LEWISTON – The Rev. James J. Maher has spent a lot of time getting to know students over the past seven months as president of Niagara University.
He’s shown up at student government meetings, mingled with students at soccer and hockey games and even joined them for lunch inside the dining rooms in Clet Hall.
It’s one of the reasons sophomore Hayley Besaw turned out for Maher’s inauguration as Niagara’s 26th president inside Gallagher Center on Friday afternoon.
“He’s very personable. He’s very kind. He’s very easy to talk to,” said Besaw of Lewiston, who met the energetic Vincentian priest within his first month on campus. “He was very interested in knowing what students felt about the university and what improvements could be done.”
More than 700 people were on hand to witness the elaborate installation ceremony for Maher, the former executive vice president for mission and student services at St. John’s University who succeeded the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque.
Maher, 52, proceeded into a Gallagher Center festooned with purple and white behind a bagpiper and a convoy of faculty and academics.
On stage, he was welcomed with words of wisdom, encouragement, praise – and often humor – by students, professors, alumni, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, the president of DePaul University and a host of others.
Matthew Nadler, president of the university’s Student Government Association, urged Maher to maintain his excellent rapport with students.
Professors Chandra J. Foote and Peter C. Butera invited Maher to consult faculty members, who will be eager to offer their perspectives and expertise in grappling with challenges facing the university.
The Rev. G. Gregory Gay, superior general of the Vincentians and Daughters of Charity, recalled how Maher was first introduced to Niagara as a boy, when his older brother, John, attended the university as an undergraduate.
The Rev. John Maher, a 1976 Niagara graduate, also is now a priest in the Vincentian order, and he delivered the homily earlier Friday during a special installation Mass inside Gallagher Center.
James Maher ended up at St. John’s, graduating in 1984. He lived on Niagara’s auxiliary campus in the mid-1980s as a member of the Vincentian Service Corps, then went on to work at St. John’s in a variety of administrative posts from 1990 to 2013.
But even St. John’s Provost Robert Mangione acknowledged that Maher seemed destined to be president at Niagara, a rival – at least among Vincentian schools – in basketball.
“Although St. John’s may be Father Maher’s alma mater, he has come home to Niagara University,” said Mangione.
Several speakers advised Maher, in guiding the university, to channel the example of St. Vincent de Paul – a revered Catholic saint from France who is known as the Great Apostle of Charity and created the Vincentian order of priests, the founders of Niagara.
“Now more than ever we need the clarity and charity of St. Vincent in caring for the poor,” said Sister Beth Brosmer, executive director of Heart, Love and Soul Food Pantry. “We need you to have St. Vincent as your inspiration. We pray you take to heart his wise counsel that we are never to be excused from working for the poor.”
In his address, Maher concurred.
He promised that Niagara would continue to be “a community embracing the mission of St. Vincent de Paul, making central the lives of the poor and marginalized.”
“In the spirit of St. Vincent de Paul,” he added, “we will be a community seeking to bring the balm of compassion to the suffering and misery in our community.”