NEWBURGH – Three dedicated members of the Mount Saint Mary College community recently reached an impressive milestone: half a century of service.
English professor James Finn Cotter has tendered committed service to the college since 1963.
He co-wrote the Mount’s alma mater. He is the former chair of arts and letters. And he’s touched the minds and hearts of countless students.
It’s all in a day’s work for Cotter.
"I take things one day at a time, each class at a time," he explained.
Cotter taught at Fordham University in New York City during the early ‘60s, before he began teaching at the Mount.
Of the Newburgh, N.Y. home where he has lived for the past 50 years: "I had planned on just renting it," Cotter explained.
The professor has been one of only two people to lead the Mount’s 50 Commencement processions, the other being professor emeritus Jim McEnery of Cornwall, N.Y. Cotter has also been master of ceremonies since 1964, when the Mount graduated its first class.
"It’s always fun to see the students, who are so happy to be graduating," explained the professor.
In 1970, Cotter was awarded a Fulbright-Hays Lectureship at the University of Oran in Algeria, where he taught courses in American authors and the modern American novel, and traveled through France, Spain, Morocco, and Tunisia.
Around that time, Cotter also earned a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to spend a summer working on Hopkins’ articles. Out of this project, the manuscript for his book "Inscape: The Christology and Poetry of Gerald Manley Hopkins" was born.
"Faith has been a great part of my experience here," Cotter explained. "After my father’s death, I started to reexamine my own priorities and religion – that was in 1973 – I started to go to mass here every morning."
Since then, the professor has cultivated "wonderful friendships" with the Mount’s chaplains over the years, including the current chaplain and director of campus ministry, Fr. Francis Amodio, O.Carm.
Cotter says his legacy is what he and his coworkers have done to strengthen Mount Saint Mary College.
"I certainly hope that the Mount continues to thrive," he said.
He thanked college president Fr. Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, and former president Sr. Ann Sakac, OP, for "their excellent leadership." Cotter also applauded the efforts of local businessman and philanthropist William Kaplan, whose donations to the college have made possible major improvements to Aquinas Hall and the Dominican Center.
For Cotter, whose work is his passion, there’s no end in sight to his illustrious career.
"I enjoy teaching very much," he said. "I like the students, and I have a lot who have signed up over the years who are not English majors. They are there because they want to write, and I am here because I want to teach."
Cotter’s colleague and friend, communications professor Sr. Catherine Walsh, OP, recently celebrated five decades as a Dominican Sister of Hope, a community in the worldwide Catholic Order of Preachers (OP).
"It’s a life that has its challenges, just like any other life," revealed Sr. Walsh. "But I can only remember the rewards."
During her postulant year in 1963, Sr. Walsh lived on campus in Guzman Hall, taking college courses (she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1970) and learning more about the faith.
"To use a cliché, nothing has ever been the same," she said. "As a group of young sisters, we laughed; we cried; we became fast friends; we loved the religious congregation."
With her new role came more than a few surprises, Sr. Walsh explained.
"I was fascinated by what I didn’t know about religious life, including study, prayer and other responsibilities," she said. "One of my surprises was how warm the veil got, but how comfortable the habit was."
During her half century with the Dominican Sisters, Sr. Walsh saw many changes: in religion, politics, and even in the way she and other nuns dressed. As the years went on, several of her peers left the religious life.
Sr. Walsh, however, never wavered.
"I believe in the religious life," she said. "I find the four pillars of Dominican life very enriching."
The pillars are:
Study: "Study is a deeper way of understanding life," said Sr. Walsh. "Study is the soul of our mission of preaching."
Prayer: "Prayer in community and reflection on the gospel is the source of our truth seeking," Sr. Walsh explained. "We are called to deepen our relationship with our God and then to be the incarnational presence of that God in the service we give."
Service: "The ability to grow and give all kinds of service is a gift to me," she said. "I love teaching."
Community: "I live with four fabulous women," Sr. Walsh explained. "They have been instrumental in helping me grow as a person. Living in a community, you learn your shortcomings, and they help you grow as a leader and a person."
After teaching seventh grade at St. Mary’s of the Assumption in Deal, N.J. and St. Mary’s School in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Sr. Walsh taught seventh grade at Bishop Dunn Memorial School in Newburgh, where she would eventually become principal.
Sr. Walsh began teaching part time at Mount Saint Mary College in 1983, and took on her communications role in 1985. She departed in 1991, and for four years, was part of the leadership team of the Dominican Sisters of Newburgh. In 1995, she became the first prioress of the Dominican Sisters of Hope.
The consolidation of three branches of Dominican Sisters – Newburgh, N.Y., Ossining, N.Y., and Fall River, Mass. – had been in the works since 1988. As prioress, it was Sr. Walsh’s responsibility to help meld the traditions of the three branches into something new, yet familiar.
"It was a process," she explained. "We had to help three cultures become one. We had to find new ways of doing things, like celebrating jubilees, and finances. We weren’t just making policy decisions, we were changing lives."
The key to good leadership, she said, was "constant communication among all of the councilors and myself."
Sr. Walsh returned to teaching at the Mount in the year 2000.
As she continued instructing future generations, Sr. Walsh noted that her own education is never-ending.
"It is with deep joy and gratitude that I celebrate 50 years of learning to be a Dominican," said Sr. Walsh. "It’s a privilege."
Cotter and Sr. Walsh are in good company: Fr. Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, the fifth president of Mount Saint Mary College,was ordained a priest five decades ago.
He has served as president of the college for nearly six years, and as a Franciscan friar, professor, and executive for more than 50 years, including 11 years as president of Siena College where he holds the title of president emeritus.
Fr. Mackin will be stepping down as president after the conclusion of the 2013-14 academic year.
"I have had great joy serving at the Mount," said the esteemed educator.
Fr. Mackin led the Mount in its first five-year strategic plan, hired faculty strategically, and improved institutional practice, while increasing applications for enrollment and expanding academic offerings, including a physician assistant program now taking applications.
Like Cotter, Fr. Mackin praised the efforts of longtime Mount Saint Mary College supporter William Kaplan for his work on the campus and at the Newburgh Armory.
Under Fr. Mackin’s direction, the college launched "A Call to Excellence: The Campaign for the Dominican Center" in 2012, to raise $10 million for the transformation to a new, truly state-of-the-art library and living-learning environment.
"Students and faculty/staff are absolutely thrilled with the opportunity the Dominican Center presents," said Fr. Mackin.