The Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., was formally inaugurated as Niagara University’s 26th president during a ceremony held April 4, 2014, in the Gallagher Center.
The event served as the centerpiece of a full week of activities intended to celebrate the university’s rich heritage of academic excellence and community service.
Members of the Vincentian community, as well as elected officials and delegates representing fellow academic institutions joined the NU community in commemorating the occasion.
The Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M., NU’s 25th president and interim president of St. John’s University, conducted the investiture of Father Maher.
After expressing his gratitude to the more than 1,100 in attendance, Father Maher outlined his vision for the 158-year-old Catholic and Vincentian institution.
“I have titled this address, The Miracle of Niagara University: Action is Our Entire Task, and here is why.
“In 1856, two rugged Vincentians, Bishop John Timon and Father John Joseph Lynch, an Irishman from County Monaghan in Ireland, worked together to give birth to the miracle we now call Niagara University. Demonstrating our institution’s international roots, Father Timon, of course, served as first bishop of Buffalo, while Father Lynch became Toronto’s first archbishop in 1870.
“In his recent book detailing the origins and history of Niagara University, Professor John Stranges refers to the relationship between Niagara and Lynch as ‘the Wild Project of a Penniless Enthusiast.’
“It was Lynch who purchased the 110-acre Vedder Farm, the site of where we stand today, for $75 an acre. In the words of Stranges, he was seeking relief from the heat and high temperatures of the southwest; if he was looking for a cooler climate, he would not be disappointed!
“At that time, Lynch was dreaming of a seminary to educate young men for the priesthood, to shape their lives in scholarship, learning, community and service, to live lives of transcendent purpose and, in his vision, to ‘become good citizens of the world.’
“Niagara would become even more prodigious in the years that followed, answering its divine call and exceeding even the dreams of its founder and wild enthusiast.
“Metaphorically, the lives of John Lynch and Niagara University would be interwoven by the miracle of divine grace and human ingenuity.
“In the course of his life, John Lynch nearly died three times.
“Niagara University, in its life, would be severely tested by fires, financial troubles, storms and environmental challenges. A plaque in the lobby of this very building denotes the bravery of Marcus Brown, a young Jewish merchant who saved Niagara from foreclosure in the late 1880s.
“Yet like the faithful brothers in the Book of Daniel, each time, the campus community emerged from the fire stronger and bearing witness to the miracle that is Niagara University.
“One of the greatest measures of a woman or man is how well they deliver on their promises.
“I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank and recognize a very gifted and loyal son of St. Vincent who is fondly known as our Brother Joseph, Father Joseph Levesque, C.M.
“Fourteen years ago, Father Levesque stood on this stage promising a university that would become an academic community distinguished by excellence in learning, teaching, shared governance with faculty colleagues, and that would be deeply connected to the community of Niagara Falls, Niagara County and Western New York.
“Please join me in thanking Father Joseph Levesque for his faithfulness and fidelity to his promise.
“Niagara University is positioned to shape a successful future due in large measure to the talents of Professor, Department Chair, Dean, President and Father Joseph Levesque. Joe, we love you and look forward to welcoming you home.
“In the traditions of Roman Catholic religious communities, many of us take vows of obedience, a vow which, in the words of scripture, confounds the proud. At its Latin root, obedience means simply to listen – like the prophet Ezekiel, an openness to hear the gentle and relentless voice of God, calling us to be and do more.
“This past year, I undertook a listening tour, seeking to meet with every person on this campus who was willing to do so. I met with students, faculty, support staff, administrators, maintenance and food service workers. I asked them to tell me what they loved about Niagara University and what they would like to tell the new President about Niagara University.
“Here is what you told me about Niagara University:
“We are truly an academic community, with immensely gifted faculty scholars, teachers and servants. You may be interested to know that this comment came from every sector of the university.
“Ninety-four percent of Niagara faculty members have earned the highest degree in their field from universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame and Cornell. One hundred percent of them are committed to seeing our students succeed.
“My travels have taken me to the greatest universities in the world, with opportunities to witness the immensity of the gifts of faculty around the globe. I stand before you today to tell you that Niagara University’s faculty are second to none in interweaving teaching, scholarship and service.
“Recently, I met with a group of students and asked them what they would like to tell people about Niagara University.
Similarly, they said, ‘Tell them we have great faculty who challenge us and care about us…they know our names! They engage us in the contemplation of truth and beauty, and teach us how to think critically. At the same time, we learn to value the dignity of the human person above all else.’
“This is our faculty dedicated to the liberal arts education that elevates and frees the human person, while preparing students for professional life after Niagara.
“We will continue to foster an academic environment that is, at its core, grounded in the liberal arts, preparing graduates for a globalized workplace and the interface of cultures…or in the words of Father Lynch, to be citizens of the world.
“We are a caring community with deep pride on our Catholic and Vincentian mission.
“The many statues and religious symbols embedded on this campus embody the best of a Catholic university.
“Simply because the symbols are reflective of reality, as I have spoken to members of our community and alumni, they speak about the ‘magic’ of Niagara.
“’Someone cared about me,’ they tell me. ‘No one is too busy to help and display both the human and divine touch of compassion.’
“Niagara is a special place where its community members care deeply for each other, calling forth the best in our members, where people enfold their personal mission into our larger Catholic and Vincentian mission.
“At Niagara, everyone matters. Students matter. Faculty and staff matter. The people we’re attempting to serve matter.
“All are welcome.
“We seek to become, in the words of the late, great Pope John Paul II, a community of the workplace fostering a living-learning community. And in the call of St. Francis, to combat the globalization of indifference to human suffering.
“That living-learning community is what inspired Karen Ballard, Class of 1966, to become one of the earliest clinical nursing specialists in a teaching medical center. For over two decades, she provided compassionate nursing care to children with a variety of psychiatric disorders as well as those who were chronically and terminally ill.
“That living-learning community is what inspired Michael Daloia, Class of 2009, to voluntarily live in poverty with the indigenous in the mountains of Panama shortly after graduating from Niagara. In partnership with the Peace Corps and other organizations, he taught English to middle school students in Soloy as a means of paving a pathway out of poverty for the Panamanians. Today, he is pursuing a graduate degree at Niagara University, while ministering a few miles away, as operations and personnel manager of the Heart, Love & Soul food pantry and dining room in downtown Niagara Falls.
“That living-learning community is what inspired Ed Brennan, Class of 1978, to use his resources to assist the people of Haiti in recovering from the catastrophic earthquake that killed more than 200,000 natives and devastated the country’s infrastructure. The organization he founded is well on its way to building a world-class school in Saint-Marc, a coastal town in western Haiti, and wants to do even more. Like St. Vincent, Mr. Brennan is using his treasure to build an educational pipeline out of poverty for those suffering under the most trying of circumstances.
“And that living-learning community is what inspired Jim Glynn, Class of 1957, to finance his Niagara education by delivering newspapers and working summers at the Maid of the Mist. Mr. Glynn purchased the company a decade-and-a-half after graduating, turning the Maid of the Mist into an iconic attraction that brings millions of visitors to Niagara Falls from around the globe. Inspired by Sr. Irene Kraus, he has utilized margin to advance the mission, contributing to numerous causes, including Catholic Charities, the Daughters of Charity and Heart, Love and Soul.
“Those are but four examples of what a Niagara University graduate looks like, products of the marriage of liberal arts-based and professional training – full of action and impact. We educate traditional students, veterans returning from war, single parents coping with tragedy and those with and without means. We do this in a way that inspires them to make a difference in the lives of others. This is the miracle of Niagara University.
“We are a community embracing the eternal mission of St. Vincent de Paul, making central the lives of the poor and marginalized.
“We will build on the work of this community and establish a two-way bridge to the world of the poor. As a Vincentian community, we will follow the vision of St. Vincent de Paul, placing the treasures of teaching, research and service to assist the local community, inviting them to be part of our community and enhancing our lives.
“In the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul, we will be a community seeking to bring the balm of compassion to the suffering and misery in our community.
“You have told me consistently that we must tell our story to those in Western New York, the United States, Canada and throughout the world with consistency, enthusiasm and passion.
“Today, I stand before you to promise that we will do that. We will tell the story of the miracle of Niagara University:
- A wonderfully caring community, where individualized attention is prioritized.
- Where the excellence of our academics and comprehensiveness of our service advance an esteemed legacy. That legacy includes the development a 19th century health center that was the first in New York to insist on four years of study before granting the medical doctor degree. In 1898, that health center merged with UB to form the forerunner of what is today Dr. Tripathi’s excellent medical school.
- As we gather today, Niagara has the highest four-year graduation rate of any institution in the Buffalo-Niagara region, where close to 75 percent of our students have internships and other practical experience…where 46 percent of our undergraduates report having the opportunity to participate in research with a faculty member.
- A community that contributes $207 million toward the economic development of Western New York, and strives to become an even greater regional partner through several strategic initiatives.
- One of these enterprises has been the re-institution of our highly reputed nursing programs, which are complemented by a strategy to support the growth in other areas of health and the life sciences.
- A second initiative is our distinctive role in STEM education, computer science, logistics and other fields that support the advancement of industry in our region.
- We are also taking on a leadership role in helping Western New York to fulfill its enormous promise as a global tourism destination.
- And, last but certainly not least, our nationally recognized service to the community will be further enhanced by the establishment of the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement.
“This is the Niagara University you have told me about, and this is the Niagara University that will inspire my best efforts as its 26th president.
“We will find our identity and destiny in the eternal legacy of St. Vincent de Paul, a man of immense intellectual and social gifts whose life turned from a status-seeking upwardly mobile track, to one that turned toward human misery and suffering, offering the healing balm of divine mercy and compassion.
“As historian Bernard Pujo wrote, ‘What is the secret of Vincent’s remarkable influence? He left us neither a learned treatise nor a body of doctrine, only the little volume of his Rule, a brief synthesis of theological spirituality. He was content to lay out a road, to clear the paths, inviting his disciples to continue the charitable works he had begun.’
“He opened the doors of the church, teaching clergy to work with laity, the first who dared to value the contribution of women. Vincent knew how to make his work responsive to every kind of misery, whether physical or moral, determined to remedy it and find an appropriate solution for every situation.
“He was the initiator of assistance to abandoned children, prisoners, victims of catastrophe, refugees…housebound invalids. In all of his works, he was a precursor, showing the way that is followed today by institutions and governmental and nongovernmental departments of social services.
“Bending to the pattern of his model, Jesus Christ, Vincent placed himself at the service of the poor, calling them our lords and masters. He taught us to be inventive with the times, that true charity does not consist of distributing alms, but in helping the poor regain their dignity and independence.
“As a Vincentian institution, it is upon us to be eternally resourceful, to – as Vincent instructed – ‘demonstrate a love that is inventive unto infinity.’
St. Vincent de Paul believed and lived the motto, ‘Totum Opus Nostrum in operatione consitit,’ Action is our Entire Task.
“Today, as the 26th President of Niagara University, I declare, let us follow the spirit of both the founder of this university, the Wild Project of a Penniless Enthusiast, and the founder of our very Vincentian order.
“Let us continue to build a university that transforms the lives of our students, and inspires them to make a difference in the lives of others through their professional and service endeavors. Let us be creative, collaborative and innovative in all of our work. Through our action, let us create a brighter future for Niagara, where the members of our community learn to change the world.
“Indeed, Action is our Entire Task.
“God bless Niagara University – and the miracle of its past, present and future.”
Father Maher was named Niagara University’s 26th president in March 2013, after spending 23 years at St. John’s University, including the final three as executive vice president for mission and student services.
He assumed the university’s President’s Office on Aug. 1, 2013.