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Siena College Celebrates 80th Anniversary

Friars of Siena College with Bishop Scharfenberger after the Sept. 22 Mass. (Photo courtesy of Siena College)

LOUDONVILLE, N.Y. — They expected 40 students. More than 90 came.

Siena College recently marked the 80th anniversary of its founding on Sept. 22, 1937. As America was just beginning to pull itself out of the Great Depression, Bishop Edmund Gibbons of Albany invited the Franciscan Friars of Holy Name Province to establish a commuter school for men in New York’s Capital Region. When the doors opened that fall morning so long ago, they welcomed more than twice the number of students they had hoped for. Some classes were taught in hallways and stairwells to accommodate those so eager for a college education.

Eight decades on, Bishop Gibbons’ indirect successor, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, celebrated a Founders Day Mass in St. Mary of the Angels Chapel on campus, surrounded by Siena’s Franciscan friars.

In his homily on Sept. 22, Bishop Scharfenberger noted: “every Mass is a celebration, but today’s Mass is particularly special as we pray for the friars, the faculty and the students at this college that was founded exactly 80 years ago today.”

F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, has served as Siena’s 11th president since 2014. At the conclusion of the Mass, he acknowledged the cross-section of the Siena community gathered in the chapel.

“Siena has become a beautiful place of living and learning, with roots in the academic traditions of the 13th century. Each one of us has a part to play, whether a student, a professor, an administrator or a friar, as we all come to a deeper understanding of the path we are meant to walk in life, working together to make the world a more just, peaceable and humane place.”

In a letter shared with the Siena community the morning of Sept. 22, Ed reflected on the themes he shared at the Mass: “[The founding friars] brought with them the centuries-old motto of Franciscan education – in sanctite et doctrina – a vision of learning (the pursuit of knowledge) that was to be joined in academics to live a good and upright life (the development of character/virtue).

“While we understand that twofold challenge in different ways at the beginning of the 21st century, the wisdom of the tradition continues to stand at the center of our commitment to cultivate in our students the skills and disposition to become lifelong learners, compassionate leaders, and individuals who are engaged in meeting the challenges of our times while serving others generously… May the spirit of our founders live in our hearts and the Siena difference be known throughout the region and beyond.”

It wouldn’t have been a proper anniversary without Siena’s students, and at the conclusion of classes on Friday a “Celebrate Our Franciscan Heritage” event was held in the quad. The students and friars came together for field games, music, and of course, ice cream.

During the week leading up to the anniversary, Mark Reamer, OFM, ’83, guardian of Siena’s friary, shared Franciscan and college history with the campus community:

  • Siena grew from the Franciscan ministry of St. Bonaventure College (now University) in Allegany, NY. In his blessing on the opening day of classes, Bishop Gibbons reflected the Depression-era concerns: “It is a modest beginning, but it is better to begin in this lowly way and grow, than to make a grand splurge and submerge.”
  • The land on which Siena’s 175-acre campus now sits was once a 38-acre asparagus farm known as the Garrett estate. The location was chosen because it was in the middle of the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. At the time, about 90 Catholic parishes were within commuting distance.
  • The site was selected by the late Thomas Plassmann, OFM (for whom the Plassmann Hall dorm is named) and Capistran Petrie, OFM
  • The seven founding friars served as the college’s first faculty: Adalbert Callahan, OFM, who taught history and economics; Benjamin Kuhn, OFM, mathematics; Cyprian Mensing, OFM, the first president; Alcuin Shields, OFM, modern languages; Bernard Tobin, OFM, modern languages; Joseph Vann, OFM, English and public speaking; and Lambert Zalega, OFM, classical languages.
  • Siena was something of a brother school to The College of St. Rose in Albany, which was founded in 1920 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Both colleges eventually became co-educational.

The college has just introduced a new five-year strategic plan called “Tradition. Transformed.” The five key pillars of the plan: academic excellence, institutional excellence, distinctive value, inclusive community, and purposeful community engagement – will help guide Siena not just for the next five years, but for the foreseeable future.

“We’re already setting ourselves on course for a successful 100th anniversary in 2037,” said Ed earlier in the week. “It’s very important for Siena strategically at this point to make sure that we have programs that are meeting the needs and interests of current students in a distinctive way that differentiates us and encourages the student to make an investment in a Siena education.”

As it has done since its founding 80 years ago, Ed said, Siena still focuses on “developing the whole person.”

“We want our graduates to go out into the world with ‘Franciscan hearts,’ as well-rounded people who will truly make a difference in their families, in their careers, and as citizens.”

Lisa Witkowski is associate director of communications for Siena College.

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