CHESTNUT HILL, Pa. — The Garden of Forgiveness at Chestnut Hill College is a space near the center of campus, enclosed by stone buildings and populated by roses, benches, and a birdbath in the middle. Rededicated last spring, the garden is meant as a place for “releasing past hurts, facing oneself and others with forgiveness and repentance… and moving toward healing and reconciliation together for the sake of a new future.”
College officials renamed the garden last spring as part of its Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation. As many other colleges seek to advance their missions by building new, state-of-the-art centers designed to propel them into the 21st century, Chestnut Hill is looking to emphasize the principles that the Sisters of St. Joseph -- the college’s founding order of nuns -- have espoused since the 17th century.
“This institute is rooted in Gospel principles -- it’s not something that we’re picking up that is foreign or new to us, it is the essence of who were are and what we have been about since we were founded,” said Sister Carol Jean Vale, the president. “It’s formalizing it.”
With fewer and fewer people entering into religious life, Sister Carol Jean said, it is more important than ever for colleges such as Chestnut Hill to focus on impressing their founding values on students. “These same lay people will be running these institutions,” she said. “So to preserve the history, the tradition, and the charisma, it is necessary to share the spirituality, so that the same values and the same understanding of what we are about will be inculcated in others who will continue the mission even if we don’t continue to exist.”
Sister Carol Jean added that connecting students to those values might even persuade some to join the order, although she said such recruitment would be a byproduct, not an explicit purpose.
Aside from the garden, the Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation does not yet have its own physical space on campus; it is largely still in the planning stage. Officials envisage an entity that will ally with local church and other groups to spread a philosophy of forgiveness and reconciliation in the community. It would also support academic research into forgiveness and reconciliation as scientific and historical phenomena, and connect scholars studying forgiveness across different disciplines.
Many secular institutions discourage scholarly inquiry into subjects, such as forgiveness, that are widely associated with religious belief, said the Rev. Richard Malloy, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology who also serves as an assistant chaplain. “Many people have told me that at more secular universities, the limits on academic freedom are pretty clear -- there’s places you don’t go, there’s stuff you don’t research, there are things you don’t talk about,” said Father Malloy.
“When I came here,” he said, “in my first week a graduate students comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, you’re a priest, I’m in the graduate program here, and we’re working on forgiveness.’ And I think, ‘Oh, so at this school, this is maybe something I ought start thinking about… Most psychology programs aren’t going to be interested in that, but here it’s not only welcomed, it’s encouraged.’”
Sara Kitchen, a professor of criminal justice, said forgiveness and reconciliation are crucial to the concept of restorative justice, an emerging paradigm within the field that focuses on healing relationships between criminals and their victims rather than simply punishing the offenders for committing a crime against the state. Vale hypothesized neurological research that would study brain activity as it relates to forgiveness.
Chestnut Hill is not the first college to create an institute based on the theme of forgiveness. In fact, part of its plan is to network with similar institutes, such as the Duke Center for Reconciliation at Duke University’s divinity school.
But officials believe the Chestnut Hill institute will be unique in that it will embody the legacy of the entire college -- rather than just a small cloister within a larger university -- and will therefore affect everyone on the campus, not just those interested in theology. “We’re trying to create a culture,” said Sister Catherine Nerney, director of the institute. “And when you’re in a culture, you become less aware of where the boundaries are.”