She never had a grand plan to enter religious life. Unlike many postulants in her group, she didn’t have a Catholic school education nor had she been close to other sisters growing up. The sisters in her parish in Mt. Carmel weren’t Bernardines. She almost joined a drama troupe after obtaining her undergraduate degree from West Chester—that’s how much she loved and excelled in theatre arts.
She never had an epiphany (“But then, who really does unless you’re St. Paul,” she has said.) Rather, her calling to become a Bernardine Franciscan Sister came to her in bits and pieces. A beloved high school teacher of hers, an avid gardener, gave her a book on the life of St. Francis called Blessed are the Meek. That’s how Geraldine Staskiel learned all about Francis of Assisi at an impressionable age. That’s when she was first inspired by his willingness to give himself over completely to a mission, to a higher cause, to serve God.
So how is it that Sister Mary Pacelli Staskiel, this extraordinary woman we recognize with an honorary degree today, came to Alvernia and stayed among us, generations of us, devoting her life to this institution? It was never her decision to come to Alvernia College—the congregation decided that for her. Sister Pacelli, as she is best known, made herself a vessel, an instrument for God’s use. Like Francis of Assisi, she trusted in God completely. Sister Pacelli’s life is a testament to the richness that blossoms and the lives touched by giving herself wholeheartedly to the mission of the Bernardine Sisters. In short, this little flower of St. Francis bloomed where she was planted. How fortunate are we that God intended for Sister Pacelli to put down roots here.
After teaching secondary English and social studies for ten years, Sister Pacelli was sent to Alvernia to teach at the college level. Sister Zygmunta, the first president of Alvernia, knew that in order for the college to obtain Middle States accreditation, to succeed at the enterprise of higher education, the Bernardines had to continue to educate the sisters, to have at least one doctor of philosophy in each of the major fields of the curriculum. Sister Pacelli already had her master’s degree and was young enough to go onto a doctoral program. So, she was told to obtain her Ph.D., which she did at Duquesne University— they had a one-year residency requirement whereas most other programs required two years. Sister Pacelli was Dean of Students at that time, and Sister Zygmunta could only spare her for one year of residency. Did Sister Zygmunta know that Sister Pacelli possessed the ideal intellect for doctoral studies in English? Sister Pacelli only knew the decision was made on a practical rather than a personal level—more Ph.D.’s were needed, and so she committed herself to another goal expected of her.
When asked about the greatest challenges she faced in her forty-eight years of service to Alvernia, Sister Pacelli believes it was during the school’s more formative years, beginning in 1970, with Sister Victorine’s presidency, when she was appointed the Academic Dean.
Had Alvernia remained a women’s college, she contends, none of us would be standing here today because it would not have survived. To increase enrollment, the sisters decided to admit male students and to take a chance on a major in criminal justice. Sister Victorine relied on Sister Pacelli to fashion their uncommon ideas for a criminal justice major into a viable academic offering. Requiring criminal justice students to complete liberal arts requirements lifted the major out of the pattern of mere police training and was forward-thinking for its time. And with the addition of the initial 200 students, mostly male police officers, the college became co-ed overnight. Sister Pacelli is certain Alvernia did the right thing, accepting responsibility for educating men and women for careers in law enforcement while at the same time giving them the critical thinking and decision-making skills to best succeed in such an environment. “If you are going to do a dangerous job,” she explained, “you better know where you stand, know what your strengths are, and know what’s important in your life.”
She is confident that the pattern the sisters set for professional programs and for the acceptance of non-traditional age students was also the right thing to do. “We didn’t call our adult students non-traditional students. They were just students.” Other colleges in the area didn’t offer programs in counseling and business at the time; and if we have heard Judge Linda Ludgate’s story correctly, a non-traditional student graduating in 1977, our peer institutions didn’t accept adults as traditional undergraduates. “We took certain risks at that time, sometimes unknowingly. However, it was not by chance that all of this happened,” she explained, adding, “There is no such thing as coincidence.”
Sister Pacelli’s fondness and devotion to Alvernia are evident in the histories she has penned, Threads: A Tapestry of Alvernia College and Designed to Serve: The Place and Persons of Francis Hall. Both books speak to a great deal of institutional pride and represent a significant body of scholarship, rendering Sister Pacelli our most accomplished academic over the life of the institution.
For many students graduating today, you know Sister Pacelli best as a really hip nun who teaches cool English courses on vampires and Gothic literature. And her legacy as an engaging classroom teacher continues. Her new course scheduled for Fall 2009 called “Knights from Light to Dark” on Medieval literature filled up quickly. She has 31 students preregistered for the course on the Arthurian legend. The Registrar said she could have easily given Sister Pacelli forty students if she was hankering for a few more.
What some students might not know and what I feel especially privileged to share with you today are some of her hopes for you, Alvernia’s newest graduates. She wants all of you poised to start new chapters in your lives, to carefully consider the paths you intend to take, to think about the best way to get there. “When you get to be my age,” she said, “and you look back over your life, you realize you could have made this choice or that. I want young people to know that your life comes down to the choices you make.”
Next year our pioneering foundress celebrates sixty years in the Bernardine Congregation. About her choice to become a Bernardine Sister, she has said, “Religious life is a rewarding life; there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “If you wholeheartedly accept a religious vocation, you have the best of two worlds. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.”
Sister Pacelli, all of us gathered today, couldn’t imagine Alvernia without you. You have left an indelible footprint on the Alvernia community. You nurtured this institution with your wisdom, leadership, scholarship, and your unflinching devotion to religious life. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and in the presence of the Alvernia University community, family members, and friends, it is my distinct privilege to confer on you, Sister Mary Pacelli Staskiel, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.