In 2008, Alvernia celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and in the span of a half century this small women’s college, founded in 1958 by the Bernardine Franciscan Sisters to prepare women religious for the mission of Catholic education, has become a regionally and nationally recognized comprehensive, competitive, multi-campus university. Under the leadership of a dynamic board and visionary president, Alvernia today remains a character-building institution that has remained true to the mission and vision of the founding sponsors, with a heritage and history that reflects the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi.
Alvernia’s Mission Statement represents the ideal of a university education committed to academic excellence while developing lifelong learners who seek knowledge joined with love – a uniquely Franciscan perspective mirroring the intellection vision of a thirteenth century Franciscan academic at the university of Paris, St. Bonaventure. Our core values, collegiality, contemplation, peacemaking, service, and humility, create a learning environment that is meant to be formative and transformative, committed to service and ethical leadership, doing well and doing good.
The Bernardine Franciscan Sisters understood and valued higher education as a catalyst for change, growth, and human development, and without hesitation, they pooled together their meager resources to establish a Catholic Franciscan institution for higher learning in Berks County. The history of Alvernia University is not unlike the story of Catholic higher education in the U.S. in general, especially institutions founded by religious congregations in the 19th and 20th centuries. Alvernia’s foundation is built on a vision of liberal learning – preserved through the centuries from medieval universities to the present, respecting the intellectual traditions of the Catholic faith and Franciscan movement. The beginnings were very difficult, and hardships, scarcity, and sacrifice best describe the first years of this new Catholic Franciscan college in Berks County that struggled to survive. But the sisters’ will and drive to succeed never faltered – and students came, prospered, and found success in their careers and personal lives.
Francis Hall, which had been built in 1926 as an orphanage, was the first and only college building for several years. In 1958, the Sisters recognized the opportunity to use this well-designed building that had been used as an orphanage for a new purpose: the founding of Alvernia College. Many of the classrooms and offices used for elementary and secondary education before 1958 were easily renovated for use as college facilities, including a spacious dining room, a wing for resident students, a library, and an auditorium. In 1967, nine years after its founding, Alvernia was granted accreditation from Middle State – a remarkable achievement since many schools with greater resources had been waiting for this approval much longer. In the 1970’s, Alvernia College included 4 buildings on its campus: Francis Hall, Bernardine Hall, Veronica Hall, and a small one-story building that housed the professional staff in the University Life division. These served as the physical plant until the early 90’s when new construction added a physical education building and a library. In this development of the Alvernia University campus we see the fruits of the founders’ early sacrifices, careful planning, wise stewardship of resources, and most importantly, their unshakeable TRUST in the providence of God who inspired this good work and continues to bless these ongoing efforts. Today, Alvernia remains committed to the mission, vision and values of its founders. As a distinctive Franciscan university, we have been shaped by the previous administrators, faculty, staff, and trustees who have steered a strong course toward excellence and moral leadership. With trust and humility, we recognize that we stand on the shoulders of all who came before us and we honor and magnify their achievements when we imitate their courage and passion.
A singular professor who was a pioneer in diversifying the mission at Alvernia was Sister M. Pacelli Staskiel, OSF. She was a “bridge professor” – anchored in the liberal arts as a professor of English, but possessing varied interests that paved the way for expansion, growth, and external community recognition. Sister Pacelli helped to develop a niche for Alvernia which included professional programs like Business, Criminal Justice, Addictions Studies, Nursing, and Occupational Therapy. She welcomed the first male students to campus, and personally mentored adult students who wished to begin, or complete, a baccalaureate degree. She was particularly fond of the Criminal Justice program – the first of its kind in the nation, and first to be chaired by a woman. This program played a significant role in helping a small college with a weak enrollment to turn around and re-invent itself as a comprehensive university that would always be a step ahead of the need in Berks County.
Both internally and externally, Alvernia has tried to create a culture on campus which points to and reminds the community that we share a rich Franciscan heritage: all around us are the saints, the founders and the places that serve as markers and reminders of our blessed tradition and history. Our history covers more than a half-century marked by courage, gratitude, faith, and the ability to recognize graced opportunity when God presents it. We have moved into our second half-century with pride, confidence, and gratitude for all that has been entrusted to us.