the diocese and the Society mutually agreed to create a new corporation, governed by a predominantly lay Board of Trustees who bore full fiduciary responsibility for the university.  While four seats of the forty member Board were and are reserved for the U.S. Provincial and a Sister of the Society and for the local Bishop and priest of the diocese, neither the diocese nor the Society retained sponsorship or reserved powers.  Out of approximately 300 US Catholic colleges and universities, USD is only one among a handful that is not sponsored by either a diocese or a religious congregation.  Imagine the courage and trust it took to hand over the college you had created only twenty years before to others, especially to lay people who are entrusted with nurturing the values and faith-based mission of the university?  I am here today to explain that this trust was not misplaced; that the University of San Diego, while not formally one among the network of Sacred Heart Schools, retains its Sacred Heart character and—more—sees its relevance more sharply than ever.

There is multiple evidence of USD’s Sacred Heart connections, not least among these is the continued presence in the life of the university of members of the Society:  S. Carolyn Osiek and S. Kathleen Hughes are Trustees;  S. Mary Hotz is the Chair of our English department; S. Terry Monroe, the Asst. Director of our graduate program in Leadership Studies; S. Barbara Quinn, Director for the Center for Christian Spirituality; Sister Regin Shin, Mission and Ministry, Sister Virginia Rodee, Assistant Vice President for Mission.  S. Pat Shaffer, retired Professor of Chemistry, has moderated the Founders Club since its own founding in 1979 and she continues to be the chaplain for our women’s basketball team; S. Betsy Walsh recently retired after spending many years as a professor in our English Department continues to live among our students as a Resident Faculty; others teach part-time or support our students as spiritual directors.  A small community of Sisters also resides in the Casa Maria on campus.  For those of you who attended this morning’s session about our Founders Club, you learned that we have a growing number of students who are earning their alumni “passport” and involved in many service projects, some of which collaborate with international works of the Society.  Part of the orientation for new faculty and employees includes a wonderful presentation by S. Rodee introducing to them the history of the university and the influence of the Society on its educational philosophy and design.  Indeed, the visible evidence of our Sacred Heart heritage is prominent, especially in Founders Chapel which Mother Hill designed; Mater Admirabilis greets any visitor to the office of our Vice President for Mission and Ministry.  And, thanks to the generosity of many benefactors—including alumnae of the Sacred Heart who are present today—our newest structure, the 80,000 square foot School of Leadership and Education Sciences was named Mother Rosalie Hill Hall and dedicated to the Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

As significant as are the presence of the Sisters and the visible signs of their influence, it is equally important to me that the essence of the Society’s educational mission and philosophy permeate both what and how we educate.  From my perspective, the most important inheritance of the Sacred Heart tradition that continues to inform and inspire our university can best be described as it’s ethos or character and how that is manifested throughout its mission to and for students.  This brings me back to my first inquiry as a new president of USD:  from where did the Society inherit its penchant for emphasizing beauty, graciousness, goodness, civility—all of those attributes that are so recognizably “Sacred Heart?”  And why does it continue to matter?  That is why I want to focus for a moment on two of the attributes that give particular character to the university, ones that you should recognize as essential to any Sacred Heart education.

First and foremost, no Sacred Heart School or college was ever designed to be mediocre.  Quite the opposite and the reputation for excellence that the network of schools enjoys today is no less true for USD.  This relatively young university has flourished, reaching the 50,000 mark of alumni this May.  Remarkably, the average age of this group is only 36.  Among the 7,500 students enrolled, approximately 5,000 are undergraduates enrolled in our College of Arts and Sciences or our School of Business Administration which happens to rank 29th in the nation among all undergraduate business programs.  The School of Law enjoys a superb national reputation, ranked highly for its programs in tax law and for the legal scholarship of its faculty.  In addition to graduate schools in Nursing and Health Science and Leadership and Education Sciences, the benefaction of Joan Kroc made it possible for us to establish the only free standing graduate School of Peace Studies in the United States.  We continue to experience record high numbers of applications for the 1100 students we want to enroll each Fall for our undergraduate class.  This year we have received over 11,000 applications from students with an average GPA of 3.7 and SAT scores of 1225.  These and other factors have resulted in national rankings for which those of you who are alumnae should be proud.  In 2009, the U.S. News & World Report recognized USD as one of the nations’ top ten “Schools to Watch.”  The credit for this achievement must begin with Mother Hill and her band of pioneers who knew what greatness looked like, came to San Diego to sow those seeds of excellence that produced a wonderful garden that bears great fruit.  While Bishop Buddy and Mother Hill were partners in this enterprise he always credited her with its success.  In 1952, the year in which the College for Women opened its doors, he wrote:  “In reality you are the founder of the University of San Diego as well as the College for Women….  Without your perfect trust in the Sacred Heart, which in turn gave you the courage and vision, this vast project would never have started.”  [McHugh, Founder’s Tale, 87]

Second,  the missionary pulse of Philippine Duchense beats strongly at USD. Just as the strategic goals for the Society currently emphasize international outreach, the University’s own strategic plan made a commitment to developing the global competencies of its students and to practicing the social teachings of the Catholic Church, especially in our outreach to the poor and underserved.  We are rare in our requirement that all students, regardless of their major, must develop second language competence and in the high percentage of our students who spend at least part of their education abroad.  In fact, the School of Business Administration and the School of Leadership and Education Sciences require their students to study abroad and complete a portfolio demonstrating global skills.  The record of student service is impressive.  Our Center for Community Service Learning logged over 1 million hours of service offered by our students since the opening of that office 25 years ago.  At any given time in the semester, approximately 1,700 students are volunteering over 20,000 hours at over 35 service sites that we partner with in our local community and in Mexico.

The growth of our international work is expanding, thanks to the missionary zeal of our faculty.  Our School of Nursing and Health Sciences, lead by global health specialist Dr. Anita Hunter, has worked with graduate students and faculty from her own school, from the College of Arts and Sciences, and from the School of Business Administration to build the first pediatric hospital in Uganda.  This was in response to a request by the Archbishop of Mbarara who sought assistance in reducing the high rate of infant mortality because of water borne illnesses like river fever and malaria.  Our faculty and students were supported by a local parish, by the university, and from their own personal resources.  They traveled to Uganda in 2007and conducted a feasibility study to determine if such a hospital might be built and sustained.  Once the decision was affirmed, they returned with graduate students from the School of Business Administration who developed a business plan.  They were joined by faculty and students from the Chemistry department of the College who tested the river water to insure that the hospital would not pollute the village’s source of drinking water.  Their efforts have realized the dream of the Archbishop.  At the end of July, a 60 bed hospital will open, and as I mentioned, it will be the only such facility in the entire country.  Faculty and students have been working in Baja to help a village preserve its cannery operations and, at the same time, reduce the pollution of its bay waters.  Others have been traveling to the Dominican Republic where they conduct hundreds of physical and mental health exams and work with groups of lay health educators.  And, of course, the work of many students and faculty in our own neighborhood and in Tijuana continue.

The fact that the USD community has such a long and extensive tradition of service may not be that remarkable, especially when one considers the impressive network of groups like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and sponsored programs of other colleges and universities, but I noticed something different when I came to USD, something I attribute to the culture that was established at its foundation; that is, the culture of relationships.  Mother Hill and Bishop Buddy set the precedent and, over time, these have become an embedded feature of a USD education.  I myself noticed this within the first months of my presidency and since then visitors and newcomers to the campus have remarked about the unusual collaboration between and among the faculty from all programs, resulting in very creative and significant contributions:  the Uganda project is one among many with both a research and service mission; similarly faculty from law and education created the Center for Education Policy and Law; the list goes on and on, culminating in the School of Peace Studies which draws upon the expertise of faculty from throughout the university and brings to our campus men and women from around the world who return to their countries better equipped to build communities marked by justice.

From the origins of the Society through the expansion of its good works and continuing in the mission of USD and the network of Sacred Heart Schools, our relationship with benefactors has been essential to our mission.  Nothing has been achieved, especially considering the size and scope of the university’s mission, without the generous work and gifts of benefactors.  The Sisters were its first human endowment, and their example and sacrifice inspired others to support their work.  The Alumnae of the Sacred Heart have been and, I hope, will continue to be among our most generous sources of support and, I’m sure, I speak for every administrator responsible for a Sacred Heart school or activity.  

I realized that the very gifts that Madeleine Sophie Barat brought to her broken world through the creation of her “Little Society” are the same gifts that may heal our own broken world.  Recall for a moment the social conditions into which Sophie was born:  French society torn asunder by the violence and discord of the revolution; its economy in disarray and all its social institutions in upheaval, especially the Church marked by internal strife and anticlericalism.  Class warfare, extreme poverty confronting extreme wealth, corruption in government and the Church, polarization everywhere—chaos that sends people hungry for solace and answers into the arms of Jansenists, fundamentalists promoting a spirituality of austerity, emphasizing human sinfulness and corruption, God’s harsh judgment and humanity’s need for redemption mediated primarily through an authoritarian and harsh clergy.  Does any of this sound familiar?

What Sophie Barat constructs is an alternative universe, a fresh perspective that rejects the assumptions of the dominant culture.  She and her Sisters become, as her biographer Phil Kilroy writes, “counter-revolutionary.”  [Phil Kilroy, Madeleine Sophie Barat:  A Life, 2].  She overcomes her own fears and opens herself to the emancipating vision of a loving God who has great and generous desires for his creation, who can only create that which is good, that which is true, that which is beautiful.  And from that perspective Sophie Barat and her companions, like Philippine Duchesne, spread this good news through their schools and other missionary outreach.

This is the enduring vision of the Sacred Heart:  an education rooted in love that offers the lessons of hope, of compassion, of tolerance; that provides its students an experience of God’s great love for all creation through an immersion in what is beautiful; that promotes the dignity of every person by teaching and modeling the sacredness of each encounter and potential for good that these relationships offer.  This is the heart of a Sacred Heart education and, therefore, fundamental to a University of San Diego education.  When I am asked why our students are required to take more philosophy and theology classes than almost any other Catholic university, or why every student must pursue a strong liberal arts curriculum regardless of their majors, or why we give particular attention to the gardens, the fountains, the exterior and interior design of our buildings and make accessible to our community and visitors the beautiful art and artifacts that have been given to us, or why we invest so much in good liturgy, in music, and the arts—all of this is connected directly to our character as a Sacred Heart university.  None of this is accidental; it is purposeful.

Since I began with a quote from Mother Hill’s address to the AASH in 1939, let me conclude with her last address to the alumnae during its meeting in San Diego in 1961:

To find God is the greatest human achievement That, some day, please God we shall all achieve permanently.  But in the meantime  we strive toward that final achievement in the very perfect achievement of love of one another, love of the ever-blessed Trinity, through the bounty of the Heart of Our Lord and with the help of His Blessed Mother, thus fulfilling Our Lord’s prayers to His Father, :That they may be made perfect in One.”  [McHugh, 80-81.]

Mary E. Lyons, Ph.D.
President, University of San Diego
April 24, 2009