From Calais kid to college president

Saying it is needed now more than ever, Joseph Cassidy, president of Saint Joseph’s College of Maine, says he has a deep belief in the value of a Catholic education.

“The Catholic intellectual tradition is amazing,” he says.
Although he is complimentary of the work being done in public schools, having led or taught in them most of his life, he says there is something that Catholic schools can offer that public schools can’t.

“We teach students to be critical thinkers, to understand that the interaction of faith and science and knowledge and philosophy is where life is most interesting,” he says. “It’s a true blessing, whether it’s at the elementary school or the high school or the college level, to be able to talk with students about the things that really matter in life. We teach them everything academically, but we also talk about how the sciences that we teach them or the arts, how do they matter in life and where does the value of being a good person fit in? Our students here at Saint Joseph’s have great experiences around that.”

Cassidy took over as the 15th president of Saint Joseph’s College in August, continuing a career in education that spans more than 30 years. He has taught in elementary school, high school, and college, and he spent a decade as a president in the Maine Community College System, the last six at Southern Maine Community College (SMCC) in South Portland.

Cassidy says he loved his time at SMCC, and there was only one job that could lure him from it. It opened last year with the retirement of Dr. Jim Dlugos.

“I always said that I wouldn’t leave the community college system except for one college. It would have to be a rural college, a Catholic college, and in Maine. This is the one school,” he says.

He points to the mission of the Sisters of Mercy, who founded the college in 1912 and who still serve on the Board of Trustees.

“The beautiful work of Catherine McAuley [foundress of the Sisters of Mercy] and all those who came after her, there is a selflessness to that work. I think it’s such a wonderful embodiment of the message of Jesus, of the Catholic Church, of service to others, and yet, demanding the best of others. That’s the neat thing to me. The sisters will support anybody in anything they need, but they demand that you do it well and you commit to it,” he says. “I think that is the backbone of this college and of the Mercy education generally, and we’re going to carry that forward.”

He says an authentic version of Mercy education needs to be at St. Joseph’s College forever and says it is incumbent on him and other staff and faculty to ensure that happens.

“That’s part of my calling, I think, to be here. I thought a lot about that and listened to God a lot and asked Him a few questions about that,” he says.

He says the vibrancy of our Catholic schools is even more important with the challenges the Church is now facing, including declining Mass attendance. He reflects back to his years growing up in Calais when “you had to get in early to get your seat.”

“It was a wonderful place to be. It was small, and it was so intimate. Our church was wonderful,” he says. “Father Andy [Arsenault] was there for 35 years in Calais. My parents grew up with Father, and then I grew up with Father.”

Cassidy served as an altar server from age 7 until he graduated from high school.

“Oh gosh, the memories. Father would sit in the middle, and then the older boys would be on each side of him to do the proper service,” he says. “It was kind of neat. You would be the young boy for a few years, and then you would work your way up.”

When he was in middle school, which was located near the church, he would serve at daily Mass.

“We had an 8 a.m. Mass, but we didn’t have the first bell until 8:35 a.m., and Father Andy was old school. Your daily Mass was 28 minutes. I would take my stuff off and head straight across the parking lot,” he says. “It was a lovely time. It just cemented that idea of community and the Catholic Church.”

Coming from a family of educators, it is perhaps no surprise that when Cassidy attended the University of Southern Maine, it was with an eye towards becoming a history teacher. He says, however, a practicum at an elementary school in Windham pulled him in another direction.

“As soon as I walked out of that first class, I thought, ‘Oh, no, I want to teach young kids.’ But I was in my last year, so I got my history degree, and then I stayed at USM and went into the graduate program,” he says.

It would lead to a job teaching first and second graders in Gorham.

“I loved the children so much, and their parents loved me. I was a young man, 22 or 23 years old, so I had all the energy in the world, and you can imagine, that played well with the kids,” he says.

After five years, however, he decided to pursue another passion, the law. He attended the University of Maine School of Law, which led to a job at a firm based in Bangor.

“I was down in Blue Hill three days a week, where I lived, then out of Bangor one day a week and out of Augusta one day a week. So, I’m doing all these different, interesting things, but I kept missing education. I could feel that pull back,” he says.

Realizing he needed to make a move before the money became too tempting to give it up, he talked with his wife, Vanessa, who was finishing up law school, about moving back to his hometown. He began teaching history at Calais High School, then adjuncting at Washington County Community College (WCCC), where his dad was a professor and his uncle was the president.

“It’s a small town. It’s just the way it is,” he says.

He later became the college’s early childhood education professor, teaching courses in the evenings, while practicing law in the mornings and also serving as the city’s mayor. He taught at WCCC for 10 years and then advanced to the presidency of the college, a position he held for five years, simultaneously taking on responsibilities at Eastern Maine Community College for a year. He was then approached about moving to Southern Maine Community College (SMCC), which was experiencing some challenges at the time.

“They needed somebody to just do some healing with them and believe in them a little bit, and I came down to do that, and my gosh, we just flourished the last number of years,” he says.

Although he says he hesitated to leave his hometown again, among the draws was the opportunity to give his son, Max, a Catholic school experience, since there is not a Catholic school Down East. The Cassidys enrolled Max in Holy Cross School in South Portland for the seventh and eighth grade and then at Cheverus High School in Portland. Cassidy says it’s hard to believe the difference it made.

“We were aware of the potential impact that that would have on him. It absolutely caught me off guard how much of an impact it had on me as a parent of a student going through that,” he says. “You’re engaged with families who, like us, have made a decision around the values to which their child should be exposed. They’re not all Catholic. Many are, and we love that, but there is a commonality across the board where people have said that I want something special for my child. I want them to understand their place in the world as much as the facts. So, the Holy Cross and the Cheverus experience has been very impactful on me and my wife.”

As well as on Max and his classmates.

“When they sit around in their friend groups and talk, and when they participate on the athletic fields, and when they’re in their classrooms, you can see the impact a faith-based tradition has on them. They’re kind. They’re thoughtful. They’re open,” Cassidy says. “I think, as humans, we often, I do anyway, question, ‘Did I do the right thing?’ There are very few things in my life where I go, ‘I’m 100% sure I did the right thing.’ Our choice as a family for him to have that experience has just been wonderful. He has flourished in both settings and particularly at Cheverus. It’s academically challenging and challenging to him as a person of faith. I’ve watched his faith grow.”

Cassidy says that he has seen his own faith strengthen as well. He says as he got older, he had drifted a bit but came to realize that the busier he got, the more he needed God in his life.

“It’s a gift, this Catholic faith, this faith in Christ,” he says. “I need the rocks in my life. I need the solid anchor points to focus on.”

He says there are great supports in the Catholic Church, pointing especially to the sacrament of reconciliation.

“We have the gift of confession. We can go and say, ‘I messed up, God.’ And we get to start over. If we’re earnest, we can say, ‘I can put that behind me,’” he says. “We have an opportunity to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday. It’s pretty special.”

Cassidy says he enjoyed his six years at SMCC and wasn’t thinking about leaving until he learned of the job opening at St. Joseph’s College. He says even then he didn’t  apply initially, not wanting to disrupt Max’s life while he was still in high school. But, a couple months later, while ironing one morning, he couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“It was really on my mind all morning, I got my son’s lunch together, and I walked down to my office and opened up my email, and the very first email was from the firm running the search,” he says.

He learned that someone, who he would later discover was a former student who was now a professor at the college, recommended him for the job.

“I get teary eyed. I’ve helped many students. I love that. Sometimes it’s direct teaching. Other times, it is helping them get a job. There have been hundreds and hundreds and maybe thousands of students, but it’s the first time that I’m aware that one of my students lifted me up. As an educator, that’s my whole world come full circle,” he says.

Still hesitant, he turned to prayer.

“I really try to do a lot of listening, not talking, to God, and I heard very clearly that I needed to pursue this,” he says. “I feel so good that I listened for once.”

He says while he continues to have good friends at SMCC, he feels blessed to now be at St. Joseph’s College.

“This is a special place. It’s full of special people. The student body is special here. I’m glad I listened because I think I’m meant to be here right now,” he says.

He describes St. Joseph’s College as an ideal fit not only because of his faith but because of its beautiful setting along Sebago Lake.

“I’m a country boy. I grew up on a farm. I love Maine. I love recreating in Maine. I love fishing and hunting and hiking and snowshoeing and boating,” he says. “The campus sits on about 450 acres of land. We have 100 on this side of the road, but then, we have another 350 acres on the other side, full of hiking trails and deer and birds. It’s just wonderful.”

He believes the beautiful setting and the college’s strong Catholic tradition are valuable assets in the competitive world of higher education.

“It sits on this beautiful piece of earth, on Sebago Lake, where students can really connect with the natural environment. That is important to students today. And this Catholic experience is different than they get at most places, including all other places in Maine,” he says.

That’s not to say that the college is only looking to attract Catholic students.

“We have students here from the Muslim tradition, the Jewish tradition, or an agnostic or an atheist tradition, but they generally really embrace what we talk about here,” he says. “Everyone is welcome to come here and study with us, and if they want to pick up on the lovely part of our Catholic faith and message, great. But even if they have a different tradition, it will fill out their life.”

He says he believes the on-campus students love the experience.

“They feel connected. They feel like they’re with other students who are kind and care about each other. The way our faculty and staff interact with students, it’s different here,” he says.

Cassidy says the students also benefit from a strong academic program, for instance, the recently opened Jeanne Donlevy Arnold Center for Nursing Innovation.

“It’s a state-of-the-art nursing simulation lab. It’s the newest one in Maine,” Cassidy says. “Our nursing students can take blood pressures, administer medications, can experience a patient having a heart attack, can experience a patient having a baby. It’s just amazing.”

The college also offers classes online.

“We’re revamping our entire online program, which we sell both within the state and region but also nationally. Our theology program is renowned throughout the country. We have great plans for it,” he says.

That includes offering an online theology program in Spanish.

Cassidy says the college currently has between 1,000 and 1,500 online students, and 711 on campus. Like other colleges and universities across the country, he says enrollment suffered during the pandemic, but it is now on its way back up.

“I want to grow us a little more, maybe another 10% or 12%, and I’m totally confident we’re going to do that,” he says. “The people here are phenomenal.”

And guiding them towards success is a Catholic kid from Calais.

“What a great time to jump into St. Joseph’s when there is this natural rebuild that is happening,” he says. “People always say that it’s such a hard job. I say, ‘No, I am a blessed person. I get to meet great people and what can be better than that?’”