Saturday, September 27, 2008

Brother William Mann Inaugurated as President of St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona

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The Ironic Catholic, who besides being a wife and mother of three, also moonlights as a professor of theology in a southeastern Minnesota town and now has taken on a third (fifth?) position as a reporter for Stella Borealis covering news from her neighborhood. Actually, she has been doing this for some time.

Yesterday she devoted herself to the festive events involving the inauguration of Brother William Mann as the 13th president of St. Mary's University of Minnesota in Winona. Brother William, I guess he is now Brother President, is a member of the order of Christian Brothers (Lasallians) of St. John the Baptist de La Salle who staff something like 900 schools around the world. [I mused about joining them once, but that muse passed pretty quickly].


I was at Br. William's inauguration, along with faculty, staff, many alums, many students, Archbishop emeritus Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Bishop Harrington of Winona, the Trustees and Regents, presidents and representatives from many universities in the Upper Midwest, and many Christian Brothers from around the world. One of our music professors and our Jesuit physics professor (yes) wrote a fabulous new choral piece to celebrate the day, "Sing the Lord a New Song."

Br. William's address was electrifying. He began with a story about a child who was religious, "maybe even a little pious," he said. But by circumstances beyond his control, his family was very poor, and his tattered clothes and shabby home showed it. One day some other kids were circling him and teasing him, saying that for someone so religious, it sure seemed like God forgot him and his family. The child stood there and took it, begin to tear up, but found his voice and responded: "I don't think God forgot my family. I think God told someone to help us -- and they didn't do it."

This was the Lasallian Catholic mission, he said -- to be there for "the last, the least, and the lost." And this IS the mission for St. Mary's. He went into how the Brothers has always done this, and still do, across the world. Another story: Br. William went to Thailand a number of years ago to visit the novitiate as part of his work as Vicar General (sort of like the chief operating officer) of the de la Salle order. One young brother came up and said "Br. William, I want to tell you my name." "I know your name, I remember you from my last visit--you are Siam!" "No, Brother, I want to tell you my Christian name. I was raised a Buddhist, and went to a Christian Brothers school my father ran. My father died when I was still rather young, and the Brothers really became like second fathers to me. I decided a few years ago to convert to Catholic Christianity. It was then I chose my Christian name. Br. William," he said, "I am John Baptiste de la Salle." Br. William recalled pausing in some shock. "I had been wanting to meet John Baptiste de la Salle for years," he said, "but I never thought he'd be in Bangkok. Or a former Buddhist!"

But why not? Why couldn't a nearly anonymous man in a third world country be the next John Baptiste de la Salle? God has told us to help and enable these people to transform this world, to make a difference. We will do this. This is our charism, in association with Lasallian teachers at over 900 schools all over the globe. This is our call.

He then went into some detail about what St Mary's must continue to do and provide for students receiving a Lasallian secondary education degree, and announced various town halls to make that happen. He announced that there will be a new Lasallian education institute that will help form Lasallian teachers internationally, beginning this Spring (?!). He also said that with the help of many friends Saint Mary's will become a university where graduates of San Miguel Middle Schools, Nativity Middle Schools, and Christo Rey High Schools will be able to come, want to come, and complete their educations. (People applauded enthusiastically at this.) [Minneapolis has a Christo Rey school that this year has a ninth and tenth grade. Their first grads will be ready for St. Mary's in 2012!]

As the 1,000 attendees recessed -- first the presidential party, then the Christian Brothers, then the faculty -- I smiled as some of the students let out whoops, first for Br. William as he exited, and then, touchingly, for the Christian Brothers. There were no whoops for the faculty, but I can live with that. The Christian Brothers deserve this day.

I can't emphasize what a spiritually touching address this was, and how hopeful it was for Saint Mary's. Hang the economy--great things are poised to happen at this school. (Some pretty great things already have happened!)
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