A true Catholic liberal arts education should be more than book learning. That’s one reason why Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., has added a series of medieval-style Catholic guilds to its program to help students learn skills from master craftsmen in areas from woodworking to homesteading.

The five guilds were introduced last fall, but they’re already proving not just popular, but productive.

Since joining the St. Luke Sacred Art Guild in the fall, freshman Liam Mitchell has found “things coming out of you that you didn’t know were there.” He chose this guild because he has always been interested in art and iconography.

Mitchell is becoming skilled at not only drawing and mixing egg tempera colors the traditional way, but also learning about St. John the Baptist in order to capture a certain expression for the icon he’s working on.

For freshman Elisabeth Rochon, the St. Joseph Woodworking Guild was a natural choice because she admires the way her father and several uncles work on wood, watching them for hours but never herself going “in Dad’s workshop.” She said, “This is a great opportunity to make things” on her own.

Students at the small college (there are about 80 students) can also become members of the St. Gregory Music Guild, St. Nicholas Baking Guild and St. Isidore Homesteading Guild. Thomas More College’s president, William Fahey, pointed out they can use the skills for themselves and also in countless ways for others, like baking bread for the homeless, making chairs or cribs for the needy, producing an icon for a local church or chapel and bringing music to hospitals and nursing homes.

In this way, the college is, in part, reviving the charitable spirit of guilds that served the Church and their local communities in the Middle Ages.

The overall idea is already in freshman Mitchell’s mind. With skills he’s acquiring, he plans to make icons for himself and his family.

“One that can go into a chapel is definitely a hope for the future,” he added.

Among the projected plans on board for the St. Joseph Woodworking Guild is a new altar, already in the design stage, for the college chapel. Students are learning from master woodworker Frank Jenkins, who owns Heirloom Woodwork in Hollis, N.H.

“The purpose is to introduce students to the world of woodworking and tools,” Jenkins explained. His goals are to teach them about the properties of wood and proper use and care of tools. Guild members get hands-on experience: for instance, what it’s like to use a fine hand plane or how to glue wood together properly.

“Someday, when the desk drawer falls apart, they’ll know how to fix it,” Jenkins said of the skills and concepts he’s teaching to “last the rest of their lives.”

One simple initial project they completed is a footstool everyone designed and worked on individually. Rochon applauds the apprentice method Jenkins uses, guiding each guild member individually to adapt the practical necessities to their designs.

Rochon looks ahead to apply what she’s learning. “I’d love to have a studio in the woodshop in the basement like my dad has and hopefully teach my child how to do things, too.”

There’s a solid basis for guilds being part of a liberal arts college.

Fahey points to Pope Benedict XVI’s writings on education.

“There’s a comment he makes in one of the talks in Europe: how the Greeks had forced the separation between studying and working with your hands, and it’s not typical of Jewish or Catholic tradition,” Fahey explained. “The Holy Father pointed out St. Paul, who was in the upper tier of his society and extremely educated, was a tentmaker. Our Lord was a teacher and a carpenter.”

And the whole Benedictine foundation of Christian education in Europe was to have a group of men who knew how to do practical things, Fahey continued. The Benedictines prayed, studied and worked.

Fahey also noted something that struck him one day while reading Aristotle’s Politics: “Something radical I never noticed before. He says if someone were to pursue a liberal arts education too exclusively, he would go insane. It would be bad for his health. He says a liberal arts education would blend in the useful and the mechanical arts — handcrafts, carpentry, painting, learning how to make things — so the person would be well-rounded.”

The guilds do not distract from academics, since they meet an hour or two weekly after classes.

Learning From the Roosters

Fahey also found it odd that people discussed the natural order and nature of man — but only in class. So another part of the guild program is to get people to engage the fullness of the created order.

“People coming back to the natural law and the natural order need to be engaged in that,” Fahey observed.

Fahey himself heads the St. Isidore Guild. Last fall, the students built a chicken coop and raised a dozen chickens to learn how to manage poultry for simple egg production.

He explained that spending time around a real rooster or chicken also helps a person understand in a richer way references in Scripture and literature. The Canterbury Tale of Chaucer about Chaunticleer is not as funny if you haven’t been around a real rooster. And if you have heard a rooster crowing, you have a deeper, richer understanding of the Passion account.

Fahey mentioned yet another goal. “There’s a sense of community within the guilds we’re trying to foster,” he said. “In Catholic language, it’s a way of expressing subsidiarity and solidarity. The structure is an effortless way to express the Catholic understanding of social teaching and order. What better way? Just reading about what solidarity and subsidiarity are? No, experiencing it.” Then intellectual reflection becomes even richer.

The guilds are envisioned to play a social role, too. They’re there to provide refreshment for students. And guilds will assume a role in student life and governance. For example, the St. Gregory Guild will be responsible, ultimately, for how certain feasts will be celebrated on campus musically. Guild members are learning both folk songs from different countries and liturgical chant, plus how to play an instrument like piano and guitar.

Starting with this freshman class, students will choose three different guilds to try during their first two years. Then having realized which appeals to their primary interests and talents, in junior year they will declare their guild, concentrate on it and move from apprenticeship to “more of a teaching role in the guild with bigger projects,” said director of admissions Mark Schwerdt, who also leads the St. Gregory Guild. “They’ll help the new students get a feel for the guild.”

“The guilds are slowly becoming part of our life and education here,” he noted. “As students identify with one of their guilds, we’re anticipating great fruits this semester.”

Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.