As part of its celebration of Vincentian Heritage Week, Niagara University recognized four individuals who exemplify the charity and mission of its patron, St. Vincent de Paul, at its annual convocation, held in the Alumni Chapel on Sept. 28, 2023.
This year’s honorees were Esmeralda Sierra, vice president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, who received the Saint Louise de Marillac Award; John Belcastro, principal of alternative and continuing education for the Niagara Catholic District School Board, who received the Ozanam Medal; Caroline Lebron, a Niagara University Class of 2024 political science and sociology major, who received the Perboyre Medal; and the Rev. Gilbert Walker, C.M., coordinator of the Vincentian Popular Mission Team and Provincial Council of the Western Province of the Congregation of the Mission, who was the recipient of an honorary Doctor of Pedagogy degree.
Esmeralda Sierra has dedicated her life to serving people in need, despite a chronic illness that brought her from her native Puerto Rico to Buffalo, N.Y. Her strong faith, inspired by the Daughters of Charity who ran the Catholic private school she attended as a child, strengthened her during this difficult time and motivated her to pay forward in outreach the help she received from her adoptive community.
Over the past two decades, Sierra has served a number of community organizations in Western New York, including VOICE-Buffalo, Community Access Services, and the Near East & West Side Task Force. She was chair of the Cultural Competency Workgroup for the Health Equity Coalition, co-chair of public relations for the Association of Multicultural Affairs in Transplantation, and member of the board of Hispanos Unidos de Buffalo. She has also been active in the lay leadership of Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church, where she held positions as president and secretary of the Parish Council. She currently is vice president of the Hispanic Heritage Council of Western New York, where she has previously held positions of both president and chief financial officer.
John Belcastro is known for his deep concern and care for the well-being of young people and his ability to demonstrate kindness to everyone. His Catholic school upbringing, which began in nursery school with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and culminated at Notre Dame College School, which was founded by the Fathers of the Holy Cross, instilled in him the value of daily prayer and service to the poor.
After a successful career in finance, Belcastro realized that his true calling was in education. He earned his certification and began his teaching career at St. Stephen Catholic High School in Bowmanville before making his way back to the Niagara region to teach at his alma mater, Notre Dame College School, where he worked alongside some of the very teachers who had mentored him when he was a student. He progressed to positions as vice principal at Saint Paul Catholic and Saint Michael high schools in Niagara Falls and at Notre Dame in Welland, where he saw the difficulties of teaching in an economically challenged community and the importance of establishing individual connections with the students under his care. During the COVID pandemic shut-down, Belcastro was appointed principal of the virtual school at Saint Paul Niagara Falls, where he guided both the learners and teachers through their isolation and fear.
In Belcastro’s current assignment, as principal of alternative education overseeing the Pope Francis Alternative Learning Centre and the Saint Kateri Tekakwitha Indigenous School, he serves the most vulnerable students and helps them to realize the goal of graduating from secondary school.
Caroline Lebron began her studies at Niagara University in the fall of 2020, at the height of the pandemic lockdown. Undeterred by the enormous challenges of COVID-19, she unflinchingly dove into academics, service, and leadership, standing out as an inspiration both to her fellow students and to her mentors.
From the beginning, Lebron demonstrated an interest in Niagara’s Vincentian mission and has pursued this interest as a double major in political science and sociology, with minors in law & jurisprudence; inequality, race and justice; women’s studies; and criminology and criminal justice. Lebron balances scholarly achievement with membership in a number of campus clubs and organizations, including the NU Pre-Law Association, the Campus Programming Board, the Black Student Union, the Freshman Peer Mentor program, and the NU Student Government Association. She served as a diversity ambassador for the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs and has completed internships with the Take Back the Night Foundation, the Lewiston Town Court, and the Perez Law Group in her home state of California. This past year, she served as the Take Back the Night student coordinator for the NU Office of Violence Prevention & Education.
Lebron has been inducted into the International Legal Honor Society and the National Political Science Honor Society. This past May, she was honored with the Outstanding Student in Law & Jurisprudence Award at the annual College of Arts & Sciences Day of Recognition.
Rev. Gilbert Walker, C.M., who also gave the convocation address, embraced his vocation after participating in a summer immersion program offered by the Vincentian confreres in Panama, where he witnessed firsthand the missionaries’ work in an unfamiliar setting.
After his ordination to the priesthood at the age of 28, Father Walker was assigned to Holy Trinity Parish in Dallas, Texas, where the growing Hispanic population pushed him to hone his language skills to the point where he was able to confidently celebrate the Mass and serve his congregation in Spanish. A decade later, he relocated to the Dominican Republic, where he served with the Vincentians in a remote parish for two years before being appointed director of the internal seminary in that country.
In 2003, despite ongoing political tensions between the United States and Cuba, Father Walker was granted a visa and moved to Havana, where he held the position of provincial director of the Daughters of Charity until 2013. In Cuba, he also served as formation director for the Vincentian seminarians, as well as a spiritual director at the Archdiocesan Seminary.
After 17 years of service in Cuba, Father Walker returned to the United States, ultimately taking on a position with the Vincentian Popular Mission Team in the city where he was born, New Orleans. This brand new initiative includes Vincentian confreres, sisters, and laypeople working to offer opportunities for formation and evangelization in English and Spanish to under-served and under-resourced communities.
Special recognition was also given to graduating Vincentian scholars Braedon Anderson, Ashleigh Cottrell, and Alaina Winkworth, who were presented with honor cords by Mikayla Fulton, director of the Vincentian Scholars Program. The elite, four-year program forms students in the Vincentian tradition academically, practically, and spiritually. Scholars not only maintain a high grade point average, but also work closely with a variety of local service partners and collaborate with faculty on research. These activities help them develop the integrity and responsibility necessary to work side by side with local community leaders.
The convocation began with the national anthems of Canada and the United States, performed by Niagara University senior Rylie Randall and included a land acknowledgement, read by nursing major Ni San, ’25, and a welcome by Dr. Maritza Branker, associate professor of mathematics and faculty mission director. Following remarks by the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, Vincentian scholar Henry Brophy, ’25, offered a closing prayer.