St. John’s University Celebrates 150 Years of Vincentian Education in New York City

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Currents News Staff

“Faithful to the mission.” It’s the Vincentian’s motto that dates back a century and a half. Its roots first take hold in a one-room farmhouse in Brooklyn.

Now, 150 years later, St. John’s is a thriving university with seven campuses around the world, 21,000 students and almost 200,000 alumni.

“The story of St. John’s University is the story of New York City. Indeed, it’s the story of America. It’s about immigrant’s dreams coming true,” says Brian Browne.

Dreams that were nurtured right here in the Diocese of Immigrants with Brooklyn’s first bishop, John Loughlin, who invited the Vincentians to establish the school in 1870. As a center for education and compassion for the city’s youth, its guiding principles are inspired by St. Vincent de Paul.

St. John’s spokesman, Brian Browne, says the Big Apple’s urban appeal is still alive today.

“Whether you’re descendants of indigenous peoples, whether your family came over on the Mayflower or landed just yesterday at international arrivals at JFK,” says Brian, “there’s a home for you here in New York City.”

A home that St. John’s newest leader, Father Brian Shanley, is getting used to as the schools 18th president and first Dominican priest to hold the position. He started in his new role at the height of the pandemic…

“It does feel strange to be on a college campus and not see kids everywhere,” Father Shanley says. “Some of our kids are coming in for class, some are doing it remotely. So there’s a sense of life on campus, but it’s not normal.”

Father Shanley hopes the fall will look more like a traditional college campus as they continue to help students through the tough times with the Catholic faith as the backbone of its curriculum.

“Catholic education has always been important to the church,” the university president says. “We’re interested not just in their heads, but their hearts…their faith, their sense of right and wrong, their sense of social justice and commitment to particularly the poor.”

Father Bernard Tracey is part of that mission too. He’s tasked with expanding the university’s reach and he’s a 1970’s grad, so he’s been with St. John’s for decades.

“St. Vincent de Paul founded us to serve the needs of the poor, but also we were found for the formation of clergy and laity in the service of the poor,” Father Tracey says. “With the same spirit of wanting to make sure that our students have a clear understanding about the education they are receiving and with an understanding that they have an obligation to help those less fortunate.”

Students understand that mission. Many of them are the first in their family to attend college.

“It’s that commitment to being a place where first-generation students get the break that really changes their lives,” Father Shanley says. “I mean college education then 150 years ago and now is the kind of thing that can change your whole life and change your whole family’s life.”

Changing lives and futures,150 years later: St. John’s University is still faithful to its mission.