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LEWISTON – As a little boy, the Rev. James J. Maher used to travel to Niagara University from New Jersey to drop off his big brother for the start of the semester.

Now, decades later, Maher is coming back, but this time as the next president of Niagara.

Maher, 52, executive vice president for mission and student services at St. John’s University, was announced Wednesday as the 26th president of Niagara and successor to the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, who is stepping down at the end of the semester.

The transition will take place Aug. 1.

“I remember coming here as a little boy when the Buffalo Bills used to train here, back where the fitness center is right now,” Maher said Wednesday.

“It sort of planted the seed that this is really a special place,” he said. “In this life – in the priesthood and the Vincentian life – you can be taken in a number of different venues, but I happen to think maybe it’s God’s hand that I ended up back here.”

Maher was introduced to the campus Wednesday in the Castellani Art Museum. He said he will lay out his vision for Niagara eventually but first wants the chance to hear from the university community.

“Father Levesque has done a wonderful job as president for 13 years, so I’m really coming into a situation where the university is in very good shape,” he said. “There’s a great administrative team. There’s wonderful faculty. We have great academic programs.”

Part of his job, he said, will be to build on those academics and tell the story of Niagara to the rest of the world to attract faculty and students.

“There’s no greater gift than being able to work with young people and help them grow and develop and actualize their potential and make a contribution in the world,” Maher said. “That’s what’s really most rewarding about this work, and that’s what’s most exciting to me as president.”

Niagara – which announced Levesque’s resignation in January – wasted no time in naming a successor and didn’t have to look very far.

Maher has spent nearly three years as a member of the university’s board of trustees.

“We have a bunch of talented young Vincentians on our board,” said Jeffrey Holzschuh, chairman of Niagara’s board of trustees. “It’s clearly a way for our trustees and others to evaluate the talents of these individuals.”

In fact, the board actually began a presidential succession plan more than a year ago and discussed the characteristics it wanted in a new president, Holzschuh said. When it became clear that having another Vincentian leader was a priority, Maher rose to the top of the list of candidates, he said.

Holzschuh cited Maher’s leadership, energy, management skills and focus on students.

“We are extremely confident that this man will continue to move Niagara forward, building upon the strong foundation laid by Father Levesque,” Holzschuh said.

Maher is a native of Maywood, N.J. His brother, the Rev. John Maher, is a 1976 Niagara graduate and worked on campus in several capacities from 2005 to 2011.

Maher, meanwhile, graduated from St. John’s in 1984, but lived on Niagara’s auxiliary campus for a year in the mid-1980s as a member of the Vincentian Service Corps.

He received his master of divinity degree in 1989 and a master’s degree in theology in 1990 from Mary Immaculate Seminary in Northampton, Pa., where he was ordained to the priesthood May 26, 1990.

In 2004, Maher was granted a doctorate of ministry by Immaculate Conception Seminary and Graduate School of Theology.

Maher began his career at St. John’s in 1990. During his tenure, Maher has served as campus minister to the athletics department; vice president of university ministry; and vice president of student affairs. He was appointed executive vice president for mission and student services in 2011.

“Following Father Levesque is not an easy thing to do, and I think Jim could do it,” said Robert Mangione, provost at St. John’s.

Maher – who taught at St. John’s, as well – is a scholar who cares about delivering quality academic programs and respects the faculty perspective, Mangione said.

Not only does he have a strong character, but he shows a tremendous empathy for others, Mangione added.

“You’re getting a great president,” Mangione said. “I’m just so happy for him – but I’m really going to miss him.”

Levesque will step down as president at the end of the current academic year but will remain on campus with the title of president emeritus.

Maher and Levesque have known each other for more than 20 years, and Maher said he looks forward to seeking out Levesque’s advice and wisdom.

Maher said he will finish up at St. John’s in June, then rest up for a few weeks so he can hit the ground running when he starts at Niagara.

email: jrey@buffnews.com