THEN AND NOW: Above, Siena's founding friars in 1937; below, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger with today's friars after the 80th anniversary Mass.
THEN AND NOW: Above, Siena's founding friars in 1937; below, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger with today's friars after the 80th anniversary Mass.
At its founding Sept. 22, 1937, Siena College in Loudonville expected 40 students. More than 90 came.

Siena recently marked its 80th anniversary. As America was just beginning to pull itself out of the Great Depression, Bishop Edmund Gibbons of the Albany Diocese invited the Franciscan friars of the Holy Name Province to found a commuter school for men in the Capital Region.

The land on which Siena's 175-acre campus now sits was once a 38-acre asparagus farm known as the Garrett estate. The site was selected by Revs. Thomas Plassmann and Capistran Petrie, OFM, because it was in the middle of the cities of Albany, Schenectady and Troy. At the time, about 90 Catholic parishes were within commuting distance.

When its doors opened in 1937, Siena welcomed more than twice the number of students it expected. Some classes were taught in hallways and stairwells to accommodate men so eager for a college education.

Siena grew from the Franciscan ministry at St. Bonaventure College (now University) in Allegany, N.Y. In his blessing on Siena's opening day, Bishop Gibbons reflected people's Depression-era concerns, saying: "It is a modest beginning, but it is better to begin in this lowly way and grow than to make a grand splurge and submerge."

Seven friars served as the college's first faculty: Revs. Lambert Zalega (classical languages), Adalbert Callahan (history and economics), Joseph Vann (English and public speaking), Cyprian Men­sing (Siena's first president), Benjamin Kuhn (mathematics), Alcuin Shields and Bernard Tobin, OFM (both modern languages).

Siena was something of a brother school to The College of Saint Rose in Albany, which was founded in 1920 by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Both colleges eventually became co-educational.

Eight decades on, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Albany Diocese celebrated a Founders' Day Mass Sept. 22 in Siena's St. Mary of the Angels Chapel, surrounded by the Franciscan friars who staff the college today.

In his homily, the Bishop noted that "every Mass is a celebration, but today's Mass is particularly special as we pray for the friars, the faculty and the students at this college that was founded exactly 80 years ago today."

Brother F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, Siena's president since 2014, acknowledged the cross-section of the Siena community gathered in the chapel.

"Siena has become a beautiful place of living and learning, with roots in the academic traditions of the 13th century. Each one of us has a part to play, whether a student, a professor, an administrator or a friar, as we all come to a deeper understanding of the path we are meant to walk in life, working together to make the world a more just, peaceable and humane place," he said.

In a letter to the Siena community, Brother Ed reflected on the themes he shared at the Mass. He spoke of the founding friars' "vision of learning (the pursuit of knowledge) that was to be joined in academics to live a good and upright life (the development of character and virtue).

"The wisdom of the tradition continues to stand at the center of our commitment to cultivate in our students the skills and disposition to become lifelong learners, compassionate leaders and individuals who are engaged in meeting the challenges of our times while serving others generously," he added.

At the conclusion of classes Sept. 22, a "Celebrate Our Franciscan Heritage" event was held in Siena's quad. Students and friars came together for games, music and ice cream.

Siena just introduced a five-year strategic plan called "Tradition. Transformed," focused on academics, institutional excellence, value, inclusivity and purposeful community engagement.

"We're already setting ourselves on course for a successful 100th anniversary in 2037," said Brother Ed. "It's very important for Siena strategically at this point to make sure that we have programs that are meeting the needs and interests of current students in a distinctive way that differentiates us and encourages the student to make an investment in a Siena education." He said that Siena still focuses on "developing the whole person.

"We want our graduates to go out into the world with 'Franciscan hearts,' as well-rounded people who will truly make a difference in their families, in their careers and as citizens."