HomeSt. Francis of Assisi Church: 1869-2016Hoosac Range HikesCivil War SeriesIn MemoryGreylock ReservationSavoy Forest ProjectFeaturesMy BookCollege PublicityNews ArticlesIssues & OpinionsPhotosBook ReviewsReligionArtsLinks


Ran on the Williams College Web site, Summer 2008
Mark E. Rondeau
Strong religious faith has been at home at Williams College since its very beginning, yet the college has never had formal ties to any denomination. Today one could accurately describe it as a secular institution.

“But, to say that it’s a secular place does not mean at all to say that it’s a faithless place or an irreligious place,” said the Rev. Rick Spalding, chaplain to the college. “Williams understands that the spiritual dimensions, the faith of people, the way people exercise love in the world matters.”

“It’s not extracurricular. It’s intrinsic to the essential project of a college,” he added. “It is so clear to me that we have deep and wide support for what we do here.”

The Chaplains’ Office is located at the heart of student life in the new Paresky Center. In addition to Spalding, who is also coordinator of community service, Cantor Bob Scherr is the Jewish chaplain, Fr. Gary Caster is the Roman Catholic chaplain and Parvin Hajizadeh is advisor to Muslim students.

More than 30 religious traditions are represented in the student body at Williams. Roughly 20 percent of Williams students come from a Roman Catholic background and 10 percent are Jewish. The Muslim community on campus includes many international students and is growing in size.

Staff members of the Williams Chaplains’ Office take a wide and deep interest in students. The office provides support, counseling, access to religious services and resources, events, and opportunities to socialize and talk with students of other faiths.

About half of the staff’s time is spent working one-on-one with students, a most rewarding and challenging aspect of the job, Spalding said.

“We also have an inter-religious agenda,” he added. “We feel strongly that a Williams education isn’t complete unless a student has had a serious friendship or relationship with somebody whose religious background is completely different from theirs.”

Said Scherr: “I suppose our project is two-fold: defining this campus as a very spiritual, moral environment; and, learning how that can mean that many understandings of spiritual and moral life not only coexist but enrich each other.”

Scherr said that he finds the collegial relationship among the staff to be one of the most rewarding things about his job. He’s also pleased that the campus Jewish community has been open to engaging itself with the wider community.

“I’m very pleased to be a part of the individual, as well as communal, growth of students as they live their lives for three or four years here on campus,” he said. “And it’s a personal satisfaction to be the Jewish voice in wider campus affairs, recognizing that I’m not limited to the Jewish community only. That’s been a wonderful challenge and an opportunity for me to have here.”

The two newest additions to the Chaplain’s office are Hajizadeh, who has been Muslim student advisor for three years, and Caster, who is in his first year at Williams. Hajizadeh has lived in Williamstown for nearly 20 years and has interacted throughout that time with Muslim students from many countries.

“The number of our Muslim students at Williams has been growing and they’re active and involved,” she said. “It’s impressive when we all get together.”

“The rewarding part for me is to see how all the students come together. They feel so comfortable,” Hajizadeh said. “Their needs get addressed and that’s very important to them.”

“We really appreciate that,” she said with a smile.

She would like international Muslim students at Williams who are going back to native countries where Islam is the majority religion “to share with people back home their experience of how comfortably they interact with people of other faiths — that we can be good friends and learn from others with different backgrounds and religions.”

She shares an office with Scherr and enjoys it when students, who come in to talk to him also speak with her. “It’s interesting, and it’s helpful, I think, to all of them,” she said.

Spalding noted that during one day of Ramadan the Williams Muslim community has invited the whole campus to fast with them in solidarity. The money saved in the dining halls is donated to a cause that the Muslim students choose. On Yom Kippur, when most of the Jewish community fasts, students donate their meal points and the money is sent to causes that address hunger and poverty.

Caster, a priest, is Williams’ first full-time Catholic chaplain. He can provide the sacraments to Catholic students on campus and spend more time with them outside formal religious services.

“It’s certainly rewarding for me to be able to come into a ministry setting as unique as this is, a Catholic priest on a secular campus, and to exist in an environment that’s so supportive of who I am as a person, as a man, and as a man of faith,” he said. “And I’m grateful for that. It’s an exciting and challenging way of trying to live my life as a Catholic priest and serve the young people that are here in the time that they’re here.”

He has begun celebrating Mass in Thompson Memorial Chapel: “We’re learning how to use Thompson in a multiplicity of ways,” he said.

Caster hopes that the students he interacts with learn that they can take their place in the world and have a relationship with God at the same time.

“If they can’t learn that in being here, then there’s a part of them that hasn’t been served,” he said. “But that’s a choice they have to make. And I hope they would make that choice.”

Scherr expressed a similar thought for the students he serves: “I hope they’ll tend to define themselves as people of faith, that they have pride and consciousness in the journey which is the life of a person of faith.”

Spalding said that he hopes their experience at Williams helps students discover not only a profession but a sense of purpose to make meaningful and transformative contributions to the life of the world.

“I hope that as many of them as possible can discover while they’re here some of the pieces of what will become not just a career but a vocation, and not just a way of earning a living but a way of helping the world to live.”

College Publicity


Students use this old ice house somewhere on the grounds of Williams College as a "Zendo." (Photos Mark E. Rondeau)



Inside the Zendo. Pretty neat!



The Williams College Jewish Center.



Thompson Memorial Chapel.