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Sister Edmunette is force behind Hilbert College for 50 years
Wednesday, January 11, 2012 by RACHEL DOBIESZ

Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer - With the campus behind her, Sister Edmundette Paczensny, FSSJ, former Hilbert president celebrates her 50th year anniversary. Under Sr. Edmundette's leadership, the foundation for growth was laid for the college in Hamburg.

When Sister Edmunette Paczesny, FSSJ, talks about herself, she likes to keep the focus on Hilbert College and its students. Yet it is impossible to talk about the Hamburg-based school without her name coming into the conversation. The Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph and former Hilbert president celebrates her 50-year anniversary at Hilbert in January, and she is as involved as ever in the life of the college.

“She really was, and is, a humble, joyful, Franciscan woman,” said Sister Ann Marie Hudzina, general minister of the Franciscan Sister of St. Joseph and a Hilbert alum. In spite of the fact that she is a regular recipient of awards and college staff, faculty, students, and alumni talk about her with boundless fondness and respect, “humble” is an appropriate word for Sister Edmunette. “My life has been blessed,” she said.

Sister Edmunette has been a presence at Hilbert since its very beginnings. After coming to Buffalo to join the Franciscan Sisters of St.  Joseph, she met Sister Edwina Bogel, who founded the school.

It was because of Sister Edwina that Sister Edmunette attended Fordham University and earned a master’s and doctorate degrees in educational  administration and supervision.

“She was a woman with vision,” said Sister Edmunette. “She looked into the future and she was very concerned that our sisters would be properly educated before they went into the ministry.”

When Sister Edmunette returned to Buffalo, she would work closely with Sister Edwina during the early years of the college, holding positions such as admissions recruiter, registrar teacher, department chair, and professor. When Sister Edwina became ill, Sister Edmunette became acting president assuming the job permanently in 1974. She would remain in the position until 2006. “I would like to believe that Sister Edwina still is helping us through her intercession and looking at her dream and how it has expanded,” she said.

One of the most drastic changes in the college’s history came in the early 1990s, when Hilbert transitioned from a 2-year school to a 4-year degree granting institution. Sister Edmunette explains that she faced early doubts from the State Education Department.

“They said, ‘Well, we can let you do several programs. I said, ‘If we  did that, we would fail financially.’ So they called in the budget person from the State Ed Department and he said, ‘Sister is right. They have to go all the way.’  Sister Edmunette would persevere and the college now offers 13 bachelor’s degree programs, including psychology, English, digital media and communication, criminal justice, and forensic science.   

Those connected with the college agree that this decision was crucial to Hilbert’s continued success. “In terms of the seven Catholic colleges in the Diocese of Buffalo, that was a critical decision for the college to remain competitive,” said Dr. Cynthia Zane, current Hilbert president. “I think that it was really an important decision that positioned the college to thrive.”

While being very involved in the professional aspect of running a college, Sister Edmunette has always stayed focused on the lives of the people at Hilbert. “She visits our sick and infirm sisters on a very regular basis,” said Sister Ann Marie. “She brings (them) the needs of Hilbert staff, students, and friends of Hilbert, folks that need prayer. She will go to our senior sisters and our sick sisters because she knows what a powerhouse of prayer they are.”

Although Sister Edmunette has played a pivotal role in the success of the college at large, it is the small moments that make alumni smile when they speak about her. “You could always knock on her door and talk to her just about anything, whether it was professional or personal, she treated students, employees, donors and board members the same way,” said alumni Tony Wiertel.

Sister Ann Marie Hudzina remembers Sister Edmunette’s kindness toward her when she was a Hilbert student separated from her family during the holidays. “I can remember sitting on the steps of the grotto outside the motherhouse property and just singing Christmas carols because she had taught us some,” said Sister Ann Marie, FSSJ General Minister. “And she just happened to come by and so we just started chatting.”

Hilbert graduate Jerry Wszalek marvels at what he calls Sister Edmunette’s phenomenal memory. “She remembers conversations I had with her on campus in 1973,” he said. “Because of all the camaraderie and assistance that was offered to me at Hilbert College, I said someday I will have to pay back to sister or the school. She remembered that in personal notes that she wrote to me soliciting me to come back to start up the alumni board. I honored that commitment and I’ve been there for 10 years.”

Today, Sister Edmunette works for the college’s advancement office in a volunteer capacity. She describes her job as stewardship.  “I get in touch with alumni, I get in touch with former trustees, or former, present, or future donors to the college, and I keep in touch with them.  I either phone them, send notes to them or email them. I just get in touch to see how they’re doing so that they know that we want that relationship with them and not just money. We want to establish or continue the relationship that we have had with them and they with us.”

In December, Sister Edmunette was awarded with the Hilbert College Franciscan Values Award, which is presented to a friend of the college who has distinguished him or herself in their community and career and is an example of the college’s Franciscan values.

“Sister is the original brick in the mortar that made Hilbert College what it is today,” said Jerry Wszalek. Sister Edmunette insists, however, that it is she who has been blessed by her years at Hilbert.

“It was never like coming to work,” she said. “It was just such a joy for me that it was never work.”  

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