Pages from thousands of books — from The Spirit of Catholicism to On the Banks of Plum Creek — litter the Lovettsville, Va., site where Margaret and David Mason's three-story home once stood.
The Masons and their 10 children lost all of their material possessions in an early-morning fire April 7. Among the missing was their phone book. Lacking her college friends’ telephone numbers, Margaret Mason told her neighbor, “Get ahold of Ba Carrescia so she can notify Thomas Aquinas College for prayers.”
Carrescia, a 1978 graduate and classmate of Margaret Mason, received the call at 7 a.m. and immediately let the college know.
Even after 26 years, the bonds that were first forged at the Santa Paula, Calif., school continue to bear fruit. It's a community that transcends class year, roommates or mere friendship. According to alumni, it happens all the time.
“From time to time tragedy arises among our alumni, and the very first act they often undertake is to call the school,” says Dave Shaneyfelt, the college's director of development. “Within 24 hours the first call is made here so the campus can pray. We have Masses said and a prayer request is posted on a bulletin board in the college's commons.”
“I'm familiar with two instances where alumni families have gone through a particular health crisis,” Shaneyfelt adds. “Alumni brought meals, collected money, did grocery shopping and watched their children.”
When one of 1978 graduate Pip Donahoe's former roommates unexpectedly lost her son two years ago, Donahoe spearheaded an effort among the class’ 15 women to send the mother, who liked tea, a teacup each month.
“Most Thomas Aquinas College graduates have big families and they don't have a lot of money for china,” Donahoe explains. “Another classmate said that even though the teacup was a material thing, it did help.”
In the case of the Masons, an entire network has sprouted to provide the family with the materials things they lost in the fire, such as their large collection of books, home-schooling materials and classical music. Carrescia of Ashburn, Va., has been organizing dinners through two nearby local Catholic parishes. Nearby friends, neighbors and members of their parish, St. Andrew the Apostle in Clifton, Va., have also provided meals, furniture and financial contributions.
The family was able to purchase a temporary home through financial donations. They plan to live there while their home is being rebuilt.
Meanwhile Thomas Aquinas College graduate John Mortensen and his wife, Beth, have headed up an effort to replace the Masons’ 10,000-volume library. Even more extraordinary is that neither of the Mortensens knows the Masons personally, and they are organizing the effort from where they live — in Austria. They heard about the fire through a mutual friend in Boise, Idaho. The idea to rebuild the Masons’ book collection came from Beth Mortensen.
“What inspired the effort was that I have often thought that if we lost all our belongings, the books would be the hardest loss to recover,” she says. “Any lover of books would understand what a loss of a library is, especially one full of out-of-print and rare books. These books are hard to find, but they are also the books that are on bookshelves and in attics of Catholic families around the country.”
The Mortensens have created an online database (http://www.masonfamilybooks.net) that will keep track of the Masons’ book lists and which books have been donated to the family.
“Our library was the loss that we felt the most,” David Mason said. “A lot of the books we had were out of print.”
Thankfully, the Masons were able to reconstruct their book list, based, in part, on their eldest daughter's recent college application to Thomas Aquinas College. As part of her application, Sophia Mason had compiled a list of the books she had read through high school and was able to get a copy of her application. A national merit scholar, she's been accepted but plans to postpone attending for a year in order to help her family recover from the fire.
“We used that list to form the core of the books that we had lost,” David Mason says. Despite the loss, he feels blessed his entire family made it out of the home safely.
“All we lost were just things,” he adds. “My wife's mother died two days after the fire and she commented that she didn't take anything with her. Certainly there are those things that can be replaced. Some that cannot are aids in acquiring the virtue of detachment.”
Carrescia says Thomas Aquinas’ size and approach to education foster a genuine concern for fellow graduates.
“It's a very small community, and in seminars there are 10 to 15 people having conversations all day long. You're growing in faith and knowledge all together, all the time, so you become bonded in that,” Carrescia says. “It's that kind of place.”
Students at Thomas Aquinas spend four years studying the same curriculum and wrestling with ideas from the same texts — the great books.
“The personal choices of daily prayer, receiving the sacraments often and striving to pursue a virtuous life are freely chosen and the norm among students,” says Karen Walker, a graduate and now director of public relations. “When there is a purposely planned full capacity of about 350 students, how alumni act toward one another is merely an extension of what is practiced spontaneously and freely at the college.”
Shaneyfelt, himself a graduate and classmate of Margaret Mason, agrees.
“Before I worked for the college, I could travel the country with an alumni directory and always have a place to stay and a meal to eat,” says Shaneyfelt, who has worked at the college since 1997.
Although himself not a graduate, David Mason says Thomas Aquinas is remarkable for its small size as well as the shared identity of the students.
“The common bonds forged there are spiritual and therefore enduring,” he says. “They are centered around lifelong, and even eternal, things — so they don't tend to fade.”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.