President's Column: What it means to be Franciscan

Giovanni di Pietro Bernardone was born in 1181 as the wealthy heir to a silk merchant. His father, hoping his son would share his fascination with France, was angry with his wife for baptizing his son after John the Baptist. So Giovanni was renamed Francesco (Latin for Frenchman). It would not be the last time his name changed.

Twenty-five years later, after wild parties, battlefield experience, and even imprisonment in a dungeon, this favorite son found himself in gold-decorated armor on a road to the Fourth Crusade, when a vision of God turned his life upside down! He soon rejected his father’s plea that he join the family business and gave away all that he owned to become a humble man who lived the Christian Gospel, embraced God’s creation (and all of its creatures!), and founded the Franciscan Movement — along with his equally countercultural contemporary, the future St. Clare. Today, he is one of the most universally loved individuals the world has ever known: St. Francis of Assisi.  

To be Franciscan, as we say in the Preamble to our Mission and Vision Statements, “is to respect the dignity of each human person and all creation; to be open to the world and its diversity of cultures, faiths, traditions, races and peoples; to honor ‘right relationships’; and to seek peace through action for justice.”  

Alvernia’s identity as Franciscan is guided by the core values bequeathed to us by our beloved Bernardine Sisters, one of the many groups of Catholic religious women who have contributed significantly to the education and healthcare of generations of Americans. Our students discover that their Alvernia experience will be shaped by the values of peacemaking, humility, contemplation, collegiality and service and the challenge embodied in our longstanding motto — To Learn, To Love, To Serve. 

The deep commitment to being Franciscan is a principal reason I was drawn to Alvernia 13 years ago. The generous gift of the sisters that sent Helen and me on a memorable pilgrimage to Assisi changed my presidency as well as my life. But so too did the experience of getting to know longtime devoted lay women and men of many faiths serving on our staff and our faculty as well as iconic figures like Sisters Florence, Jacinta and Pacelli.  

Together, members of the Alvernia community from many backgrounds ensure that our heritage is vital and vibrant — nine centuries after Francis and Clare changed the world. This commitment guided our collective decision to change the university’s nickname. The change was a direct response to the spirit of peace, harmony and inclusiveness that Franciscans aspire to — and that Pope Francis embodies. 

Of course, there are many ways that Alvernians of all ages respond to our Franciscan call. It is no longer news that our students complete more than 30,000 hours of community service each year. But given the complexity of our lives after we leave college, it is even more impressive that overwhelming numbers of them respond to this call long after graduation. These graduates lead fulfilling lives, spending evenings and weekends volunteering with the youth and elderly, while working in human services fields like healthcare, social work, counseling and criminal justice. Be sure to read the reflection by alumna Camille Otruba ’09. Camille inspired me when she was a student, and now as a proud alumna she continues to model what it means to be an “ethical leader with moral courage.” 

From St. Francis’s embrace of lepers to Pope Francis’s outreach to the poor, to immigrants, to all who lack the advantages so many Americans take for granted, we are reminded that being Franciscan always involves service to those without privilege, those often overlooked or dismissed as unworthy of the opportunities that help others readily succeed.  

The Reading Collegiate Scholars Program was created in 2013 with this in mind. Both innovative and ambitious, it provides talented inner-city students the support necessary for them to realize their dream of a college education and a career of high achievement. Recently, we established a Veterans Center to expand services to those who have served us all. And this year, we launched initiatives to increase access to an Alvernia education for those in recovery from addiction. 

Expanding educational opportunity for those who might otherwise not benefit from a values-based, private education is a hallmark of Alvernia and our sisters. Now sporting a spectacular new roof and other improvements, historic Francis Hall has for almost a century been an educational home to orphans, working adults and single mothers, the children of immigrants, and others who — like most of our Reading Collegiate Scholars — are the first in their families to attain college degrees. 

A common-sense challenge, often attributed to St. Francis, comes to mind: “Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Inspired by our legendary patron, Alvernia today serves students of all ages and backgrounds, from New England to Florida and from here in Reading and Berks County. They are students with big dreams and big hearts determined to do well and to do good.

Peace and all good,

Thomas F. Flynn

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