Christendom College started with just five teachers, barely more than two dozen students, and a whole lot of faith.
Today, 40 years later, Christendom has grown to more than 700 total undergraduate and graduate students, put roots down in its own 200-acre campus in Front Royal, Virginia, and built its reputation as a solid bulwark of faithfully Catholic colleges.
“Forty is a good biblical number. Forty days on Mount Sinai. Forty years in the desert — or 40 days in the desert for Our Lord,” said Timothy O’Donnell, Christendom’s president since 1992. “Forty keeps popping up all the time. So it is a good time to kind of look back in order to look forward.”
For alumna Karla Kuykendall Hester, the 40th anniversary also marks a personal milestone: As a member of the Class of 1999, it coincides with the year she and her classmates are turning 40. “It is as if God put in place this wonderful blessing of Christendom College the same year as our birth, knowing that one day we would partake in the best experience of our lives,” Hester said in an email to the Register.
Christendom will celebrate its anniversary throughout the year, culminating in a VIP-studded gala next April that will feature Vice President Mike Pence (invited), former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and Cardinal Francis Arinze, a former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, as well as the Archduke Imre and Archduchess Kathleen of Austria.
“It’s a celebration that shows what can happen when you go forward with faith and try to be faithful to the Catholic tradition,” O’Donnell said.
Christendom College is ultimately the product of the vision of Warren Carroll, a historian who was its founding president.
Carroll would go on to write a six-volume history of Christendom. (The term “Christendom” normally applies to the civilization that arose in Europe in the Middle Ages, after the fall of the Roman Empire.)
It was his appreciation of the Gospel-centered virtues of historic Christendom that shaped his vision for the college, according to his wife, Anne. “That was the idea: Let’s make this Catholic society here and now, a microcosm — and who knows where God will take it?” Carroll said. (Her husband died in 2011.)
“There was an effort by a number of great heroes in the past to try to build a society where the Gospel was taken seriously. It became a leaven in society,” O’Donnell added. “The name reminds us of the reign of Christ.”
Christendom College aims to serve the New Evangelization by forming its students intellectually and morally through a traditional liberal arts curriculum in which Catholic theology and philosophy hold a special place of eminence, according to O’Donnell. The goal is to send out its graduates into the broader world to live out their faith in whatever profession they choose, O’Donnell said. (The college is highlighted annually in the Register’s “Catholic Identity College Guide.” )
“When St. John Paul came out with his Ex Corde Ecclesia document, it was enormous vindication of that original vision of Dr. Carroll: of going back and trying to create a college that is really consecrated in a special way to the truth, both natural and supernatural,” O’Donnell said.
But, in the beginning, Christendom was so small it didn’t even have its own campus. It rented a former parish school and bused students to and from small apartments originally intended for Marines at the nearby base at Quantico. The bus driver was a student. Other students moonlighted as college staffers — filling any position not held by their five professors, who doubled as administrators, according to Kris Burns, who was among the founding faculty.
“It was pretty primitive,” Burns said. “The only way to get more primitive is if we were in tents.”
Such a humble start proved a boon. “This was one of the reasons that it was a success — that we were a very close-knit group and very unified, as far as the vision goes,” Burns said. Carroll had said he would start the school if he got at least 25 students: He launched with one more than his minimum and $50,000 in the bank, according to O’Donnell.
These days, Burns rarely thinks back to the early days. “But if I do, it’s surprising how far we’ve come,” she said.
Today, Christendom is a fixture among the small but growing coterie of colleges that promote their Catholic identity.
“In times of great uncertainty for the Church, Christendom College has been a ‘sure thing’ for faithful Catholic families. Christendom has distinguished itself by its steadfast fidelity to the truth of Catholic teaching and its emphasis on personal formation is unique in contemporary higher education,” said Patrick Reilly, the president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which promotes authentically Catholic colleges.
“As the first one of my family to attend Christendom, I had no idea how special this place was until I first set foot on campus. It was love at first sight,” senior Chloe Herrmann, a history major from New York, who serves as the student body president, said in an email. “Since then, I’ve tried to avail myself of everything the college has to offer, whether it’s daily Mass in the chapel, sitting with the professors at lunchtime, praying with the entire student body at the March for Life, or studying abroad with the college’s programs in both Ireland and Rome.”
Christendom has inspired other lay Catholics to follow suit elsewhere in the country and beyond. In the 1990s, the founding board members of what would later become Campion College in Australia visited Christendom. The founding president of Wyoming Catholic College, Father Robert Cook, a parish priest of the Diocese of Cheyenne, also toured the campus, according to O’Donnell.
In the beginning, Christendom was radical because it was orthodox, according to O’Donnell. That is because at the time many Catholic colleges were enveloped in the secular chaos of the 1960s and 1970s, fueled by a revolutionary document known as the “Land O’ Lakes Statement.” Christendom was also distinctive because it represented the effort of lay Catholics, in contrast to the past practice of having Catholic colleges founded by dioceses and religious orders.
Forty years later, the undertaking has borne fruit.
“Just look at Christendom’s graduates if you want evidence of the college’s success. They represent the educated Catholic laity that Blessed John Henry Newman famously yearned for: not rash or arrogant, knowledgeable of their faith and prepared to defend it, and able to solve the most difficult problems because they have been taught to think and communicate well,” Reilly said.
Christendom has yielded 80 ordained priests, 50 to 60 religious vocations for women, and about 400 marriages among couples who met at the college. Plus, there are more than 25 Christendom graduates in seminary that could boost the number of ordinations over 100, according to O’Donnell.
“I feel like we’re tithing back to the Lord,” he said.
Hester, who lives near Dallas with her husband, Timothy, is among those who can trace their marriages back to Christendom.
“While many married couples met in college, it is a different experience meeting at Christendom and going on to get married. Both individuals understand the dynamic of a small school and true friendships. These are the types of friendships that are truly life-changing, enduring and a huge support mechanism. So the 40th anniversary, to me, makes me think of just how many marriages have come to be, how many children have come to be, and how many supportive friendships have bloomed for the last 40 years all because one man said, ‘Yes’ to God’s call to start the college. It is truly a miracle when you think about it,” she said.
Herrmann added, “For me, Christendom’s 40th anniversary is a symbol of hope. That such a small school could make such an impact over the course of 40 years is truly remarkable.”
Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.
40th Anniversary Events
The anniversary celebration began Sept. 9 with an academic convocation, dinner and fireworks. It included the presentation of several awards that are normally reserved for commencement. They are: an honorary doctorate to Catholic scholar and Jesuit Father James Schall; the “St. Catherine of Siena Award” to Mother Assumpta Long, the founder of the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist; and the Pro Deo et Patria medal to pro-life activists Joan and Chris Bell.
Other anniversary events include a series of speeches: Sept. 18, Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer, the former president of Gonzaga College; Feb. 5, 2018, Janet Smith, a writer on Catholic sexual morality; and Feb. 26, Thomas More College professor Anthony Esolen, a Dante scholar.
The 40th Anniversary Gala is set for April 14 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.