By Dr. Irma Becerra, President of Marymount University
To know and love God, to make God known and loved, to proclaim that Jesus Christ has come that all may have life.
Those words encapsulate the mission of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary (RSHM), an international congregation of Catholic women founded in 1849 in Béziers, France. That same religious community later established Marymount University in 1950, striving to advance the development of the whole person through education.
As we prepare to mark our 70-year anniversary as an institution, we’re looking back and seeing how far we have come. What was once a nascent two-year women’s college is now a doctoral-granting, co-educational university with a tremendous reputation for the liberal arts, career preparation and personal and professional development and we still have so much further to go. We seek to double our enrollment over the next five years, achieve even greater national and international recognition and usher in a new era of success at Marymount through our strategic plan, Momentum.
Plenty of changes have been implemented already or are on the way, and in a time of transition it’s important to remember the values and traditions that form the foundation of our university community. That’s why in late June, seven Marymount staff and faculty members, two members of the RSHM’s Provincial Order in Tarrytown, N.Y., and I paid a visit to the Mother House in Béziers, the true birthplace of our visionary founders.
After my inauguration earlier this year, it was meaningful as a newcomer at Marymount to be a part of this journey, which I describe as a pilgrimage and retreat. It really helped us establish a better understanding of our history, and what makes the RSHM special. It also brought to mind our distinctive identity at Marymount how we are different from other universities, and what makes the student experience here unique.
As an immigrant, I place great value on the important of place and being able to visit a location in person. Born in Cuba, I immigrated to the United States with my parents as an infant and lived in Puerto Rico through high school. Growing up away from my home country, I couldnt regularly go to the places where my parents and grandparents grew up, or the hospital where I was born. To actually visit the place where the RSHM started was wonderful, because it provides the historical context for who we are.
The trip, organized by Victor Betancourt Santiago and Dr. Brian Doyle, placed our group in Béziers, one of France’s oldest cities, and exposed us to what a day in the life of a religious sister was like. The Mother House was originally divided into three areas: refuge, school and convent. Guided by the goals of social justice and service, the founders of the RSHM Father Jean Gailhac and Mother St. Jean Pelissier Cure, previously known as Appollonie Cure sought to work with the most marginalized of society. That started through providing shelter to women who had fallen into a life of prostitution, and soon expanded to include orphans as well. To financially support their service work, Father Gailhac and Mother St. Jean also founded a boarding school for young women.
The faith and zeal of the RSHM founders inspired an international movement. Today, the congregation has sisters in 13 countries on four continents no longer just in France or Europe, but in places like Latin America and Africa. They make a difference around the world through their commitment to service, as they help women, children, immigrants, refugees and so many others. We spent time with the religious sisters in Béziers every day on our trip, and saw in action how the heart and soul of the congregation’s past continues to live on in the present. We also discovered how jovial all of the sisters are, and how much they appreciated every single day things that none of us will forget.
The work of faith is not limited to the RSHM sisters. We all have a calling to use our God-given gifts to help others in extraordinary ways, so that all may have life. With the lessons learned from Béziers, our trip participants are motivated to carry on the RSHM mission in our own communities, including at Marymount. Service to others is one of our core values, and I’m proud to say that our students and faculty at Marymount contribute more than 16,000 hours of service annually both locally and around the world.
Just one example of how we’re using the heritage of Father Gailhac and Mother St. Jean in our service work at Marymount is through Appollonie’s Campus Cupboards. With the collective efforts of students, faculty and staff, the university community established spaces where all students could gather and access food, following the approach of taking what you need and giving when you can. The cupboards are now in high foot-traffic areas around campus, and are stocked with donations to promote food security and good health. I can’t wait to see what we come up with next!
We always have our eyes on the future at Marymount new academic programs, state-of-the-art technology, modern housing. But we’ll always remember what got us here: a values-based education grounded in the Catholic and the RSHM traditions, with a strong commitment to faith, ethics and service. We will carry that legacy with us as we boldly move into our next 70 years.