Sister Mary Zygmunta, OSF
S. Virginelle: Sister Zygmunta, Alvernia College can boast of its successful operation over the past years since its beginning. Initially, what need prompted our community to establish the college?
S. Zygmunta: In 1954, Sister Mary Chrysostom, the General Superior informed me that she and her Council decided that I should begin studies for a doctorate degree at some university. At that time, I was acting in the capacity of both teacher and principal in Holy Name School, Stamford, Connecticut. The letter of the Superior General flattered me but, at the same time, it puzzled me, too.
Several days later, I responded by making a personal appearance at the Generalate in Reading, Pennsylvania to inquire about the reason for this sudden choice. It was then that I learned that the Community planned to open a Liberal Arts College in order to prepare its young religious as future teachers in accordance with the Franciscan heritage of Christian education. Heretofore, the Sisters received their degrees by taking courses in various colleges. The General Superior and her Council believed that there would be an advantage in educating the Sisters in our own institution.
My feelings were mixed. I had some hesitation in accepting the task set before me. There was the challenge and there was the service, but there was no assurance of success. I presented by doubts to the General Superior hoping that she would be convinced that someone else should get this assignment. My arguments did not prevail and, in the spirit of obedience, I accepted.
S. Virginelle: Now, as first President of the college you certainly set it on a successful course. You must have many thoughts about those early days – the struggles, the joys. I wonder what were some of your experiences in the beginning?
S. Zygmunta: From the beginning, the first thing that we had to be concerned with was preparation for the task ahead. In order to qualify, a doctoral degree became a priority. My first duty, therefore, was to obtain one. The General Superior was kind enough to allow me to choose Sister M. Accursia as my companion. Sister Accursia had been a Supervisor of Schools in the Scranton Diocesee when I was Provincial Superior of the newly established St. Francis Province, therefore, we had much in common. Mother General endorsed my choice and in September of 1955, we entered Fordam University. Within a three year span, I managed to earn a Doctor of Philosophy degree with major in American History. Sister Accursia majored in Education.
In 1958, we began preliminary inquiries relevant to the proper procedure to be followed in establishing a four-year Liberal Arts College. Fortunately, there was a beautiful four story building, known as Saint Francis Home for orphans, on the Bernardine Sisters property located in Reading, Pennsylvania. This recently vacated building became the nucleus for the college with land for future expansion. To date there are seven separate buildings on the campus, indicating the steady growth of facilities for new programs which were inaugurated as the need arose.
S. Virginelle: In the 70’s, many small colleges had to close their doors. What do you think made, and still makes, Alvernia College such a flourishing college?
S. Zygmunta: Well, I think you have to go back to the plans we had and the programs we were giving. We started out by trying to prepare our young Sisters, who did not have a degree, to get a good foundation as teachers. Up to this time, not all of them got their education in one school and neither was their education permeated with the Franciscan spirit. We felt that we should give them a firm foundation in the fundamentals of Catholic Philosophy of Education. Having earned their Bachelor Degree at Alvernia, we hoped they will be well prepared to continue their education elsewhere, adding new viewpoints to the store of knowledge already possessed. Certainly, that would be a means of making them stronger teachers.
As I look back over the twenty-five years to the beginning of Alvernia College, I see not only doubts and fears of the unknown but also the joy of achievement that was a part of the growth of the college which earned for Alvernia, a young institution of learning, recognition and respect. I see the many friends who, in great measure, helped to reach this goal. First and foremost among them was Doctor Roy Fefferrari of Catholic University of America whose advice was valuable in helping us to establish the college. In 1960, Alvernia College received its charter from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with the authorization to grant Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees as well as any others which the Department of Education would approve.
Alvernia College began to accept lay students in the Fall of 1961. In December, we were notified by Dr. Catherine Coleman from the Department of Education that a team would arrive at Alvernia in the first week of January 1961 to evaluate the college’s Education Program, the facilities, and the faculty and their teaching in respect to teacher certification. The team was favorable impressed with the advancement of the college. Dr. Coleman suggested that we try for Middle States Accreditation and strongly urged me to invite Dr. Taylor, Secretary of the Middle States Association, to evaluate our situation with the view towards accreditation.
S. Virginelle: And what else do you remember?
S. Zygumunta: Oh, I remember my first meeting with Dr. Taylor Jones of the Middle States Association. He was visiting our neighbor, Albright College, and stopped to visit Alvernia. In the course of a pleasant interview, the topic of accreditation came up. He asked for a copy of our catalog and began scanning the list of teachers. Having completed the study, he remarked that we should have more Ph.D’s on our faculty to insure a favorable report for the initial accreditation when the time for that would come.
I set about to look for candidates. In the Fall, following Dr. Jones visit, several Sisters began working towards a doctorate in their respective fields. When the first full team of the Middle States Association arrived in 1966 to assess our readiness for accreditation. I am happy to report that our increase in the number of Ph.D’s was substantial. At that time we had six. To our great joy, after only nine years of existence, in December 1967, the Commission of Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools granted Alvernia College full accreditation.
On that momentous day in December 1967, we were fortunate to be present in Atlantic City where the formal announcement of initial accreditation accorded to newly established colleges by the Middle States Association generally takes place. I can still feel the thrill of that day. It was a wintry day. Sister Wanda, Alvernia’s Registrar, in the company of Sister Mary Walter preceded us to Atlantic City by one day to attend the Meeting of Registrars. Sister Accursia, Sister Donitilla and I arrived at Atlantic City the next day, somewhat late due to bad weather. When we reached there seemed to be a great deal of animation inside. Sister Wanda saw us enter and rushed to us greatly excited saying: “Alvernia’s accreditation was announced.” In the audience, some wondered out loud how Alvernia College got the accreditation only after nine years of existence whereas others waited for theirs much longer, even as long as twenty years. Our solution to such a problem was simple. When a college functions under the auspices of a religious community, it is capable of reaching the proper authority more quickly to sanction a definitive fulfillment of suggestions made by the visiting team representing the Middle States Association than would be possible in a college under secular management. I believe that could make a difference.
At the end of my tenure in 1970, Alvernia College had in addition to the main building, which housed the Administration Offices, classrooms, and Library, two new buildings – Veronica Hall, a dormitory for young women, and Bernardine Hall, a Science Building for which the college received a grant of half million dollars and a long term loan at 3 percent from the Federal Government.
Through the years, the student body increased as well as the facilities and at present, both men and women are enrolled in various programs offered at Alvernia College.
It is with great pleasure and gratitude that I thank the Bernardine Sisters who worked with me either in the capacity of administrative officers or as members of the faculty as well as the Community of the Bernardine Sisters who had given Alvernia College the first building and grounds and substantial funds for the new buildings.
S. Virginelle: You must have had many long range plans for the college – many dreams. I wonder how you feel in retrospect?
S. Zygumunta: Everything we accomplished in my two terms as administrator was satisfactory because it served the needs of the times. At present, I am afraid of the trend that is becoming evident, that is the diminishing number of religious professors and the increasing number of secular professors on the faculty. If new blood is not added to the faculty from the ranks of the Bernardine Sisters Community, it won’t be long when Alvernia will loss its charisma of religious influence and become completely a secularized educational institution.
S. Virginelle: Do you feel that the college has fulfilled the vision you had at its conception?
S. Zygumunta: I really had no vision. The General Superior, Mother Chrysostom, made a request. I carried it out to the best of my ability. I think that as a member of a religious community you have no alternative. You get a job to do and you do it. It’s that simple. When you begin looking around ideas come to you. You inquire, you read, you investigate, and you begin hoping that with God’s help and good will of people you will succeed.
Up to this point, none of us had any practical experience in setting up a college or even in teaching in a college. However, we did have ideas about what is essential to a college structure. I, therefore, took advantage of the opportunities to gain such knowledge by encouraging the Sisters, who were heads of departments, to visit, in their free time, small colleges which had put up new science building and give a report of the good features of their laboratories in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Psychology that we could incorporate in our future science laboratories. I gleaned much valuable information and thereby, avoided many costly mistakes when the science building actually became a fact accomplished. We were complimented on the excellence of our science building by two gentlemen from the Education Department who stopped by to visit Alvernia. In touring the science building, they made a comparison of it with one put up by a state college which they had seen. One said that women put up a more beautiful, sturdy, and better planned building than men.
S. Virginelle: In retrospect, what would you have done differently?
S. Zygmunta: I would not send Sisters for a doctorate degree unless they already had their Master’s Degree and at least two years of experience in teaching on the college level. Unfortunately, in the 60’s we had no such choice. We needed an increase in the number of Ph.D’s on our faculty to qualify for the initial accreditation. As a result we lost two young promising Sisters whose vocation was undermined by the unrest that permeated the student body on many campuses. That we sent our Sisters to Catholic University of America was no guarantee of protecting their stability and perseverance against the winds of upheaval that wrecked the lives of many young people in that decade.
S. Virginelle: In the more recent years there has been a greater increase in enrollment. How do you account for that?
S. Zygmunta: Every project generally has a slow start. We began with about thirty young novices and professed Sisters, representing early stages of their college education. Our intention was to keep them until they received the Bachelor Degree from Alvernia College. Under this plan, one group did reach the desired goal. However, later the need for teachers compelled the Community to limit the education residence to two years. Fortunately, lay students began to increase in numbers. In the fall 1972, Gerard Fulcher, who had a group of men studying Criminal Justice, was in search of classroom space for his students. When he presented his need to Sister Mary Victorine, President of Alvernia College, she accepted the group of two hundred students to the college. Furthermore, more students began to transfer from other colleges to Alvernia. Also older people, who were forced by circumstances to defer completion of their education, entered Alvernia to earn a degree. In addition, different types of programs, evening and Saturday classes both for full time as well as part time students, augmented Alvernia’s enrollment.
S. Virginelle: Do you see a future for Alvernia to continue?
S. Zygmunta: Where there is life there is hope. Though the future at present time does not cast a shadow of drastic change in any direction, yet, it is quite obvious that the enrollment on the elementary and secondary level is falling. How this will affect higher education is anyone’s guess. We hope Alvernia will be able to survive.
Interviewer and transcriber: Sister Mary Virginelle, October 14, 1983
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