PROVIDENCE — More than 1,000 students, families and friends and faculty of Providence College celebrated the 107th annual commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 21 at the Amica Mutual Pavilion in Providence.
The ceremony began with a prayer from Bishop Richard G. Henning, attending his first Providence College commencement as Bishop of the Diocese of Providence.
“Blessed are You, God of all creation. Through your goodness today we gather in this joyful purpose, the celebration of these graduates, their accomplishments, and this great college with its devotion to the truth,” Bishop Henning prayed. “We give thanks for the curiosity and the gift of reason that You have instilled in us. … May that flame and light of learning continue to burn brightly today and always.”
This year’s commencement speaker was actor, entrepreneur and activist Hill Harper, who was also granted an honorary degree during the day’s commencement exercises.
Harper has close connections with Rhode Island and New England. A native of Iowa, Harper took part in undergraduate studies at Brown University, later going on to receive his Master of Public Administration and law degrees from Harvard. Yet, instead of a degree in the legal profession, he pursued a career as an actor, and is currently best known for his work in such television shows as “CSI:NY” and “The Good Doctor.” Harper is also known for his work concerning poverty and race relations.
In his speech, Harper emphasized how solidarity with fellow man is one social and moral value emphasized particularly by this graduating class, a class that has had to struggle with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate aftermath.
“You’re never alone in Friartown,” Harper said to the packed auditorium, going on to speak of his past experiences with Providence College, and how he was impressed by the sense of kindness and consideration that defined the student body. He concluded by encouraging the students to take this attitude with them throughout their lives and careers, especially in helping those most in need.
“A spiritual foundation that allows for a filter around education is so important,” Harper said in an interview with the Rhode Island Catholic. “The world is changing so fast, and the nature of education and information is changing so quickly. Unless you have a barometer from which to operate, or a foundation from which to operate, when you get pulled with online information that says this, and something this…you don’t know what’s actual truth or not. But at least the one truth you can hang on to is your foundation and your faith.”
Along with Harper, several other individuals were also bestowed honorary degrees. Two notable examples were Dr. Donna J. Fornichella, M.D., and the Reverend Monsignor Alex Bobby Benson. Dr. Fornichella, a member of the graduating class of 1978, received her medical degree from Columbia University medical school and was one of the first female general surgeons in the United States.
Msgr. Benson, a Catholic priest for the Diocese of Koforidua in Ghana, was honored for his humanitarian work. After serving as a priest in Africa for many years, he came to the United States to further his theological training. In 1997, he received his graduate degree in religious studies. Shortly after receiving his degree, he was inspired to return to Africa to help the poor and the sick, and established the Matthew 25 House, a shelter that provides medical care for the sick, especially those who suffer from HIV/AIDS. Over time, the organization expanded its efforts to include providing food and shelter for the poor and homeless, services to help poor children and orphans, and financial help for those hoping to establish businesses. He has also taken part in several sanitation initiatives in his home country as a part of the United Nations Sustainable Goals agenda, and also frequently works with local prisoners, distributing food and drinks to inmates on Christmas.
“The Church is very concerned about social justice. The Church is very concerned about taking care of the poor and the marginalized,” said Msgr. Benson. “We should try as much as possible to get out of the classroom, come to the field, come to the ground, and see people who are marginalized, who are facing stigmatization, because of what they are going through in life. It may not be through their fault, but we just have to treat them as human beings.”
In total, there were 1,297 graduating students in this class who come from 32 different states and territories and 11 foreign countries. Of the student body as a whole, 524 graduated with honors.
“It is a great honor and blessing to be here today, to be with our students,” said Father Justin Bolger, O.P., chaplain of Providence College. “We look at all the blessings of the past. We look forward, too, to the blessings of the future.”
Father Bolger concluded, “At Providence College, we give them the truth. It is my prayer that the truth stays with them, and is their compass as they go through life.”
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