Syracuse University Builds Sacred Stone Circle for Pagan Students

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In 2010 Syracuse University’s Henricks Chapel formally appointed a Pagan Chaplain, making Syracuse the second American university to appoint such a position.  The University of Southern Maine (UME) set the precedent way back in 2002.  Syracuse was next in 2010 followed by the Air Force Academy (USAFA) in 2011.  More than three years have passed since Syracuse welcomed Pagan Chaplain, Mary Hudson.  In that time she has accomplished much; most recently, the installation of a dedicated  sacred stone circle in the campus’ main quad.

Syracuse University  Photo Courtesy of Flickr's  rju92

Syracuse University
Photo Courtesy of Flickr’s rju92

Prior to 2010 Syracuse had already taken steps to advocate for religious plurality and tolerance. For example, The Student Pagan Information Relations and Learning (SPIRAL) was a recognized and active student-run group for whom Mary was the advisor. While working for the school’s IT department, Mary assisted Pagan students and was frequently asked to guest-lecture in mythology and religion classes.


Mary Hudson

Ironically, in 2009, Mary had made a personal decision to leave university life completely. She recalls:

I was worried what would happen [to the Pagan students] once I left the University. As it happens, the universe…gods…guides…ancestors…or…whatever had different plans. The Chaplaincy was [established] and recognized with myself appointed to be the Pagan Chaplain.

Tiffany Steinwert, Dean of Henricks Chapel, explains that having a Pagan Chaplain was “crucial to fulfilling their mission,” which reads:

Hendricks Chapel is the diverse religious, spiritual, ethical and cultural heart of Syracuse University that connects people of all faiths and no faith through active engagement, mutual dialogue, reflective spirituality, responsible leadership and a rigorous commitment to social justice.

Dean Tiffany Steinwert

Dean Tiffany Steinwert

Just recognizing SPIRAL wasn’t enough.  Dean Steinwert stressed Syracuse’s commitment to religious equality.  For that reason alone, all Pagan religions and their chaplain had to be “listed in a normative way.”

Over the past three years the response to the Pagan Chaplaincy has been mostly positive.  Although there were some initial grumbles from the community, they were, as Dean Steinwert says, “low impact.”  She describes the majority of reactions as “Huh? Pagan?” In her mind this confusion opens a doorway to facilitate greater religious literacy.  It presents a teaching moment. Mary notes:

I’ve had the sign [taken] off my bulletin board… I get the occasional hate mail or email… I had a death threat or two in the beginning but nothing like that since then. I’ve talked with many a person to educate them that Pagans aren’t evil devil worshipers. Some believe me; some don’t but that is for them to decide not me. On occasion I get a cold shoulder from a visiting guest but it is due to their ignorance and fear….”

Despite any backlash, the Chapel and its staff have remained committed to their mission. Mary says, “I have met some of the most incredibly amazing individuals of faith you could possibly imagine and been welcomed with open arms.”

This dedication to religious pluralism extends way beyond the Chapel walls to the University administration itself. Mary explains:

The Pagan Chaplaincy was the only [one] that did not have dedicated religious space on campus. I submitted a proposal several years ago…but that was prior to the Pagan Chaplaincy being recognized. About a year ago I was asked to resubmit the proposal.

When Dean Steinwert sent the proposal to the Design and Construction team, she expected objections and concerns. Instead she got positive feedback and questions focusing solely on religious sensitivity issues such as: Would Mary have to lay the stones? What types of stones would be needed? Did the stones need to be specially blessed?

The project was approved with relative ease.  On October 14, the school installed four permanent altar stones in the main quad, each representing the cardinal directions.  Coincidentally, while the stones were laid, a Native American Student group happened to be performing a ceremonial dance across the quad. Mary says,“[This] is a true symbol of the dedication that the University has to supporting all people in a diverse world.”

Syracuse University's Stone Circle

Syracuse University’s Stone Circle

Syracuse is not the first educational institution to approve a sacred space for Pagan practice. The United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) created its Falcon Circle in 2011.  After much backlash and media hype over the $51,484 price tag, the USAFA Public Affairs department released this a statement:

The Cadet Chapel that now houses Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist worship areas cost $3.5 million to build — in 1959. That would be more than $25 million in today’s dollars, or enough to build 500 Falcon Circles.

Chaplain (Col.) Robert Bruno, the Academy’s senior chaplain, was quoted as saying:

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion does not just apply to the mainstream faith groups, e.g., Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Orthodox (or) Muslim…It also applies to atheists, secularists, freethinkers and those whose belief systems are usually classified under the umbrella term of ‘Earth-Centered Spirituality….A denial of constitutional rights to one threatens the constitutional rights of all.

Since 2010 both USAFA’s and Syracuse’s inclusivity policies have made national headlines due to both schools’ prominence. This visibility has undoubtedly helped expand the public discourse on Pagan Chaplaincy and Paganism in general.

Cynthia Jane Collins

Cynthia Jane Collins

To be fair, it was a much smaller school that paved the way. In 2002 Cynthia Jane Collins became the first Pagan Chaplain at the University of Southern Maine (UME) in Portland.  She was recruited to assist Pagan students work through their 9/11 grief.  Cynthia resigned in 2013 handing the position over to a trusted Pagan colleague. Of the eleven years at UME, she recalls:

Seeing people of religion and faith work together for the good of all was inspiring…Everything was not easy, simple or even resolved the thing I think that held us together, and hold chaplaincies in any area together, is the commitment of folk to know other folk.

Outside of the United States, there are several universities with Pagan chaplaincies. These include Aston University and the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom. The University of Toronto has both Wiccan Chaplain and a Celtic & Recon Tradition Chaplain. Both the University of Victoria in Canada and Flinders University in Australia have had Pagan Chaplains in recent years. (Why they no longer do is still being investigated.)*

Why are there so few Pagan Chaplains in general? Is it fear of backlash or an age-old prejudice?  Mary believes the answer is far simpler.  She says, “Most institutions don’t think about Pagans, or at least haven’t in the past.  [They don’t] understand that there might be a need.”  This may change as highly visible institutions like Syracuse and USAFA continue to recognize Paganism through the support of Chaplaincies and sacred space.

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary Hudson preparing an altar

Mary has described the past three years as “the greatest experience of her life”- one that she “would never have imagined possible fifteen years ago.” She recalls:

Something a little odd has happened as well with non-Pagan students, faculty and staff…As a Pagan, I’m often the “safe” Chaplain to talk to about hard issues. I have conversations start with “I’m (insert faith tradition) and I don’t want to change, but I want to talk about (insert topic causing crisis in faith) and I thought you would be safe. I don’t want to talk dogma, I just want to talk.”

Syracuse’ Pagan Chaplaincy has come a long way in three years.  Mary currently continues to assist Pagan students on a daily basis, to interface with other schools, including the USAFA, and to represent Syracuse and Paganism at national and international Chaplaincy events.  Mary adds:

Most of the time people have no idea how much of an impact they can make in the world around them. It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make that impact, it can be little things.

Sometimes those little things can add up to make one big thing.


* Update (11/24 3:45 PST): Flinders University has confirmed that they do still have a Pagan Chaplain.