William Thierfelder lived most of his early adulthood on the sports stage. Twice in the early 1980s, he earned All-America status as a high-jumper at the University of Maryland. In 1983, thanks to his Irish ancestry, he qualified for and became Ireland’s national champion in that event.
From there the 6-foot-8-inch jock of all trades (he’s a licensed psychologist whose doctorate is in sports psychology and human movement) went on to forge a diverse career in athletic-related enterprises — coaching, speaking, running one of the nation’s largest sports-medicine and physical-rehabilitation conferences and operating a representation company for pro athletes. Until a few years ago he was president of York Barbell Company.
Then, in 2003, he saw a classified ad in the National Catholic Register. It was a “position available” announcement seeking candidates for the presidency of Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine liberal-arts college that’s faithful to the magisterium, in Belmont, N.C. The rest is history in the making. Thierfelder spoke with Register correspondent Anthony Flott.
Tell me a bit about your family.
I grew up in New York, born in Manhattan but raised in the Bronx. Three sisters and a very devout Catholic family. All my life, the central part of our family life was around the Church and around the parish. Daily Mass wasn’t unusual. The Rosary. My grandparents were born in Ireland, three of them. They also had a very strong, devout faith. I had the Irish grandmothers who always prayed a Rosary. My dad and two of my uncles were in the seminary in Dunwoody. At that time, it seemed that people would test to discern if that was a calling for them, and I guess he decided it wasn’t. My dad was vice president of the New York Yankees in the late ‘60s. He was a very smart individual and a voracious reader. We had a religious library like you wouldn’t believe, and we were encouraged to read the lives of the saints and other Catholic works.
What was your faith life like while in college?
As I moved along, through the grace of God, it got stronger and stronger. There were a couple of rough times, and I remember the first thing I did was go to church, sit down in front of the Blessed Sacrament and pray. It’s been something that’s sort of like spring training for the soul. Over time it just gets deeper and stronger.
What did you learn by leading York Barbell to success that you have been able to put to use at Belmont Abbey?
Almost everything. Sometimes you go through these things in life and you wonder, “Why is God taking me in this direction?” Every experience I have had prepared me to do this. From being a psychologist to my faith background to being expected to run a business when I’m not a business major. Giving more than 800 presentations, many on the national level and many on TV and radio. All the things a president needs to do, especially at a Catholic college.
The industries are so vastly different — sports manufacturing and higher education. Were you worried about the switch?
No, because I trust in divine providence. I would not have come here for any other reason than I absolutely believe this is the place where God wants me to be. We’re expecting child No. 10. With a family that size, you don’t just pick up and move without good reason. We prayed on it and God showed us, step by step, that it was the right thing to do.
Has your family been happy with the move?
They love it. One of the things about the Benedictine Order is they clothe guests in persona Christi. Immediately when you come here you are just loved. You are welcomed in. It’s like your family right from the start. It almost throws you off, these people love you so much right away. It’s been wonderful. Mary and I are both oblates of the monastery here. I feel like I have been here all my life, I was meant to be here all my life, and I’m only going through my third year. I love the place. I’m in this office and I feel God’s presence so clearly.
What’s so special about Belmont Abbey College?
Jesus Christ is the center of it. Next, I’d say the monastic community. Third, you have a community that truly does clothe each person in Christ. And four, our faculty are true teachers. Catholics 15 years ago were half of 1% of the entire population in this part of the country. We’re in the most Protestant state in the Union. It’s really a place to evangelize in many ways, and this school has done that. We attract many non-Catholics and they get experience of Catholics because of the Benedictine hospitality. They’re really sold on that and they see its connection with our loyalty to the Church and to the teachings of the magisterium. Over time, you see that there are many conversions.
Is there a foremost goal for Belmont that you’re pursuing?
One, to be nationally recognized as an authentic Catholic college. The reason I say nationally recognized is that this is a very quiet place, and I want the world to know about Belmont Abbey College; I want people to know this is a place of solid faith and we are seeking the truth here. The second thing is I want us to be nationally recognized as an academically select college. Third, I want us to be nationally recognized for our athletic virtue and excellence. Belmont Abbey is one of those schools that a lot of people just don’t know about. It’s got the most beautiful basilica you’ve ever seen. Gothic. Brick. The clay was dug by the monks, formed into bricks and placed here 130 years ago. We have this beautiful, scenic campus that’s only 12 miles from downtown Charlotte. I don’t know of any place that has anything close to it.
What is the greatest challenge to college students today?
The secular, relativistic, humanistic culture we live in. It’s insidious. What I find is that, although we have many strong students who come in with good formation, a lot of students arrive with little or no formation. One of the greatest challenges is that it’s very difficult to change when you don’t know when there’s a problem. With a lot of students, you have 18 years of development and then the college is going to somehow make up for 18 years of not being properly formed in the faith? It’s a tremendous challenge — and one we’re really excited to take on.
Anthony Flott writes from