Driving along Babcock Boulevard in the town of McCandless, it is hard to miss the home of the Sisters of Divine Providence with its signature lake and the adjoining La Roche College campus.
The private, liberal arts college, founded by the nuns, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary Jubilee this year with activities Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"I have said if there is one characteristic that marks La Roche College, it is determination -- we were determined to be founded, we had determination to survive and determination to grow," said La Roche president Sister Candace Introcaso.
The Sisters of Divine Providence, whose headquarters is on a large parcel of land in McCandless, founded the college in 1963 to educate their own sisters.
"It was a time when there were a lot of young women of religious nature in the area who wanted to pursue higher education," she said.
It was also a time, said Sister Candace, that "a lot of people wanted to start religious colleges."
Despite numerous challenges, the college opened in 1963 and granted its first degrees in 1965 under Sister Annunciata Sohl, La Roche's first president. But the school fell upon hard times in the late 1960s and faced a possible closing as its student population started dwindling.
"But state officials and community members encouraged them to stay open," said Sister Candace.
The college had already permitted lay women to enroll, and soon opened their doors to young men and operated on a "very austere budget," she said. The college also partnered with the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to provide the academic classes those students would need to be awarded a bachelor's degree.
"That was the background of our graphic arts and design programs, which we are known for," Sister Candace explained.
Through the 1970s and 1980s, enrollment grew and the campus expanded with the addition of residence halls, classrooms and academic facilities as well as more course offerings. In the early 1980s, La Roche offered its first master's degree in Human Resources Management.
In the early 1990s, Monsignor William A. Kerr became college president and moved La Roche to its next phase, said Sister Candace.
"He wanted to create a global community and began The Pacem In Terris Institute and welcomed students from war-torn, poverty-stricken countries," she said.
Monsignor Kerr sponsored foreign students with the hope that after they were educated at La Roche, they would return home to help rebuild those countries.
Godfrey Biravanga, 36, graduated in 2001 from La Roche and is one of the students brought to the U.S. through Monsignor Kerr's program. Mr. Biravanga came to La Roche from war-torn Rwanda.
"I was fortunate to be chosen to attend La Roche and as a student, the support services were amazing -- everything was different here, the culture, the food, certainly the weather.
"The faculty and the president of the college were so supportive, I'm not sure we would have made it here otherwise," he said.
Now a vice president and audit function manager for PNC Bank, Mr. Biravanga is also one of the 50 alumni who will be honored Friday.
"It is such an honor. I received a quality education from La Roche and am able to be part of their celebration," he said.
Many students, such as Mr. Biravanga, were able to achieve their educational goals, and that effort increased the foreign student population at La Roche. It achieved the monsignor's goal of creating a diverse, global community, but it also stretched the financial resources of the small college.
"When I came in 2004, we knew that we faced a significant financial challenge. The vision outran the resources," said Sister Candace.
The college sold off the west campus a few years later -- 10 acres to the Greek Orthodox Church and then 43 more acres for McCandless Crossing.
In addition to helping La Roche get on more stable ground financially, Sister Candace said the new stores and restaurants being built in this project are good for the community.
"The new development will provide recreational and employment opportunities for our students, but for the community as well," said Sister Candace.
La Roche is an important asset to the community, said Toby Cordek, town manager of McCandless.
"An institution like La Roche always brings the intangibles that are hard to measure but easy to sense," said Mr. Cordek, whose son is a La Roche graduate.
"La Roche has the atmosphere of goodwill and peace that is part of the Divine Providence community.
"Yes, they have excellent programs such as their nursing and graphics programs that benefits the educational opportunities, but it is also more than that," he said.
As part of the Jubilee Year celebration, La Roche gave the gift of education to the town employees and their immediate families, said Mr. Cordek, by providing six free classes.
La Roche has also featured prominent guest speakers to campus including former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, Pulitzer-Prize winner Nicholas Kristof and actor and activist Martin Sheen, who will be the commencement speaker.
"I liked the size and the feel of the community. I can blend in here, but still be an individual," said Libby Powers, 25, a senior.
The Pine resident transferred to the college from a larger university.
Ms. Powers said the activities of the anniversary year have allowed her to share in the celebration.
"I'm really looking forward to having Martin Sheen talk at my graduation. He represents the atmosphere of community, of social justice and social integrity of La Roche. I think it is very exciting," she said.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published April 18, 2013 10:00 AM