Southern Catholic College, Georgia’s sole Catholic institution of higher learning, became a Legion of Christ school in July. After finalizing the deal, the school’s founding president, Jeremiah Ashcroft, retired, and a new president took over.
He is Legionary Father Shawn Aaron, a man educated in Rome. He transferred from California to the college’s western Georgia site in August — and one month later, tragedy struck: A popular senior drowned.
“It was one of those moments that brought everybody together quickly,” Father Aaron said. “There’s no instruction book for those kinds of things, but that’s the beauty of our faith. Death is a reality that we don’t like to think about but that once in a while Our Lord makes us think about so that we keep things in perspective.”
He said that Kevin Sinott, the student who died, came from a strong Catholic family in Ireland: “They came here and did a phenomenal job of witnessing to the faith for the students, especially his mother, who was a pillar of faith in that trying time.”
The tragedy cemented Father Aaron’s reputation as a pastoral priest.
“In a very short time, Father Aaron has become a strong spiritual leader and a pastor,” said Aaron Urbanczyk, professor of English and philosophy. “He is present to our students. He has been a great blessing for us.”
Junior business major Kelly DeCastra, a student supervisor of residential assistants who hails from Evansville, Ind., says fellow students agree with her assessment that Father Aaron has proven to be genuine and humble.
“He wants what’s best for the school and the students,” DeCastra said. “He arrives early and stays late, and you can always find Father Shawn interacting with the students.”
Paul Thigpen, professor of sacred theology, noticed the same sort of pastoral concern in the new president.
“What impresses me most about him is that he has a pastor’s heart,” Thigpen said. “It is very clear to the students that he is warm and approachable, a man who has their welfare in mind. He’s an excellent teacher and homilist.”
Southern Catholic needs that kind of leadership, since it is expected to grow rapidly under Legion of Christ tutelage. The school utilizes 10 of its 91 acres in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and has the capacity to house and instruct 360 students as presently configured. Father Aaron expects to reach that capacity in five years, at most. First, however, he will have to face another major hurdle.
“There were some financial challenges right off the bat,” the president said. “The school is only five years old, and in order to pull in students, it had to provide a number of scholarships. You can only sustain that for so long. The board is looking to the Legion now to take it to the next step.”
Eventually, Southern Catholic may have a student population of 750 to 1,000, although no actual goal has been set. Father Aaron also sees other changes coming. He sits on the boards of trustees of Catholic elementary schools and high schools and sees the need for teachers who are “great in communicating the faith and great in communicating on the intellectual side and are also witnesses,” so he hopes to establish a school of education.
“I think that’s something we can contribute to society and the Church. What more noble vocation could there be than to be a teacher? For me, that’s like being a priest, and one must live it with a passion and a zeal,” Father Aaron said.
Father Aaron listed four other ultimate goals for the school:
• Be financially viable and stable.
• Provide a strong core curriculum that will equip students to think and seek the truth as they enter their academic major studies.
• Partner with the Institute of Psychological Sciences to offer a Catholic counseling major.
• Offer a graduate program.
One change Father Aaron has already implemented, along with the new chaplain, Legionary Father Juan Gabriel Guerra, is a campus ministry program. According to the vice president for student affairs, Carol Evanco, the president is “student-centric.”
“He has brought a really inspirational new leadership to us and endless energy,” Evanco said.
One result of that energy was a Nov. 14 exercise in student awareness and outreach. Students set up a camp, with cardboard boxes for shelter and 50-gallon drums for heat, to replicate the life of homeless persons.
“They got to feel what it’s like to be homeless,” Evanco said.
The students followed up the experience with their normal outreach ministries, including such duties as cleaning churches, planting trees, working in thrift stores and helping out at libraries.
Limitations or Opportunities?
Father Aaron has no terminal academic degree and no administrative experience at the higher education level. That doesn’t bother him in his new role, and it apparently doesn’t bother the Ph.D.s who work for him.
Urbanczyk, of the English department, said that the new president brings more than paper credentials to the job.
“He’s a devout and learned community leader and brings many gifts that we need to our institution,” he said.
The president himself acknowledges his weak points, and he admits that not every teacher at the school is entirely happy with a president who doesn’t have the title doctor, but he also sees advantages to his selection.
“A wise priest once told me that God allows us to have limitations so that we can have teams,” he commented. “My inexperience forces me to form a strong team. And also on the upside, I come with no preconceived notions about the college and have spent most of this first semester observing and getting a feel for the needs of the school. I ask a lot of questions.”
Others have questions about the small college struggling to succeed as a truly Catholic institution, but the future of Southern Catholic College under Father Aaron seems as bright as the sparkling water of nearby Amicalola Falls.
Paul A. Barra writes
from Reidville, South Carolina.