TriciaIrelandDr. Patricia Ireland’s family is well-traveled. Her two sons recently returned from missions in Africa, and her daughter is leaving for a service trip to Mexico. Dr. Ireland is making a shorter, though no less significant, voyage: She’s moving from Dominican College in Orangeburg, N.Y., to Saint Joseph’s College in Standish, Maine, to become the school’s new online theology program director.

Ireland comes to Saint Joseph’s with a passion for lifelong learning, a professional background in higher education and five degrees, including three master’s degrees and a doctorate in theology. Before beginning her appointment at Saint Joseph’s in June, Ireland taught at Dominican College in Orangeburg, and was the director of humanities and coordinator of religious studies there.

“She brings to the programs a deep understanding of Catholic faith and a broad pastoral experience,” says her predecessor, Deacon Daniel Sheridan. “She is informed, committed, determined and faithful.”

Ireland earned her B.A. and M.A. at Boston College, her M.Div. at Andover Newton Theological School, and a M. Phil. and Ph.D. in theology from Drew University.

Online theology programs are growing in popularity, with more than 120 accredited programs in existence throughout the United States. Saint Joseph’s has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to distance learning, launching its initial program in 1976 – but, with Ireland’s help, the college aims to provide even more innovative learning opportunities.

“Online learning offers flexibility to adult learners, especially when their schedules and time commitments vary so widely,” says Ireland. “When online learning programs adhere to rigorous standards, like ours do, they help students develop critical thinking and communication skills.”

Her first initiative is to launch a new graduate theology certificate program that her predecessor designed.

“What’s exciting about this is that many people who do volunteer work in the church or work professionally need some theological background. Even if they’re teaching religion classes to children or working as administrative staff in the church, this gives them a post-bachelor’s professional certificate in six courses,” she says.

The graduate certificate classes all can be applied to the master’s program. “It’s kind of a stepping stone,” she says. “People who’ve been out of school a while can be a little leery of starting a master’s program. A certificate is manageable.”

Saint Joseph’s online program may soon offer a second master’s degree in sacred theology as a complement to the well-established master’s in pastoral theology. “A degree in sacred theology is very broad. It’s not as focused on ministry, but students could still use it in a ministry job. It would give students another choice,” says Ireland.

Whereas a pastoral theology degree affords students the opportunity to directly apply theological knowledge to various ministries, a sacred theology degree places the emphasis on theological study, with fewer ministry electives; thus it may appeal to those already in ministry or those who want to pursue a career in higher education. Both types of master’s degrees, however, provide a solid theological foundation for service to the Church and for doctoral work.

Ultimately, Ireland hopes to establish non-credit lectures, symposia, spiritual retreats and field trips around the country, as well.

“We could go to a monastery and we could talk about mystics in the Church, or we could visit New York City’s museums and churches for a symposium on Catholic theology in art and architecture,” she says. “It’s a way to keep our program fresh and our students interested.”

Beyond field trips and symposia, Ireland wants to explore the opportunity of service trips. She hopes to incorporate charity work into her programs curriculum, inspired by the spiritual mission of Mother Teresa.

“She reminds us that every sacrifice we make for others, even ones that seem very small, has an eternal significance for the good.”

by Alanna Conn