Dr. Amelia Gallagher

Each year, millions of people flock to Niagara Falls, a major tourist attraction, to see what many have unofficially crowned the “Eighth Natural Wonder of the World.” But Niagara Falls has more to offer than its tourism and hospitality.

Dr. Amelia Gallagher – a religious studies professor at Niagara University – is exploring Niagara Falls and its religious connections.

Dr. Gallagher’s current research is in pilgrimage. Pilgrimages are journeys to sacred places that people partake in as an act of devotion or in the process of searching for moral or spiritual significance. Dr. Gallagher is moving toward an idea of Niagara Falls as a pilgrimage spot, both in the past and present and not with any specific religion in mind.

“Every group of people who have passed through this place, whether they were the Native Americans who were originally here, or African-Americans who had some dealings with the border or the Underground Railroad, and then the waves of immigrants who came here, they all had to come to grips with what this meant spiritually to them and a lot of that history has been lost,” says Dr. Gallagher.

Dr. Gallagher also explains that many people do not know that Niagara Falls was designated as a pilgrimage spot by the pope in the 19th century, putting Niagara Falls on the same level as Rome or Jerusalem.

Dr. Gallagher, who earned a doctorate in Islam, attended the University of Michigan and then McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Gallagher teaches Intro to Islam every semester at Niagara. She also teaches Religion and Art, a class that takes students to Rome, as well as a Pilgrimage and Tourism class, which recently has begun incorporating a local aspect.

Other research Dr. Gallagher has focused on includes a 16th century Muslim king, Turkish literature and shrines in Turkey.

“Ever since I took my first religious studies class, I knew this is exactly what I was going to study for the rest of my life,” says Dr. Gallagher. “I didn’t know originally I was going to end up teaching – but I did and I like it. You don’t need to want to be a professor. What you have to be is obsessed with the discipline first and then what comes after will follow.”

Dr. Gallagher, who is Catholic, has a personal connection with Islam as it is her husband’s faith. Dr. Gallagher said that Catholic intellectual tradition has been at the forefront of teaching about other religions.

“You can’t understand diversity unless you know other people’s faith and you take them seriously and learn about them on their own terms,” says Dr. Gallagher.

Dr. Gallagher says one of the things she tries to instill in her students is a curiosity about other religions.

“We must never lose sight of the fact that the study of religion is essentially the study of people and we must keep that human focus in mind, too.”