Founders of new four-year college are big on faith and reason

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas—The first spring registration has begun at Our Lady of Corpus Christi, a new four-year Catholic liberal arts college and the product of a match between a religious order with a vision for higher education and a diocese looking to lower its overhead by divesting a 21-acre piece of property.

The gift deed of the campus, originally a Benedictine boys high school and more recently a diocesan retreat center valued at about $2 million, was signed last summer by Bishop Robert Gonzalez of the Corpus Christi Diocese. The complete campus, which includes residence halls among its eight buildings, has been one of many signs of favor from Our Lady on the new institution, said co-founder and college President Father James Kelleher, 45, a priest of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity (SOLT).

Another heavenly favor, he said, is the academic talent helping to start the college, including renowned scholar and spiritual writer Dr. Ronda Chervin, who will be teaching ethics, logic, epistemology, medieval philosophy, and English composition this spring. Also on faculty will be Father Herman Reith CSC, former chairman of philosophy at Notre Dame and a major Thomistic philosopher; and Dr. Michael Meaney, also a former Notre Dame professor, and a graduate of the Institute Catolique in Paris.

“I think you could say the hand of God has been on this project, and the intercession of Our Lady has been very powerful,” said Father Kelleher, who began developing the idea several years ago under the inspiration of SOLT founder Father James Flanagan, who heads the order from Robstown, near Corpus Christi.

Father Kelleher also credits the successful launching to the college's six special patrons: Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Maximilian Kolbe, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Francis Xavier, Mother Cabrini, and Blessed Juan Diego.

Our Lady of Corpus Christi co-founder Father Anthony Anderson SOLT, who serves as academic dean, recalled a conversation with Father Flanagan years ago about the need for a revival of orthodox Catholic higher education. In that discussion, Father Flanagan shared his vision of “a litany of universities named after Our Lady.”

“I thought to myself, ‘That's beautiful. I wonder what generation that's going to happen in,’” said the 35-year-old Father Anderson. “It's actually happening in this generation.”

The core curriculum of the school will be similar to that of other Catholic “Great Books” programs—offering majors in theology, philosophy, English, Spanish, and history, said the priests. In addition, the school will seek to fully integrate the academic and spiritual lives of the students through such means as daily Mass, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, frequent confession, and the rosary.

“We want to form the whole person, the will and the heart as well as the intellect,” said Father Anderson. “We are excited about the faith, and we want our students to be excited about the faith. We want students praying on campus.”

He said the goal of the school will be to respond to the opening words in Pope John Paul II's recent encyclical, Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason): “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”

The missionary spirit of the Society of Our Lady will also be lived out at the college, as students partake in summer trips to one of 10 missions operated by the order throughout Latin America, Thailand, the Philippines, England, and Papua New Guinea.

“It's a school by missionaries for missionaries,” said Father Anderson, but at the same time, “it's a liberal arts college, not a school of catechism.”

Another component will be 10 hours of work study for students, who will then be able to apply $2,000 “credit” against their school expenses, according to Father Kelleher.

“Father Flanagan wants every student at the college working. He thinks it's good for them,” he said. “And I agree. I think it really gives people a sense of ownership.”

For lay people with an interest in business, the college will also feature a special five-course program that will consist of teams of two to six people who will form a business plan, develop an accounting system, obtain funding, and then actually launch a business after their junior or senior year, said Father Kelleher.

Father Anderson said ultimately he believes the school will flourish because of its “founding mother,” the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, established by Father Flanagan of Boston in 1958. Its mission, to evangelize all the world's people and their nations, is lived out by “ecclesial teams” consisting of missionary priests, sisters, and lay people under the discipleship of Jesus and Mary who seek to help those with the deepest apostolic need.

The order has formation centers in the United States and the Philippines and consists of about 100 priests, 55 sisters, 80 seminarians, and 600 or more lay people, said Father Kelleher. About 10 new priests are being ordained each year, he said.

Because of the suddenness of the gift-deed last summer, the school's first students last semester consisted of 10 seminarians and candidates from the Society of Our Lady who came to study philosophy, as well as to prepare the facility for its opening to lay men and women this month.

Brother Mark Ropel, who had just completed two years of the novitiate with the Society in New Mexico, said he appreciated the small classes and individual attention of the teachers. A former high school teacher with a master's degree in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Brother Ropel said he has come to see the importance of the study of philosophy for his vocation. “(The classes) really opened me up to the need for philosophy. With a lot of people, you can't argue with religion. You have to approach them with reason.”

Our Lady of Corpus Christi has enrolled at least more 10 students this spring, and hopes to add 30 to 50 new students each year over the next five years until the student body is up to 200 to 250, said Father Kelleher. Once it reaches 500, it will be time “for Father Flanagan's second college,” he said.

While the college works toward full accreditation, degrees will be granted from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Other colleges have also agreed to accept transfer credits from Our Lady of Corpus Christi.

The students who will come to the college will be expected to be serious about their studies and about their faith, but will not necessarily need the academic credentials required by a Harvard or a Notre Dame, Father Anderson said.

“We're just going to deal with people very personally,” he said. “Notre Dame started in a log cabin, and they just took anybody in the neighborhood.

“We are about changing civilization and changing the culture. You can do that with the anawim, the little folks,” he said.

The founders want to make financial assistance available for most students, and they hope people will step forward with contributions to make that possible.

“At the college of Our Lady of Corpus Christi we walk in the providence of God,” said Father Kelleher. “The Lord inspires people to send us money. That's how we keep going.”

Anderson said he has been encouraged by Bishop Gonzalez’ support for the fledgling college.

“He's impressed. The other thing is he's really trusting (us), and trusting our Lord,” he said. “He sees the importance of this for South Texas.”

But in addition to being a school for the region, the college—like the order that founded it—has an “international vision,” said Father Anderson. Next fall the college hopes to enroll students from the Society's mission high school in Belize.

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.