St. Mary’s University‘s Catholic identity is not buried deep in the chronicles of university history. Nor is it contained in board rooms or campus chapels. Already prominent in campus life, the school’s Marianist tradition is deeply ingrained in its institutional activities and plans for growth.

St. Mary's University President Thomas Mengler welcomes the audience to NAFTA 2.0: The Future of North American Trade at St. Mary's University.
St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler welcomes the audience to NAFTA 2.0: The Future of North American Trade at St. Mary’s University. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Marianism, a Catholic order devoted to service in the model of Mary the mother of Christ, is less concerned with rigid doctrine and more with the pursuit of truth and its application in servant leadership, St. Mary’s University President Thomas Mengler told the Rivard Report.

“It’s not about dogmatic expectations,” Mengler said. “It’s about helping our students develop the tools to encounter the world and make a difference.”

Much of that learning and formation will soon be enhanced by a Center for Catholic Studies, which will be formally established once a director is selected.

A $1 million gift from alumnus Martin D. Beirne and his wife, Kathleen, will allow St. Mary’s to endow the director position. Upon announcement of the Beirnes’ gift on Sept. 26, the university also launched a nationwide search, with the goal of having the director in place by August 2018.

The director will be responsible for working with departments and groups across campus to integrate Marianist perspectives and values into campus culture, and develop Catholic scholarship that can be integrated into other fields of study.

Service and care for those who are “least” in the eyes of the world is integral to the Marianist faith tradition, Mengler said. While students are not expected to subscribe to Catholic beliefs, campus culture is oriented toward social justice.

The university already offers many opportunities for students to look through the Marianist lens to examine topics ranging from art to immigration to San Antonio history. Last week, the university’s law school hosted its annual Conference on Justice and Social Concerns. Based on Second Vatican Council directives to “read, interpret, and respond to signs of the times,” the conference chooses an annual theme to address current events, political movements, and public debate. This year, the conference addressed religious freedom. 

Beyond its academic pursuits, St. Mary’s teaches students to embrace “high moral norms” and to seek social justice, student Hassan Almahdi said at a panel discussion on campus religious life.

Almahdi had always sensed that those values aligned with his Muslim faith, but the multicultural environment at St. Mary’s made it even more evident than in his home country of Saudi Arabia, he said. He feels a deep connection to his university community.

“To be a part of a community is to be a part of a group of people who show their unity, their solidarity, their dignity,” Almahdi said.

Panelists Jessika Saldaña, Maria Barragan, and Jordan Saunders – all Catholic or evangelical Christians – shared Almahdi’s praise for the multicultural environment.

“I truly thank God for this university, because it is open to allowing different faiths to express, practice, and interact,” Saunders said during the discussion. Growing up in an evangelical church, Saunders adopted many beliefs without questioning whether they were essential to her faith. Some of those biases, she said, have “fallen by the wayside” at St. Mary’s. 

Experiences like Saunders’ are at the heart of a liberal arts education and the Marianist tradition, Mengler told the Rivard Report. The atmosphere of dialogue and inquiry encourages “broadening and opening our minds to the truth,” he said. “The truth comes in a lot of forms, and from a lot of directions.”

The students on the panel told stories of how formal and informal mentorship from faculty had enhanced their faith, and how friendships on campus had expanded their worldview.

“Here I’m able to see what other people think, what other people believe,” Barragan, a Catholic, said. In her home town of Fort Worth, she said, “you don’t see a lot of people from other faiths, from other ethnic backgrounds [mixing].”

This mixing does not result in students becoming less committed to their own faith, the students on the panel said. For Saldaña, it strengthened her faith, as she answered questions about what she believed, and looked for ways to put her Catholic beliefs into action.

“I practice my faith in my daily interactions with friends,” Saldaña said, “My faith has grown significantly.” 

The emphasis on social justice also pushed Barragan to begin mentoring children in the neighborhood surrounding St. Mary’s. She met the children through local parishes, and served as a reading buddy, tutor, and “big sister” to several young students.

“We’re about fostering the formation of our students – whether they are Catholic, non-Catholic, Muslim, or of no faith – to become servant leaders,” Mengler told the Rivard Report. “We’re not in any way about limiting discussion.”

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.