Nancy Vanderhoef wishes her time studying at St. Bernard's School of Theology and Ministry in Albany never ended: The master of divinity degree she earned there was so fulfilling that she's exploring opportunities for a doctorate.
A parishioner of St. Kateri Tekakwitha Church in Schenectady, she just graduated from SBSTM - along with four other Catholics from the Albany Diocese - in a ceremony at the school's main campus in Rochester.
Mrs. Vanderhoef didn't have a clear goal when she first started taking courses, and she still says that "it always remains to be seen how God will use my degree and where He will send me. I don't think I am finished by any means."
She does know she made the right decision to pursue a master's degree.
"I was captured by the study and the community at St. Bernard's," she said. "It almost seemed like an extended retreat where you can really delve deeper in the gift of faith."
She loved discussions, encouragement from faculty and classmates and research "that made Scripture come alive before our very eyes." She learned how to dig deeper and "look at the many different facets and the many different layers.
"I think I'll carry that wherever I go," she said. "We celebrate this search for the living God. It just feels like coming home."
The Hyde Park native, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in education, taught special education students throughout New York State until her children - now 24 and 15 - were born. Her husband's career moved them around the east for two decades before they landed in Rotterdam in the early 2000s. Mrs. Vanderhoef always involved herself in the parishes they joined.
One of her favorite volunteer experiences was at the former St. Helen's parish in Niskayuna (merged with Our Lady of Fatima to become St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish) in the early 1990s. Mrs. Vanderhoef provided one-on-one pastoral care to people in crisis situations through the parish's Stephen Ministry.
Her role, she said, was to "keep company with individuals and to build a support network around them." This often extended to helping with chores or providing meals.
Out in the world
The new SBSTM graduate is currently serving her second six-year term as a board member of the City Mission of Schenectady, where she has volunteered with her family for years, serving community meals, working on apartments for transitional housing and helping at the Family Life Center.
She arranged for her alma mater, Misericordia University in Pennsylvania, to send students to volunteer at the City Mission on school breaks and recently attended a poverty seminar.
Mrs. Vanderhoef's time at St. Bernard's started as a desire to learn more about her Catholic faith and "grew into this insatiable appetite" for knowledge, she said. She'd like to end up back in a classroom someday.
"Exploring the faith with students would be a most wonderful gift," said the former teacher. "I'm developing my skills as a spiritual director. Walking with individuals and finding the gift of God in everyday life is pretty exciting."
These days, Mrs. Vanderhoef is a eucharistic minister at St. Kateri and also helps with her son's confirmation program there. She said SBSTM "enlivens parish ministry. We realize what a gift the faith community is and how important it is to us."
In her down-time, Mrs. Vanderhoef enjoys gardening, needlework, canning, making preserves and spending time with family. She advises Catholics who are interested in studying at St. Bernard's to try it, "even if you just take one class at a time or go visit a class.
"My time at St. Bernard's led me to feel restored and renewed," she said, "with a sense that someday I'd also like to educate, enrich and empower other people, as well."