Dedication of the Sulam Center

Professor of Religious Studies Susan Nowak '77 on Nazareth’s unique prayer space for those of Jewish and Muslim faiths.

by Susan E. Nowak '77

Rachel Zeger ’17  and Sophia Qureshi ’19

Rachel Zeger ’17 (left) holding the Torah and Sophia Qureshi ’19 holding the Quran at the May 1 dedication of the Sulam Center.

Many times of late we gather for interfaith services because something tragic has happened. But today is not one of those days. Today is a great and glorious day in the history of Nazareth College. And I say this to you from a very particular perspective, as a Sister of St. Joseph, a member of the congregation that founded this College, and as someone who teaches here and has seen the evolution of the college. When asked if the founding vision of the college is connected to today’s dedication of the Sulam Center, my answer is a sincere, “Yes!”

A quick history lesson reveals the connection. In 1650, LePuy, France, six Catholic women shared a revolutionary vision. They wanted to become the first congregation of women religious to live and work among the people they served. Their vision was shaped by two organically related spiritual values: first, to respond with care and compassion to the needs of people unseen and uncared for by society and second, to build community between and among all people “without distinction.” These values form the template of a SSJ’s life work: uniting “neighbor with neighbor and neighbor with God.” Affirming that we are all, without exception, irrevocably, intimately, connected.

In the early 1920s, the Sisters were asked by Rochester’s bishop to start a college specifically for Catholic women. Why? Think about our national climate at the time of Nazareth’s founding. Catholics were considered anti-intellectual “sheep.” Common prejudice held that Catholics blindly accepted whatever the Pope decreed. Our national ethos was also anti-female. It held that women did not possess the intellectual prowess to dive into the life of the mind.

The Sisters did not accept these narrow-minded canards. We agreed to found a college, but in doing so, made it our own. The first sister-faculty studied at academic institutions as varied as Oxford, the Sorbonne, and Fordham; diverse academic disciplines and distinctive academic worldviews shaped the curricula. Nazareth’s mission was to graduate Catholic women who possessed a sense of agency and accepted the social responsibility that came with that agency. Their development was wholistic in nature, a generative confluence of intellect, spirituality, ethics, and aesthetics.

In the late 1960s/early 1970s, the Sisters recognized that the College’s mission no longer adequately met the needs of their students. The time of transformation was before them; Nazareth became a private, nondenominational institution. Be not fooled, this was a hard-fought decision, but it arose from the spiritual values that guided the Congregation’s life. Nazareth opened its doors to women, and eventually men, of any faith and no faith. It transformed its Theology Department into a Religious Studies Department. Campus Ministry became The Center for Spirituality with Catholic and Protestant student clubs, Hillel and the Muslim Student Association, Quakers and Harvesters, and, perhaps most importantly, ASH, for humanist, nontheistic students. The Hickey Center for Interfaith Study and Dialogue was established.

This is the Nazareth of today, the Nazareth for which there is deep appreciation among SSJs. The Sisters sent me here today with great joy in their hearts. They know that what we are doing at Nazareth is unprecedented. Dedicating a shared, physical space on campus where Jews and Muslims worship in freedom and comfort is not the norm on U.S. campuses. The joy the Sisters feel springs from a trust that the Sulam Center signals Nazareth’s next stage of growth and represents the College’s commitment to that growth. I believe this growth and commitment is why Nazareth still exists today. It is certainly why we are each here today. I thank you for being with us on the journey.

Susan E. Nowak '77, Ph.D., S.S.J., is professor and chair of religious studies.