Of my salaried nonprofit jobs since leaving Federal service in 1996, the one I held the longest was the position of Director of the Chapel + Cultural Center at Rensselaer (C+CC), working for the Rensselaer Newman Foundation (RNF) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). (That’s a lot of Rensselaers, more on them later!). For the past two years, I have served on the Board of Trustees of the RNF, so I have had the distinct pleasure of returning to Troy, New York twice a year for Board meetings and for the wonderful Committee of 100 Dinner, where our supporters gather each October (including last weekend) to celebrate the prior year’s accomplishments, and to bestow the prestigious Sun and Balance Award upon a prominent and deserving member of the community.
2018 is a very special year in the C+CC’s history as we celebrate the amazing building’s 50th anniversary. We mark this observance from a unique position of pride, having recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the youngest building in the country to currently be so designated. I could wax at length here about how the C+CC is special and deserving of this honor, but I’ll defer to two (more) tightly edited sources on this front — here and here — to put this year’s gathering in context. At bottom summary line, the C+CC has been cited by numerous experts over the years as the quintessential example of how churches in America best responded to the opportunities arising in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council. It’s a cool place, and cool things happen there, for the campus, for the community, and for the church.
In 2015, I was the keynote speaker at the Committee of 100 Dinner, and I posted my remarks here — The Power of Plus — for posterity’s sake. Riffing on our stylistic use of the plus sign in the name of the C+CC, I discussed several of the key additive factors that make the facility and its home communities so special to me: it’s a chapel + it’s a cultural center, it marks a place where the sacred + the profane can enter into dialog, it is a home base for town + gown in Troy, its highest annual award is the Sun + Balance medal, and its blended campus and parish community allows old + young to gather together on a nearly daily basis.
This year’s keynote speaker, David Haviland, is a retired RPI administrator, a 40-year trustee of RNF, a great personal friend, and a member of the committee that hired me all those years ago when I first came to the C+CC. He delivered an exceptional talk that was anchored in the hymn “What Is This Place?,” with lyrics published in 1967 (while the C+CC was nearing completion) by Huub Oosterhuis, atop an old Dutch melody called “Komt Nu Met Zang,” originally published in 1626 in a hymnal called Nederlandtsche Gedenck-clanck by Adrianus Valerius. This hymn was sung in the mass immediately preceding the Committee of 100 Dinner, per the liturgical calendar of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Dave’s talk explored the ways in which the song’s lyrics tied to the amazing senses of place, word and sacrament embodied by the C+CC for so many who have entered it over the years, while also placing its old Dutch melody in the context of the van Rensselaer family and their history; they were the Patroons of the Manor of Rensselaerswyck, from which RPI takes its name, and from which the modern Capitol Region of New York State emerged with its quirky Dutch-English culture. Dave also touched upon the fascinating life of Huub Oosterhuis, a former Jesuit whose commitments to social justice and equity often put him at odds with the Catholic Church; more on his story here.
At the end of his remarks, Dave turned the lectern over to our fellow Trustee, Nathan Walsh. When I arrived at the C+CC to serve as its Director, Nate was a resident student in Slavin House, the connected rectory that stands as an integral part of the C+CC campus. We spent a lot of time together over the next couple of years, managing the C+CC and all of its operations in a very hands-on fashion together. You cannot direct at the C+CC if you are not also willing to do. At our Trustees’ meeting before the dinner, Board members were asked to approve an expenditure for a new snowblower for the C+CC; Nate and I smirked together about the ancient smoke-belching orange beast we used to push around the property on snow days, which still sits in the Slavin House garage, both of us believing we are entitled to go grab some knobs or bolts from it to carry as sacred relics in its memory.
It has been a delight to see Nate graduate from RPI, enter the working world, get married, have children, and grow into a poised professional in his new home in Baltimore, while still remaining a key leader in the C+CC community; he was actually the Chair of the Nominating Committee that brought me back to Troy as an RNF Trustee. Nate’s job at the Committee of 100 Dinner was to introduce this year’s recipient of the Sun and Balance Award, Father Edward Kacerguis, known to most around the RPI Campus as “Fred” (Fr. + Ed = Fred). Father Ed has been at RPI in one capacity or another since 1989, and he has lived at Slavin House for the lion’s share of that time. Nate drew a great laugh when he noted how hard his job was that evening, introducing a man who needed no introductions, in his own house . . . Sorry, God.
I was deeply touched to see Father Ed receive the Sun and Balance Award. I count him among my dearest friends, and I marvel on a regular basis at the impact he has had on the parish and campus communities around the C+CC through the past three decades. We first met when I was working at a notable independent school in Albany, for which he served as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany’s representative. My time there ended awfully, as I was essentially railroaded out for missing a development committee meeting while burying my father. (Yes, seriously . . . insert anecdotes about corporate sociopaths here with regard to my employers at the time). Father Ed helped me land smoothly after that tragedy, introducing me to the C+CC community and shepherding my candidacy through the hiring process. I am a deeply grateful to him for that, among many other things over the years.
At our Trustees’ meeting, Father Ed announced that under canon law, he will be retiring as Pastor of the University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice and Resident Roman Catholic Chaplain at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as of June 30, 2019. That will mark the end of a profoundly significant era in some ways for the C+CC, though the unique organizational structure of the RNF means that he may still be involved in some other ways in the life of the campus, the parish, and our Foundation. I certainly hope that’s the case, in any event, though we will not know for sure until we work through a variety of strategic planning efforts in early 2019.
Regardless of how all that pans out, this year’s Committee of 100 Dinner was Father Ed’s last in his current roles, so once again, what a profound delight it was to see him honored with long and heart-felt ovations by his parishioners, colleagues, friends, students, alumni and board members. Over the years, I have seen him preside over weddings of students and alumni, baptisms of countless babies, funerals for the elderly and the young alike (the C+CC is a place of sanctuary and respite at times of crisis on the RPI campus, and few crises hurt as much as the death of a student there), more masses than I can count, dinners for all of the varsity sports teams at RPI (his Canadian Thanksgiving Dinners for the hockey team were particularly epic), fundraising activities for charities domestic and international, and any number of cultural, educational, spiritual, or social events at the C+CC and around Troy. He makes a difference, and he does it with a smile.
Those of you who know me best may observe that there’s a lot of references to the Catholic Church above, and that I am not Catholic myself. That’s neither a worry nor an obstacle when it comes to life at the C+CC. One of the most beautiful elements of the space and its University Parish of Christ Sun of Justice is the motto “All Are Welcome.” I stumbled in there at a difficult time in my own life, and I was welcome. Countless others have done the same over the years, and they were welcome. It is the C+CC’s operating policy to keep its doors open for all who care to visit, 365 days a year, and in his remarks, Father Ed shared a story of how he found a young woman who he’d never seen before weeping at the altar one Christmas afternoon; she told him that her life was falling apart in a variety of ways, and that she had driven around the Capital Region for hours looking for an open church where she could pray for solace, and they were all closed to her — except for the C+CC. She was welcome too.
It’s a profound joy to have played a small part in the life of the C+CC over the years, and to have shared in fellowship with so many important people in its history. Beyond Father Ed, Dave Haviland and Nate Walsh (all mentioned above), there are far more names and stories worthy of mention than I can cite in a short article like this, but I will close with two anecdotes about two very special people in the life of this unique community, and the small ways in which my life intersected with each of theirs.
First, Stephen Wiberley: For the better part of two years, I helped Steve write, edit, design and illustrate his autobiography. It was a deeply interesting project, and one that remains of historical value to RPI, the C+CC and the City of Troy. There were a lot of famous folks, mostly scientists, passing through the pages of his life’s story (Fermi, Heisenberg, Van Allen, Kuiper, Teller, Pauling), plus guest appearances by the likes of Bette Davis, astronaut Jack Swigert, NASA deputy administrator George Low and the 1985 NCAA Hockey Champion RPI Engineers. The final manuscript ran to about 320 pages and had about 240 illustrations, photos or figures, all of which I scanned, treated or restored to the best of my abilities, then nested into the book. When Steve dropped off the finished, bound product, we admired it together, with a little bit of wistfulness, since I think on some plane he felt like his life’s work was done with that project completed. I told him at the time that my fee for helping him was that I expected him to give me an update and addenda ten years later, and that he had to do some exciting stuff to make it worth my while. Steve laughed at that and agreed to my terms, but I never got to collect that debt, since he passed away a couple of years later. I wrote a poem about the experience of working with Steve called “They All Shine On,” based largely on how he would often say to me “Oh, I wish you could have met my wife, Betty, she was such a wonderful lady!” as we toiled over the book project together. Father Ed actually read that poem at Steve’s funeral service, which was very moving for me, needless to say.
Second, Father Tom Phelan: Father Tom was the founder of the C+CC and the RNF, and his epic life’s journey and accomplishments cannot readily be distilled into manageable form, though here is a brief summary. He was a vital, vigorous, charismatic man by all accounts, though by the time I arrived at the C+CC, he was in failing health with Parkinson’s, a frail gentleman loved by all, but no longer able to stand as the community’s vibrant central figure. Father Tom’s final illness followed a fall at the C+CC that happened when I was there, and in my role as the facility’s Director, I supported Father Ed in managing all of the countless logistics associated with the visitation and funeral mass that were held onsite after his passing. The line to pay respects to Father Tom wound far around the block all day long on that last day before his burial, which was to be held early on the morning after, in a private family ceremony. At the end of that long day — after all of the visitors had gone their various ways, after our work study students had departed, and after Father Ed had gone home to Slavin House — Father Tom’s mortal remains lay in state in the sanctuary at the C+CC. I was the last person left to turn the lights out and lock the doors on him, on his last night in the profound place he built, through force of will, faith and personality. It was a sublime and sacred moment in my life, as I sat on the step below the C+CC’s altar and reflected for quite some time, alone before Father Tom’s casket, marveling at the amazing differences one man can make in the world around him — and also at the humbling commonality that all of us will face when our mortal times in this world draw to a close, our vibrancy quieted at last, only to live on here in remembrances.
There have been many such remembrances this year as the C+CC celebrates its 50th Anniversary — but there have also been many commitments made to carrying its work forward for another half century or more. The space was built to last, fully adaptable to an ever-changing world, and its governance structure was developed with skill and acuity to also survive and thrive even when and if key partner organizations are no longer able or willing to carry their share of the mission. What a gift it is to have been a part of the C+CC’s history, and to play an ongoing role as a Trustee in its dynamic present and exciting future.
You need to visit this incredible space if you’re ever in Troy, New York. Go there by daylight, any day of the year, and I can guarantee that it will be open to you.
All are welcome. Always.