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Anna Maria grads honored without Victoria Kennedy

PAUL KAPTEYN/WORCESTER TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

Graduates lined up for the Anna Maria College commencement at the Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester.

WORCESTER - The Anna Maria College commencement Saturday morning had almost all the traditional trappings of a graduation ceremony.

“Pomp and Circumstance’’ accompanied a procession of black robes, as tassels switched sides on mortarboards and proud family members snapped photos of smiling graduates with camera phones.

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But one thing was noticeably absent: an invited speaker.

Two months after Bishop Robert J. McManus demanded that the college disinvited Victoria Reggie Kennedy from speaking at commencement, there was no mention of the controversy during the ceremony at The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in downtown Worcester, although many students later expressed criticism of the exclusion.

As Ashley Maryyanek, 21, of Boylston carried a polished frame holding the public service award she received during the ceremony, she said not having Kennedy as a speaker put a damper on her day.

“I feel very sorry that she’s not here today,’’ she said. “It would have been a great opportunity for her to speak.’’

McManus had pressured the small Catholic college - located in Paxton, west of Worcester - to rescind its offer to Kennedy, the widow of former US Senator Edward M. Kennedy. He told the national president of the Catholic Democrats that he believed Kennedy’s view on abortion, health care coverage for contraception, and gay rights made her an inappropriate choice for the college’s graduation.

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Kennedy will deliver the commencement speech at Boston College Law School on Friday. Spokesman Jack Dunn said the school was looking forward to her address.

She “practiced law for nearly 20 years and shares our graduates’ interests in public policy and their passion for social justice’’ he said.

Also missing from Anna Maria event was McManus himself, who was asked not to attend after administrators decided the bishop’s attendance would be a distraction. On Saturday, Paula Green, spokeswoman for Anna Maria, did not elaborate on his absence beyond a statement released by the college.

“Anna Maria College . . . decided to completely focus the attention of its 2012 Commencement activities on the achievements and accomplishments of the graduating students by inviting only members of the AMC campus community to participate in the events,’’ the statement said. “The bishop agreed that he didn’t want anything distracting from the significance of the ceremony for the students.’’

Instead of Kennedy, or any other outside speaker, end-of-term words of wisdom came from the school’s president, Jack P. Calareso, as well as two student speakers.

“Listen to your heart, remember your values, follow your beliefs, and practice your faith as you make decisions in life - even unpopular or difficult decisions, “ Calareso told the graduates.

Graduate student speaker Erin DeCoste spoke about embracing unexpected opportunities, while Julieann Hartley, the undergraduate speaker who won the award for academic excellence later in the program, talked about achieving balance between the joys and the challenges of life.

“As Anna Maria showed us, the reality is, there is so much about this world that is worth being passionate and working hard for,’’ Hartley said. “For every act of insult, there are a hundred kind words and whispers. . . .Each time our hearts hurt, they can open even wider.’’

As hundreds of students lined up along the side of the theater to receive their diplomas, laughter rang out each time an enthusiastic friend or family member let out a shrill “yahoo’’ or “you go, girl!’’

But, afterward, as students met up with family members, some said they were smarting over Kennedy’s absence.

Summa cum laude graduate Hector Perez, 31, of Worcester said he was so outraged about the Kennedy debacle, he had considered protesting outside Hanover Theatre before the ceremony.

He decided against that - mostly because his family members feared he would be barred - but he found a way to demonstrate his disapproval.

Stuck to his mortarboard was a yellow equal sign - a sign of support for gay marriage - and had written “MARRIAGE EQUALITY’’ in glittery rainbow letters.

“The school’s values promote social justice and human equality,’’ Perez said. “It was so hypocritical to remove their invitation because they don’t believe in something that the speaker supports privately.’’

He said the rescinded invitation was an embarrassment for the college, especially now that Kennedy will be speaking at Boston College.

“If it’s good enough for BC, why is it not good enough for a much smaller Jesuit school?’’ Perez said.

Maryyanek said she knew the pressure placed on the college to give Kennedy the cold shoulder had also upset many classmates.

But Deirdre Moran, 22, of Marlboro, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in sports management, disagreed. She appreciated not having an outside speaker at the ceremony.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,’’ Moran said. “It was nice that it was our day, just people from our school.’’

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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