Sister Helen Marie Burns, R.S.M., Ph.D., a former member of the university's board of trustees, an experienced speaker for national and international gatherings of religious men and women and institutions of higher education, encouraged graduates that "life is an extraordinary gift to be treasured, to be remembered, in stories" during her address at the 10th Misericordia University winter commencement held Sunday, December 19 at the Anderson Sports and Health Center. This is the first winter commencement held at the university since 2019 due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
During the program, the University presented Sister Helen Marie with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree and conferred degrees on 322 students hailing from 16 states including Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
Dignitaries at the ceremony included Daniel J. Myers, Ph.D., president, and David Rehm, Ph.D., vice president of academic affairs, Misericordia University; and Monsignor John Bendik, a member of the Misericordia Board of Trustees, who offered the Benediction. The academic processional and recessionals were performed by the Ceol Mor pipe and drum band.
Sister Helen Marie's message served as an important reminder to everyone in attendance that storytelling in families and in institutions provides a common experience from which actions and futures flow. "Stories helps each of us to remember who we are, from whence we have come, where we are going. That last element is rather important: where we are going. As Thomas Clarke, S.J., so wisely observed in an article written some years ago: 'Story is the appropriate term for human existence. It is from the flow of stories that our more rational and pragmatic constructs and designs derive their vitality.' We tell stories, then, to instruct, to enhance, to entertain, but most of all to engage the deeper resources of our life spirit," she said.
Sister Helen Marie went on to explain how the most impactful stories of our lifetimes were created by ordinary people and their extraordinary acts. "One of the great mysteries and wonders of human experience is the fact that extraordinary events and accomplishments result from ordinary people living ordinary lives. Ordinary people who understand the simple fact that life itself is an extraordinary gift to be treasured, to be remembered in stories. Think 9/11. Think Oxford, Michigan. Think Mayfield, Kentucky. Ordinary people who hone their humanity in daily activities of duty and family and religion are ready for an extraordinary moment precisely because they paid attention in ordinary time. Living through storytelling suggests a participation in the unfolding, the shaping and development of the tale in which we stand. Storytelling itself creates a dynamic relationship with our past, present, and future."
Student speaker Alexa Danielle Monro of Kinnelon, NJ, opened her remarks to her fellow graduates with a famous quote from Walt Disney: "here you leave today, and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy. While these words greet guests upon entering the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World, they serve as a fitting introduction to the momentous occasion that has gathered us all here today. The resiliency and determination of the class of 2021 has been made apparent by the great challenges we have had to overcome to make it where we are today, however this day represents far more than a culmination of the individual efforts put forth by each of us in our pursuit of academic excellence. Instead, it commemorates the experiences of yesterday that continue to shape our lives, the opportunities of tomorrow eagerly awaiting our pursuit, and the fantasy that encapsulates what it means to be a Misericordia graduate."
Monro continued, "from professors who grow to be mentors and friends to classmates and teammates that become family, the Misericordia community has allowed us to forge connections and engage in experiences that will continue to foster our growth and development as students, athletes, future professionals, and most importantly people, long after we receive our diplomas. Thus, while this day serves to recognize the academic achievements of the Class of 2021, it also symbolizes and celebrates the relationships and memories of yesterday that shape who we are and who we are going to be."
Monro concluded her remarks by reminding her classmates how the school's motto "it all starts at the Arch" is more than one of the most common phrases heard around campus. "In alluding to the limitless opportunities awaiting students just beyond the entrance to the school, this motto suggests that Misericordia offers much more than that which can be found within the walls of its academic buildings. For me, the Arch became a gateway to the rest of the world, but regardless of the varying ambitions that have inspired our every action over the past few years, the Arch represents the catalyst that has enabled the Class of 2021 to not just pursue our dreams, but to make our every fantasy a reality. Misericordia has proved to be a place where anything is possible, so if there is one thing I will take away from my time at MU, it is that if you “grab hold of your dreams and make them come true,” you can do anything you set your mind to." Monro graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting.
Sister Helen Marie has served in a variety of leadership roles with the Sisters of Mercy and their institutions of higher education throughout the U.S. Most recently, Sister Helen Marie served as Vice President of Mission Integration at Mount Aloysius College. Previously, she served as Regional Councilor and Provincial Administrator for the Sisters of Mercy Province of Detroit and as Vice President of the Sisters of Mercy of the Union, the five-member leadership team responsible for the administration of a 8300+ member religious congregation of women ministering in seven countries in the western hemisphere.
Sister Helen Marie also contributed her expertise on numerous boards and committees in higher education, healthcare institutions and charitable organizations, including presently sitting on the board of trustees at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, the Mercy Hospital of Iowa City board of directors, Mercy Investment Services Board of Trustees and Saint Joseph Hospital and Health Center board of trustees. Sister Burns served as a trustee at Misericordia University from 1987-1996.
She is the co-author of two books, "Praying with Catherine McAuley," and "Sisters of Mercy," as well as the author of more than a dozen articles including several published by the University of Notre Dame Press. Sister Helen Marie’s areas of teaching including American religious history, history of American Catholicism, History of Active Congregations of Women Religious, and history of Catholicism.