Bernardine Sisters historic photo

PHOTO: Sister Mary Zygmunta, OSF, first president of Alvernia, and attorney John V. Boland, counsel for the institution, examine the official documents that conferred charter incorporation on what was then known as Alvernia College in August 1960. The first class of four graduated in 1961.

By Sarah Matarella

In 1926, the seeds for Alvernia University were planted by women. Nearly 100 years later, the Franciscan Catholic roots of those original seeds run deep as four women hold top positions, including the first female lay president in Alvernia’s history, Glynis A. Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

“Our Bernardine Franciscan Sisters fearlessly changed the education landscape in our region,” Fitzgerald said. “It is their spirit that enables us together, sharing that same commitment, to change higher education for a new generation.

The sisters pioneered and cultivated Alvernia’s Franciscan mission, which has transcended its evolution from a singular building, now Francis Hall, to a comprehensive, nationally recognized doctoral university with multiple locations. Sister John Ann Proach, congregational minister of the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters and a 1974 Alvernia alum, now refers to it as a “mighty oak.”

“All of the charisms and core values that the sisters instituted provide us a North Star,” said Senior Vice President and Provost Leamor Kahanov, Ed.D., who started at Alvernia in August 2023. “The reason that our senior leadership team, both men and women, are here is because of the mission. A well-articulated mission that is part of the institutional fabric makes it easier to lead. If we are in disagreement, we return to those foundational ideas, and it helps re-center and focus us. You don’t have that at an institution that is not mission-driven. That speaks to our success and our continued growth.”

Sister Mary Joseph Tirpak, OSF;  Sister John Ann Proach, OSF; Sister Mary Sninsky, OSF

PHOTO: From left, Alvernia Trustee Sister Mary Joseph Tirpak, OSF;  Sister John Ann Proach, OSF; and Sister Mary Sninsky, OSF.

The Sisters remain deeply engrained in initiatives and activities with students, faculty, staff, alumni, leadership, trustees and partners alike. Students begin their college journey meeting with the Sisters in their orientation camps and first-year seminar classes, and employees begin their professional journey learning about the Franciscan traditions of the institution. Internships are offered at the Villa and the Motherhouse along with annual lunches to students staying on campus over breaks, dinners at Christmas and even an annual Francis Fest Celebration on the Quad to celebrate Alvernia’s Franciscan identity. In addition, there are employee and alumni pilgrimages and alternative breaks for students offered for those wanting an even deeper connection to the Franciscan roots.

As the university has propagated in Reading, Pottsville and Philadelphia, the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters remain at the forefront alongside the leadership team. Alvernia Trustee Sister Mary Joseph Tirpak, OSF, who was part of its first graduating class, expressed her deep admiration for the foundresses of Alvernia, especially for their strategy and creativity.

“They had the foresight to believe that it would not end with sister educating but be co-ed, and it’s been marvelous to see the continued expansion beyond that,” she said. “I’m really proud that women are involved in this.”

Foresight became a common thread in the university’s expansion. The Sisters had social justice and moral courage in mind when they started the first criminal justice program in Pennsylvania. Their actions were taken in response to the needs of the students and the extended Alvernia community. That source of motivation remains today with the development of the Reading CollegeTowne initiative and the Centers of Excellence, the O’Pake Institute for Economic Development and Entrepreneurship and the Holleran Center for Community and Global Engagement, which are rooted deeply in Alvernia’s foundation and central to the Catholic Franciscan tradition.

“Our foundresses, including Sister Zygmunta and Sister Accursia, were confident, persevering and adaptable women with a strategic vision to create and communicate a vision for the future of the university rooted in the Franciscan tradition,” said Alvernia Trustee Sister Mary Sninsky, OSF ‘62. “I believe that they would be very proud to see the development of their initiative to a valued Franciscan institution for higher learning.”

Glynis A. Fitzgerald, Leamor Kahanov, Mary-Alice Ozechoski, Mary Ellen Wells


Senior Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs Mary-Alice Ozechoski, M.A., has more than 30 years of higher education experience as a senior vice president, professor and staff member. She holds a master’s degree in counseling and student personnel services from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in communications from Clarion University of Pennsylvania.
President Glynis A. Fitzgerald, Ph.D., has over 25 years of higher education experience as president, senior vice president, provost and professor. She earned a Ph.D. in organizational/interpersonal communication and a master’s degree in organizational communication from SUNY Buffalo, and a bachelor’s degree in speech communication from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She completed the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents in June.
Senior Vice President and Provost Leamor Kahanov, Ed.D., has over 25 years of higher education experience as a provost, dean and professor. She holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and athletic training from Indiana University; a Master of Science in Exercise and Sports Sciences from the University of Arizona; and a Doctorate in Education, Curriculum and Instruction from the University of San Francisco. She also completed the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education at Harvard University.  
Associate Provost Mary Ellen Wells, JD, LLM, has over 34 years of higher education experience, all at Alvernia, as a professor and associate provost following her career as a seasoned tax attorney. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from UMass Amherst, and Juris Doctor and Master of Laws, both from Boston University School of Law.

Each of the women leaders ensures that they are carrying Alvernia’s Franciscan mission and vision forward with the sisters and attribute that as what has propelled Alvernia to where it is today. They also emphasize that it is not only women who are responsible for its success but the power of planting the appropriate leaders in each role at the opportune time.

“It has always been that way in all the hiring I’ve seen in Alvernia; we are not counting the number of men compared to the number of women,” said Associate Provost Mary Ellen Wells, JD, LLM, who started her role in August 2023. “There are men in senior leadership and dean positions. I am happy, however, that there are women leaders because I think it provides a role model for other women and men to understand how to respect, treat and acknowledge that women are as capable as men in all areas.”

As described by each other, all the women leaders of Alvernia believe that each is the right fit for her role. They describe each other as strategic, relational, nurturing, intelligent, kind, hardworking, empathetic, collaborative, dedicated, compassionate, empowering, empowered, risk takers and role models. While they are equipped for their roles and work well with each other and the rest of the senior leadership team, Kahanov stressed that it is important to acknowledge that leading as a woman is different than leading as a man.

“It has different subtleties and a different landscape that you have to navigate with some complexities that the three women I work with have learned how to navigate well so that they are welcome as leaders and participate as strong voices,” said Kahanov. “I think women who don’t understand that they’re navigating leadership differently than men have a struggle.”

Albeit different, the traits of Alvernia’s leaders and the Franciscan mission and core values are what continue to serve Alvernia in responding to the changes in the higher education landscape. This includes becoming educated on and meeting the ever-evolving needs of today’s students.

“The women leaders are here helping Alvernia evolve by being very clear and understanding the challenges ahead and looking for solutions that have the longevity that will serve the institution well,” said Ozechoski. “I truly wish that someone would have cared about me in the way that we’re talking about caring about students in college because there were lots of times that I wondered if I was actually going to make it, if I was financially going to be able to do it, if I had enough food in my apartment, did I have the right clothes to interview for internship and all those things. We strive to help students in life, not just in the classroom.”

The Bernardine Franciscan Sisters couldn’t have imagined what the humble orphanage they founded in 1926 would become. But thanks to a century’s worth of strong leadership by women, Alvernia can continue to imagine a better future.

“I could not be happier to be the president of Alvernia University and to have such a good, strong relationship with the leadership team of the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters. That relationship inspires and guides me as we all work together to shape the university’s future,” said Fitzgerald. “The more I can work with them to position the university and ensure that their mission and vision are continued long into the future is truly a blessing and a joy for me. I am humbled and blessed to walk in their footsteps.”

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