Celebrating 200 Years of Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge

July 1, 2022

On the 200th anniversary of the Congregation of St. Basil, Fr. Kevin Mannara, CSB, reflects on their philosophy of education and lasting influence on the University.

Hermance Family Chapel of St. Basil the Great

The fabric of Fisher’s history is tightly interwoven with the Congregation of St. Basil. It was the Basilian Fathers who dreamed of a college for Catholic men in Rochester, and it was Basilians who did the diligent work of finding support to realize that vision.

The congregation has been the beating heart of Fisher, serving as presidents, teachers, mentors, administrators, and friends to thousands of alumni and students.

This year the Basilians celebrate their bicentennial. Since its founding amidst the turmoil of late-18th century France, the order has practiced its motto, “Teach me Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge.” Now, on the 200th anniversary of its founding, we look back at the history of the order and the role it has played in shaping Fisher.

The Basilian motto is derived from Psalm 119: Teach me goodness, discipline, and knowledge. Fr. Hugh Haffey, CSB, the unofficial “father” of St. John Fisher College, thought it would be a good motto for the new College the Basilian Fathers were founding on a hill near Rochester, New York, where East Avenue met Fairport Road. Fr. Haffey’s choice of a motto has guided Fisher across the years and continues to do so today.

The actress and civil rights activist Cicely Tyson wrote, “When you know your history, you know your value. You know the price that has been paid for you to be here. You recognize what those who came before you built and sacrificed for you to inhabit the space in which you dwell.” To know the history of the Basilian Fathers and St. John Fisher University allows one to see and value the impact of the Basilians across the University today. Our commitment to serving the underserved has evolved and helped Fisher over the past 74 years.

Those earliest Basilians were humble men who lived on the top floor (one might even say the attic) of Kearney Hall and who came down daily to teach a wide variety of classes. They returned their salaries back into the institution to foster its growth. They gave not only their careers, but their lives, to grow Fisher. Today, there are members of the campus community who imitate those earliest Basilians gave much more to the University than their mere contractual agreements. Such generosity of spirit has empowered Fisher’s growth yesterday and today.

Fr. Kevin Mannara, CSB

Fr. Kevin Mannara, CSB

I became the chaplain and director of Campus Ministry five years ago. One aspect of my role that soon became clear was that there was an opportunity to more directly tie the University to its Catholic heritage, as expressed in the motto of the Basilian Fathers: “teach me goodness, discipline, and knowledge.” I realized that I could help to “connect the dots” so that those on campus could more directly see the linkages across the generations of Fisher – not only in the names on our buildings, but in the values, programs, and the University’s overall culture.

I cannot address them all, so I will mention some programs that represent the Basilian impact on Fisher that continues in the present day.

When I arrived, my office oversaw both the First Generation Scholars and the Service Scholars programs, now administered by Fisher’s Institute for Civic and Community Engagement. At the institution’s founding 75 years ago, a significant concern of Bishop James E. Kearney and the Basilian Fathers was providing the opportunity for a college education for young men who may not otherwise have had that option. Many of those early students were, like myself and the senior leadership of the University today, the first generation of their families to go to college. Thanks to The Fannie and Sam Constantino First Generation Scholarship Program and many other generously-supported scholarship funds, Fisher offers direct assistance to first-generation students, as well as the many other Fisher students.

Fr. Joseph Trovato, CSB

Fr. Joseph Trovato, CSB

Fr. Joseph Trovato, CSB, often talked about his initial conversation with Dr. Katherine Keough, Fisher’s 5th president, when her idea for the Service Scholars program was taking shape. He relayed that Dr. Keough said it was an important part of our Catholic heritage to reward and encourage young people to live lives of service.

Clearly, Fisher’s culture of service is rooted in our Catholic and Basilian heritage, and in emulation of our patron, St. John Fisher. One of my roles on campus is to provide today’s community members a historical context, so that all can appreciate the source of our culture of service.  A foundational tenet of Christianity is service to one’s sisters and brothers. From those earliest Basilians to today’s leadership, instilling a sense of service and civic responsibility is a hallmark of what Fisher is all about. Found among many world religions, it was a theme Jesus returned to time and again, most dramatically when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Since our earliest days, “washing feet”—that is, humbly serving others—is a deep value the Basilians gave to the culture that continues to shape the Fisher experience.

We pride ourselves on being a student-centered environment. So did those early Basilians, many of whom served as residence directors. Another story Fr. Trovato was fond of telling was that during a certain era, a number of young men were leading an effort to get the Basilians out of the residence halls. They complained it made them feel like children with a paternal presence around. A number of representatives brought the concern to College’s leadership. That very weekend, Fr. Joe Dorsey, CSB, got a knock on his door in the middle of the night. Some young men had gotten a bit out of hand at a “social establishment” and were at a local police station. Fr. Dorsey got up, met with the officers in charge, and convinced them to release the young men to his oversight. He drove them back to campus and told them to be in his office at 8 a.m. One of the young men was also one of those who had, earlier in the week, demanded that the Basilians leave the dorms as residence directors. Fr. Dorsey asked the young man, “So you want me out, but who was the first person your friends turned to when you needed help?”

I think today our students know that personal, pastoral accompaniment of each student is an aspect of what makes Fisher a family. This value today can be traced back to those early Basilians who went well beyond professional duties to guide students throughout life.

Academic excellence has always been a characteristic of Catholic education in general, and Basilian education in particular. Basilians are educators, and have been since our founding two centuries ago in 1822 in France. Today’s demand for academic excellence is nothing new; Basilians built it into the culture of all the schools we founded and at which we served.

Our founding documents clearly indicate those early Basilians were committed to providing both first-rate academic classes while also providing students with practical, professional development. The Lavery Library and the Center for Academic and Career Planning realize that initial vision for serving students.

There are academic programs today that are directly related to our Basilian heritage, such as religious studies and philosophy, which now seek to “read the signs of the times” and offer courses relevant to today’s students. There are also academic programs those early Basilians could never have imagined, but that are consistent with our Catholic heritage.

Basilians have been committed to providing access to women. Dr. Ann Marie Fallon told me that the religious community of sisters who founded and administered her previous institution had historical ties to the Basilians. We were the first to allow their early sisters to attend our schools and earn Ph.D.s at a time when women traditionally were not afforded that privilege. Although Fisher was initially founded to serve men, under the leadership of Fr. Charles Lavery, Fisher’s second president, our doors were opened to women in 1971.

The University’s growth has been inspired by its Basilian heritage, which led to expansion beyond the School of Arts and Sciences and has led to the founding of new schools. As practical educators, the University began serving the local business community through graduates of our School of Business. As a congregation committed to education, we take great pride in educating educators. The Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education does that at Fisher. We are also dedicated to responding to the needs of the times. As health care needs grew, Fisher responded with the founding of the Wegmans School of Nursing and the Wegmans School of Pharmacy.

Long before there was such a term, Basilian institutions were committed to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion as well as multicultural affairs, always recognizing the dignity of all people, and ever mindful of the disadvantaged and voiceless. Could those early Basilians have imagined where that would take us today? I cannot answer that, but I can imagine they would be very proud of where we are headed.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when Catholic men in this area were an “underserved population.” Access to higher education was very difficult. The Basilian Fathers, first at Aquinas Institute and then at St. John Fisher, made sure that such young men were given access to the benefits of a first rate education. We at Fisher look to today’s underserved populations with the hope that one day they and their families will have full access to the benefits of our society while also being committed to the common good. We continue to teach—and learn—goodness, discipline, and knowledge.