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Bringing St. Bernard’s out of the clouds

Patricia Schoelles:
Bringing St. Bernard’s out of the clouds

High atop a hill overlooking Highland Park’s lush greenery, the castle-like towers of St. Bernard’s Institute easily could inspire lofty thoughts of the divine.
But the institute’s president can think of an even better location for her school: a suburban shopping mall.
“Geographically, we’re on a hill and in some ways we’ve been perceived to be on a hill, in the ivory tower,” Patricia Schoelles says. “People say: “They do this esoteric theology that nobody can plug into.”’
Making religion–and St. Bernard’s–relevant is Schoelles’ top task, which the 46-year-old Sister of St. Joseph pursues with her own brand of down-to-earth humor.
“One of the strongest things that struck me when she came here was that there’s much more laughter in the halls–and that’s delightful,” says Marvin Mich, St. Bernard’s academic dean.
“We needed a fresh approach, and that’s certainly what we got,” he adds. “She’s got a lot of energy. She focuses on things and pursues them thoroughly.”
Geoffrey Rosenberger, founder of Clover Capital Management Inc. and a trustee at St. Bernard’s, echoes that opinion.
“Quite frankly, I had toyed with the idea of leaving the board,” he says. “It was her arrival and the sense of vitality she brought that convinced me to stay.”
Schoelles says her first job is similar to George Fisher’s at Eastman Kodak Co.: Change the public’s perception of her business.
“It wasn’t that I had to correct an image–there was no image to even work on,” she explains. “We needed to make the community, including the Catholic community, aware of what St. Bernard’s is and what it does.”
The only school of its kind between Boston and Chicago, St. Bernard’s (with an accent on the first syllable: “We try to distinguish ourselves from that large dog,” Schoelles jokes) is a Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry, offering two degrees–a master of divinity and master of arts in theology.
St. Bernard’s image may be somewhat cloudy because of its previous incarnation as St. Bernard’s Seminary. Originally located on Lake Avenue, the seminary was founded in the late 1800s but closed its doors in 1981.
That same year, St. Bernard’s Institute was incorporated, sharing a campus with the Colgate Divinity School/Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary on South Goodman Street.
In her two years at the helm, Schoelles has steered the school firmly into the community. The institute hired its first public relations director, revised its logo and now regularly publishes press releases on upcoming events.
The school also is reaching out through a new venture called St. Bernard’s-on-the-Road, developed with the help of six local parishes.
“We came up with this idea where we take our product off the hill and out to where the real believers are, people struggling with what their faith means at a time when we’re in conflict with Rome supposedly and people wonder what their faith convictions mean in a very secular, violent culture,” Schoelles says.
The community is responding: The first road show in mid-May drew a crowd of 350.
Schoelles also is forging stronger ties with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester–one of her greatest achievements thus far, Mich says. Though a history of some tension existed between the two institutions, Schoelles has worked hard to strengthen that relationship.
Because of her efforts, St. Bernard’s next month will take charge of four programs previously administered through the Diocese:
–continuing-education courses for people already serving in lay ministry;
–certification programs for lay ministries such as youth minister, pastoral minister or liturgy coordinator;
–the Instituto, a three-year ministry program–conducted in Spanish–for leadership and ministry to the Hispanic community; and
–a four-year deacon-preparation program.
These changes come at a time when the institute is facing financial woes, Schoelles says. Most of the school’s half-million-dollar budget is raised through tuition, which has remained stable for several years at roughly 125 students. St. Bernard’s also draws from its endowment of $1.2 million.
Enrollment will double or triple with the influx of students from the new continuing-education programs. Still, the school’s staff of 10 must find more ways to build its student base, Schoelles says.
“I think every institution is discovering it’s got to do more with fewer resources,” she says.
To help fill the coffers, St. Bernard’s held its first organized fund-raising drive this year. The school conducted a telemarketing campaign in place of the single letter it usually sends to solicit funds. The result: $71,000 was raised, a 92 percent increase over last year’s efforts.
With an eye toward both her spiritual and monetary missions, Schoelles has been reading “Influence–The Psychology of Persuasion,” a book given to her by Clover Capital’s Rosenberger.
Schoelles is very receptive to applying business concepts to her job, Rosenberger says.
“Prior to her coming, the board was of necessity involved in the day-to-day affairs of the institute,” he says. “Her arrival and the business skills she brought–even though that’s not her background–has allowed the board to deal with longer-range strategies. She’s basically relieved us of a lot of those headaches.”
“I am a marketer,” Schoelles says. “I’m steeped in theology but also I’ve become a marketer selling theology, so I’m really a salesperson now.
“I mean, that’s the job at St. Bernard’s–being the president at a school like this means you’ve got to be a salesperson, and I’ve had to make a transition there.”
The transition has been more mental than physical, for Rochester is well-known territory for Schoelles.
Born in Buffalo, Schoelles and her family moved to Rochester in the early 1960s when her father joined a new firm called Haloide Xerox Inc., now Xerox Corp.
Though influenced by her family’s religion, Schoelles sees her passion for the religious community as part of a larger, cultural phenomenon.
“It was an optimistic time,” she recalls. “Kennedy was in the White House and Catholics were going to be politically relevant in new ways. Then we had the second Vatican council in Rome, which said that our faith matters in people’s lives.”
Schoelles attended Nazareth College, graduating in 1969 with a degree in English. She stayed in Rochester for her first job, teaching English and religion at Holy Trinity School of Religion in Webster.
“My truest education so far was working with 13-year-olds,” she says. “I taught eighth graders for eight years, so I’m really trained by eighth graders–whatever else I’ve done since then has seemed rather tame.”
Schoelles took her vows in 1974; three years later, she won a scholarship to study for a doctorate in theology at the University of Notre Dame.
After graduating in 1983, Schoelles returned to Rochester, joining the faculty at Nazareth College where she taught ethics for four years.
“She was a fantastic teacher, with a real gift for engaging students in lively discussions of religious issues,” says Christine Bochen, chairwoman of the religious studies department at Nazareth College and Schoelles’ former colleague.
“Her wit and humor always punctuated her lectures and drew people into discussions of very deep and significant issues,” Bochen adds. “She attempts to live her values–students pick up on that authenticity.”
Content in her position at Nazareth, Schoelles was surprised when in 1987 a friend asked her to interview for a position with St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore.
On a lark, she traveled to Baltimore and interviewed, not expecting the jaunt to go beyond that. But the prospect of teaching graduate students–and finding an audience for her interests in moral theology–proved compelling. She took the job.
Schoelles describes her tenure at St. Mary’s as the seven happiest years of her life. She eventually headed up the seminary’s moral theology department–her first taste of administration–and put in place a new program for the final two years of the seminarian’s six-year training.
Yet training priests in a predominantly male environment was limiting, and by the time the position opened at St. Bernard’s, Schoelles was ready for a change.
“I became more and more convinced that we need to grow in terms of ministry, and we need to see that the emerging ministries in Catholicism are lay ministries, not priests and nuns,” she says. “I also wanted to work with women as well as men. I wanted something broader.”
The search for something broader went beyond Catholicism and gender.
“I loved the campus here, too, because it’s ecumenical, it’s not just one religion,” she says. “I think people should train for ministry with folks of other faiths.
“The religions need to look at their own traditions from a wider lens, not just be little ghettos of truth, but notice that we relate to other religious traditions, too.”
Like her belief in making religion relevant, Schoelles plans to stay at St. Bernard’s only while her energies are needed there.
“I think the institution outgrows the individual at the helm, and I don’t want to be clinging to a job I’m no longer important for,” she says.
“It seems (in six or eight years) I would have turned that corner–I just don’t know what corner is next.”
[Rochester Business Journal Profile, 6/9/95]

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