Mountain Expands Interfaith Outreach

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

Mountain in the Home participants during an event outside Washington, D.C. They are, from left, Brian Guttman, Kevin Kriso, Karan Patel, Hamaad Kahn, Josh Little, Dan Riley, Deepak Iyer, and, in the front row, Wendy Mann, Kelly Gao and Colleen Corrado.

WEST CLARKSVILLE, N.Y. – For nearly 35 years, Mt. Irenaeus, tucked away in the Allegany Mountains of Western New York, has provided a spiritual sanctuary for many. With peace and serenity as its backdrop, the place that has affectionately become known to students and friends simply as “the Mountain,” is a setting for Mass, meals and music as people gather for prayer, reflection, faith sharing, and a breather from daily labors.

The seeds for this majestic 360-acre expanse were planted as early as 1971, when Daniel Riley, OFM, animator of the Mountain, created an off-campus retreat for students at St. Bonaventure University – just 45 minutes west of Mt. Irenaeus. In the embryonic stages of the Mountain in the mid-1980s, Dan and another friar took up temporary lodging and launched “Students for the Mountain,” a summer retreat residence where students lived in tents.

The chapel at Mt. Irenaeus in Western New York.

Over time, the Mt. Irenaeus community grew beyond the Mountain and broadened its scope.   As the chapel and other structures were built, the friars developed an “on the road” program, an afternoon retreat for students and friends. For more than 20 years, Mountain on the Road has lived up to its name, literally taking this Franciscan ministry on the road, much like how St. Francis of Assisi and his followers shared the faith with others.

In its expanded mission to bring the spirit of the Mountain to its many friends, supporters and St. Bonaventure alumni around the country by reaching beyond its West Clarksville boundaries, the friars and their colleagues who organize the on-site and mobile retreats have noticed something special taking place.

“We have witnessed over time, especially in the past two or three years, that people attending Mountain retreats – whether at Mt. Irenaeus or on the road – are coming from different faith backgrounds and varied geographic locations. Although we continue to attract Christians, many of our regular student participants are from Hindu, Muslim and other religions,” explained Dan, who couldn’t be more delighted about the expanding interfaith nature of the Mountain.

“This interfaith diversity is adding richness and value to the sharing, discussion, reflection and understanding that takes place among participants,” Dan said. “In today’s climate, with all the negative commentary that we hear and the labels put on people because of their religion, ethnic origin and where they come from, interfaith exchange and understanding is as important as it has ever been in the history of humanity. You know the adage about people who pray together.”

He added, “It’s always wonderful to see young people immersed in their faith, but it’s especially gratifying to see young people of all faith backgrounds gathering at the Mountain.”

Dan believes that the interfaith progression of Mt. Irenaeus is not by coincidence, but rather a new calling of the ministry – which he says became even more apparent at an organizational meeting about a MOTR event held last December 1 at George Washington University, many of whose medical students are deeply connected to St. Bonaventure and the Mountain because of a dual degree program between the institutions.

Students Take Mountain to D.C.
SBU created its school of health professions to help meet the growing demand for highly trained practitioners, which are 60 percent of the U.S. healthcare workforce and provide a range of diagnostic, technical, therapeutic and direct patient care and support services. George Washington University’s school of medicine and health sciences and St. Bonaventure established an eight-year dual BS/MD program in 2005, under which students accepted into the program do their undergraduate studies at SBU and their medical degree studies at GWU.

Kevin and Dan with students and alumni during the reflection portion of  the “on the road” event in Washington. (Photo courtesy of Mt. Irenaeus)

“I realized that there were four religious traditions sitting in the room when we were planning last fall’s GWU event in D.C.,” Dan recalled.

Organized by Armon Panahi, a 2018 Bonaventure graduate and current medical student at GWU, the MOTR prayer and fellowship event at George Washington had an interfaith quintessence – from the reading of sacred texts of different faiths, to the religious representations of the 40 participants, which included a half-dozen Bonaventure students, who accompanied Dan, Kevin Kriso, OFM, and local Mountain leadership to Washington, D.C., 12 SBU alums/current GWU medical students, and Capuchin friars from the area.

“Although I am not religious in the traditional sense, I got a lot out of the time I spent at the Mountain. I wanted to help bring that spirit to the campus of George Washington when I arrived here,” said Panahi, a first-generation American who comes from a Muslim family, and whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Iran.

“I love the Mountain atmosphere and the reflective nature of the programs, but I especially cherish the friendships developed with other participants and with the friars.  The gathering at George Washington reconnected many of us and reminded participants of an aspect of SBU that is important to all of us – the Mountain,” said Panahi, adding, “I really appreciate that we can bring the Mountain to other places.”

Kevin, who has been stationed at Mt. Irenaeus since 2008, said that the Mountain’s way of life and spirituality is “almost a new model” of Church. “It appeals to a lot of people who might feel separated from the traditional Church,” he said. “Although the MOTR program has strong Bonaventure roots, it also attracts people with no SBU connection because we are going to where people are, just as Francis did in his time – and we are appealing to people of all faiths because we are accepting of other religious beliefs.”

Interfaith Lesson a Reinforcing Element
The interfaith lesson at the Mountain has been a reinforcing element for Karan Patal, who is finishing his junior year at St. Bonaventure.

“Growing up, my mom always said that all religions, in essence, teach the same overall story, that there is one God who saves humanity. Her message was to be open and accepting of all religions,” said the graduate of Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains, N.J.

Dan Riley with SBU students Hamaad Khan and Karan Patel in front of the university’s ministry center last month. (Photo courtesy of Mike Fenn)

“The Mountain has been that – and more. There is never a time that I feel different because of my religion. The friars welcome all people and they are always so eager to hear about the religions of others, and I am always open to what they have to say as well,” added Patel, a biology major and history minor whose family, originally from India, practices Hinduism.

Patel said he finds involvement  with the Mountain to be an effective coping mechanism for the daily pressures of academics. “Going there with nothing but my phone, which is somewhat ironic since there’s no cellular service, was an opportunity to get away from the stress of classes,” said the native of Carteret, N.J., who joined the campus prayer group ‘Mountain Time’ – which he says allows occasion for reflection and understanding on what he needs to “do better.”

An article in the university newspaper, The Bona Venture, described the “quiet fire” of Mt. Irenaeus sweeping the country through the MOTR program, which is sponsored by 1958 SBU alumnus John Meisch and his wife Kay. That spirit can also be found in a similar program called Mountain in the Home — usually held in people’s living rooms, with smaller groups.

While no “on the road” road event is the same, they all include a prayer service or liturgy in a style that is practiced at the Mountain. Through the years, the “on the road” program has attracted hundreds of participants in more than a dozen states across the country. Two major road events are held annually, usually consisting of gatherings at three venues, according to Mike Fenn, executive director of Mt. Irenaeus – whose name is derived in memory of Irenaeus Herscher, OFM, SBU’s beloved librarian from 1937 to 1970.

“It has become quite apparent that these road trips are important to those who love this ministry,” Fenn said. “Our friends and alumni all over the country live very busy lives, and it’s difficult for them to visit Mt. Irenaeus. So we bring the Mountain to them.”

Have Mountain Will Travel
“Our ability to re-create such an experience at a church hall, meeting room or university campus room demonstrates that what takes place at the Mountain can take place anywhere,” said Fenn, a 1991 SBU graduate who joined the Mountain staff in 2016. “Students are involved in these road events – planning, sharing responsibility for the activities, and going on the trips. This provides young people with leadership experience in the Church, which stays with them no matter where their lives take them.”

Fenn said that the last seven words of the Mountain’s mission statement – “open to all people, races, and cultures” – are relevant to the interfaith transformation of recent years. “This is our greatest strength, whether at the Mountain or on the road. Anyone who visits knows that they are welcome and that we look to learn from one another – and that includes sharing one another’s faith journey,” he said.

As the academic year comes to a close, students looked back at their experience with the Mountain and shared their perspective on what the ministry has meant to their academic journey and personal development.

Hamaad Khan, an SBU junior and psychology major who comes from Leesburg, Va., said his involvement with the Mountain has resulted in tremendous personal enrichment.

The interior of the Mt. Irenaeus chapel. (Photo courtesy of the Mountain)

“I have witnessed firsthand the Mountain’s impact beyond its physical boundaries, particularly during the recent trip to Washington, where we had dinner at the home of a Bonaventure alumnus. They were very kind and welcomed us into their homes as family merely because of our connection through the Mountain,” said Khan, who moved with his family to Virginia in 2008 after spending part of his adolescence in the Allegany area.

“One of the most striking characteristics of the friars is their strictly adhered to humility. They make a point to be simple in their everyday lives, yet make such a large impact on everyone they encounter. In the Islamic faith, humility is one of the most important characteristics of a good person, and the example the friars show in their lifestyle is resonating,” said Khan, who has participated in many interfaith events at SBU hosted by the Muslin Students and Allies and the university’s ministry center.

With Dan’s guidance, Khan and a few other students have established an interfaith ministry on campus called “Men’s Mountain Time,” a group of individuals with diverse religious backgrounds that meets weekly to discuss faith and its impact on daily life. “My hope is that this group will bring even more students to the ministry center, and I would also like to see the Mountain road trip to D.C. become an annual event so we can expand our community even further,” Khan said.

Fenn noted that Dan has been very enthusiastic about the Men’s Mountain Time Ministry because there are often four or five different faiths praying with one another.

Sense of Community for All
Several students affirmed the sense of community they feel at the Mountain and by interacting with the friars. For example, Josh Little, an SBU student from Clarence, N.Y., who is a double major in chemistry and Spanish, said, “The Mountain and its community are an accepting group of all faiths and its members truly care for one another. What keeps me coming back are the relationships I have formed with the friars and the people connected to the Mountain.”

Little, who was raised in a Christian family and attended Bible school for 15 years, said he is astonished at how the aspect of community resonates among the alumni he has met. “When on the road in D.C., the family that invited us into their home was a model of Franciscan values. These kinds of connections can’t be found in many other places,” he said.

Freehold, N.J., native Colleen Corrado, who is finishing her senior year at SBU, said her connection with the Mountain has strengthened over time.

“I visited the Mountain for an overnight trip with some of my future classmates,” Corrado said. “Since that evening four years ago, I have come to truly enjoy the environment that the Mountain community creates, and I have developed a strong connection with several friars who live there.”

Corrado, who also participated in the road trip to GWU, has taken members of several SBU clubs – such as the dance team and student government association – to the Mountain to experience a night away from the hectic pace of campus life.

“I didn’t expect to have a religious experience throughout college,” said the biology major who plans to attend GW this fall. “I was raised Catholic, but I seemed to have lost my faith as I progressed through high school. After visiting Mt. Irenaeus, I began to reconnect with my Catholic heritage. The friars have helped me reflect on my time at St. Bonaventure and grow both spiritually and intellectually.”

As Corrado and other SBU students are poised to receive their degrees at the May 19 commencement ceremony, they will take their fondest memories, reflections and faith-sharing moments of the Mountain in the next phase of their journey. Like most who experience Mt. Irenaeus, they are eager to share this ministry with others – which is why Corrado and Panahi are already planning with Dan the fall 2019 MOTR event at GWU for students and friends of the place everyone lovingly calls the Mountain.

Information about the history of Mt. Irenaeus, along with its programs, including podcasts and newsletters, can be found on the Mt. Irenaeus Franciscan Mountain Community website.

– Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.

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