Merrimack presents honors for inter-faith work

Cardinal O'Malley poses with award recipients Rev. Diane Kessler and Father David Michael at the Merrimack College Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations Feast of Faiths and Awards Dinner, April 5. Pilot photo/Mark Labbe

NORTH ANDOVER -- Merrimack College's Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations honored four people for their involvement in interfaith work at its annual Feast of Faiths and Awards Dinner, April 5.

"At this year's Feast of Faiths, we celebrate the people who dedicate their lives to interfaith communities. We want our students, and indeed the world, to know and to emulate people like our archbishop, Cardinal O'Malley, who has done so much to advance interfaith relations," said Merrimack president Christopher E. Hopey in his welcome to the students, professors, alumni, and guests who were present at the event.

"He embodies the ideal of Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican's Council document on the Church's relationship with other religions," he continued.

In his own greetings, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley noted that it is the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, a document that acknowledges the unity of all people, and said that "It's part of our belief system, and it's part of our identity as Catholics."

"I want to congratulate Reverend Kessler, and Father Michael, and Eileen Jennings, and Maria Haseeb, and all of you for your work to help to make this a better world by bringing Christians and Jews and Muslims together," he said.

At the ceremony, Rev. Diane C. Kessler and Father David C. Michael received Holy Envy Awards, Eileen Jennings '64 received the Nostra Aetate Award, and Maria Haseeb '16 received the Interfaith Leadership Award.

Rev. Kessler served the Massachusetts Council of Churches for 32 years, acting as the council's associate director and then executive director before retiring in 2007. She has authored or edited six books and a number of articles, and has served two terms on the joint working group of the Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches, helping to foster relations between the two bodies.

"Although a primary focus of my ministry was ecumenical, that is, dealing with inter-Christian relations, because of our pluralistic culture, I frequently found myself working with people of other faiths," she said.

"These relationships were built on trust, built over years of interactions. Thanks to these experiences, I never will be the same," she continued.

As associate director of the Archdiocese of Boston's Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Father Michael has worked to create and maintain relations between the archdiocese and other communities of faith, including local Jewish and Muslim communities. He has been a participant in the Boston-area Catholic-Evangelical dialogue since its formation in the early 90s, and additionally serves as the pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Needham.

Speaking on the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, Father Michael said "much has been accomplished," yet "we certainly have a very long road ahead."

"I want to encourage the work of this center, and especially I want to encourage the students" to continue learning about interfaith relations, he said.

After graduating from Merrimack in 1964, Jennings received a master's degree in counseling from the University of Oregon, and a doctorate in educational administration and a law degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. During that time, she worked as a counselor at Oglala Community School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota before beginning her legal career at Central Michigan University.

Jennings also held various offices at the club and district level of the Rotary Club of Mt. Pleasant, including club president and district governor. Over the years, she became a friend and mentor to several Rotary scholars and international students who attended Central Michigan University. She became inspired by one student, Mohibullah Israr from Afghanistan, to make an estate gift to the Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations.

It was the first time the Nostra Aetate Award has been given. Set to graduate from Merrimack this year, Haseeb is majoring in Health Science and minoring in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations. She is a co-founder and the former president of the Interfaith Alliance Club at the school, and has also participated in various interfaith programs off-campus, including the Interfaith Youth Initiative at Brandeis University.

Speaking with The Pilot following the ceremony, Haseeb shared the motivation for her work.

"Since childhood, I always used to think that one day I will be able to clarify all the misconceptions Muslims have about other religions, and I can clear all the other religions misconceptions about Muslim. So, I think it's a great way to start by doing it in interfaith work," she said.

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