How Catholic is Fisher, and What Does That Mean for Students?


Nicole Pomerleau

The “Gaze of Christ” crucifix at the Hermance Family Chapel of St. Basil the Great (Photo by Staff Photographer Nicole Pomerleau).

By Madison Weber ’23, Staff Writer and Social Media Manager
November 1st, 2022

St. John Fisher University is a self-proclaimed “independent institution in the Catholic tradition of American higher education.” But what does that really mean? And how does it affect the lives of everyday students – both those practicing and not practicing in the Catholic tradition?

Father George Smith is the William and Helen Cavanaugh Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies, as a visiting professor in the Department of Religious Studies. This role includes planning events that highlight Catholic studies on campus. With Father Kevin Mannara on sabbatical this semester, Fr. Smith has also been helping to run mass and the Eucharist on campus. 

According to Fr. Smith, Catholic education “can mean different things at different levels of education.” He goes on to say that “it is an education that frees the student to become the person that God created them to be in whatever vocation they choose, and which will empower them to see God at work in the world in the most unlikely places, especially wherever there is human suffering, poverty, and injustice.” Fr. Smith considers “a philosophy of education that sees the complementarity between faith and reason as sources of knowledge.” 

(Photo by Staff Photographer Nicole Pomerleau).

However, Smith goes on to clarify that “St. John Fisher University is not a Catholic University, but it has a Catholic heritage.” Meaning that the institution of St. John Fisher doesn’t answer directly to the Catholic Church, but it does aim to have a meaningful relationship with the Catholic Church as a result of our heritage. Smith upholds that “everyone at Fisher is free to think and believe whatever they want, and the University itself does not take an official position on any of the controversial issues that the Catholic Church is famous for standing for.” But, Smith reminds students that many of the important values at the heart of the Fisher community were shaped by our Catholic heritage – making it likely that one will see clearly Christian values at work around campus. 

These values can be found all over campus, including in our motto Teach me Goodness, Discipline and Knowledge which came directly from the scriptures and the Basilian fathers. This is something that Sarah Mancini-Goebert, Assistant Director in the Office of Campus Ministry said “Doesn’t have to be from a faith standpoint. But I don’t think you can not acknowledge that it has its root in faith.” Jon Schott, deacon and Campus Ministry Assistant Director, says that the Catholic faith on campus is not in levels of attached or unattached, but rather a “way of thinking and mission and identity.” “We are Catholic in the sense that we are committed to Basilian ideals of education; openness, academic freedom, maintain ministry present, provide sacramental worship, open to religion or no religion,” said Schott. 

According to Schott, the school itself is run by the Board of Trustees which is not inherently Catholic, but there are Basilian Fathers on the Board. The office of Campus Ministry is not part of an academic school, but rather is part of the President’s Office and answers to the President. Mancini-Goebert said, “Our office of campus ministry does not influence policy made by senior staff, president, and cabinet.”

 “While the Catholic heritage may be consulted on issues, the Board of Trustees is the guiding force for the University community, ” said Schott. 

(Photo by Staff Photographer Nicole Pomerleau).

Mancini-Goebert maintains that while the Chapel itself is a Catholic chapel and follows Catholic worship principles, the school itself is simply guided by this Catholic heritage. Mancini-Goebert encourages Catholic and non-Catholic students to get involved with the service trip, Agape Latte sessions, community service, the Ministry Friendsgiving, and any other events. “Anything we do, you don’t have to have faith to participate in it. Part of our role is to journey to people where they are” she said. 

Fisher students are able to choose their own degree of involvement with campus ministry and the Catholic faith. Alyson Witt has been a Campus Ministry Peer Minister for 3 years now and feels that campus ministry is “a nice outlet for a lot of students and the staff is wonderful.” Witt says that the staff is “always around to talk to and support students” and that she feels “faith is really important for a lot of students and helps keep them grounded during college and the stress that accompanies.”

Not all students on campus, however, are Catholic. Senior Hannah Beamish says, “given the stipulation that there would never be a gay marriage in the chapel it makes me feel more inclined to avoid any campus ministry-associated events.” Beamish goes on to say, “Fisher cannot claim to welcome all students while implying that LGBTQ+ students are less deserving of marriage than straight students” and hopes that this is somehow corrected in the future. 

One anonymous gay Fisher student said “It’s just odd to me because you wouldn’t expect it … It’s like the 1950s. Fisher tries so hard to be inclusive in so many ways but still will only marry you if you’re a man and a woman.”

“Am I genuinely bothered that I can’t get married in the chapel? No, because I didn’t want to anyways. But it does make me very sad for the religious gays out there because I know that’s something very important to them” said the student on the issue. He went on to insist that the policy feels very “unFisher” of the school but says that he does not feel personally unwelcome and has never had an issue with campus ministry. 

The Catholic Church as an instituition has said they will not bless same sex marriages, and therefore the Hermance Family Chapel cannot. However, this may not reflect the views of American Catholics – as a 2020 study found that the majority of Catholics in the U.S. were for gay marriage. 

Fr. Smith believes that “everyone is empowered to think and believe freely, and that persons of all faith traditions, and none, are encouraged to join our community. If we were not open to this inclusivity and respect for diversity, we would not be faithful to our Catholic heritage.” This is a principle that both Schott and Mancini-Goebert echo. Campus Ministry’s information can be found here.

(Photo by Staff Photographer Nicole Pomerleau).