Celebrating its bicentennial this year has given Mount St. Mary’s University a perfect opportunity to tout its rich history and reflect on its future.
As the second oldest Catholic college and seminary in America, it has adapted to present-day academics, while remaining true to its original mission as a Catholic institution.
Located in the Catoctin Mountains near Emmitsburg, Md., the story of “The Mount,” is very much the story of the Catholic Church in America’s infancy.
It was founded in 1808 by French-born Father John DuBois, who escaped religious persecution during the French Revolution in 1791 and arrived in America at age 27. Seven years later, he set out for the wilderness of Maryland to start a Catholic college for men, despite the misgivings of Archbishop John Carroll about supporting a second Catholic institute of higher learning so close to Georgetown College.
He met and worked closely with Elizabeth Ann Seton, who started the Sisters of Charity in nearby Emmitsburg. She established St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School for girls, which became part of the college.
Father DuBois left the Mount after 18 years and became the third bishop of New York, a diocese which for 76 years was led by one priest or another from Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. Known as the “Cradle of Bishops,” the seminary has produced 48 bishops and one cardinal.
With 150 men from 33 dioceses, it is the fourth largest seminary in the country, after the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Ill., which has 204 men from 44 dioceses, St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., with 154 men from 28 dioceses, and the Legion of Christ Novitiate and College of Humanities in Cheshire, Conn., with 153 seminarians.
As it enters its third century, Mount St. Mary’s University offers more than 30 undergraduate degrees, from traditional liberal arts to modern sciences, and graduate programs in education, business, divinity and theology.
The university is a lay institution, governed by a 35-member board of trustees, not all of whom are Catholic. At least 10 board members are members of the clergy, including Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore.
To guide its future, the board recently adopted a new mission founded on four pillars: faith, discovery, leadership and community. It also issued a declaration of Catholic identity in 2007, emphasized throughout its curriculum, administration, faculty and campus activities.
University President Thomas Powell said the Mount is proudly Catholic, but he reminds everyone that while it is a Catholic university, it is also not the Catholic Church.
“The Catholic Church informs us, but we’re a university, and that distinction is very important for us in the academy to recognize,” he said. “I think if we have a crisis in higher education in general, not just Catholic institutions, we have a crisis in leadership where we’re trying to placate everybody or be all things to all people, and that’s where you become nothing to anyone.”
Powell said the university is taking steps to strengthen itself around its new mission, extending its academic programs and preparing Catholic and non-Catholic leaders for a contemporary world, who have a mature spirituality and a solemn responsibility to seek solutions to society’s problems.
More than 2,100 students attend the 1,400-acre campus, the majority from the Mid-Atlantic states. Many of them describe falling in love with the school almost immediately.
“I like the community feel of it,” said Jason Werdon, a junior communications major from Crofton, Md. “The fact that it’s a Catholic university really draws the best out of people.”
Werdon, who serves on the Student Government Association and the school newspaper, is a bicentennial office intern.
Alumnus Kevin Murphy, a member of the bicentennial commission, also reflected on the sense of community spirit on campus that created lifelong friendships and helped him develop strong values.
“The Mount does prepare you very well for life because it instills principles of honesty, integrity, commitment to community,” said Murphy, a 1995 graduate, who majored in business and finance and is now a vice president with Merrill Lynch in Washington D.C. “Even when I go there now and spend time with the administrators and clergy, it’s just a nice, peaceful place. It’s a community of goodness.”
Laura Fenaroli turned down Loyola University to attend the Mount, and hasn’t regretted her decision. The 22-year old senior psychology major from Mount Laurel, N.J., said it is “bittersweet” that her years on campus are drawing to a close.
“The professors, students, administrators are like family. I’ve definitely grown in my faith,” she said. “I’m so thankful I was able to come to the Mount and experience it during this time. A lot of us didn’t know we were the 200th graduating class and that has been amazing.”
Fenaroli added that Father James Forker, a product of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, “nailed it” in his famous quote on the spirit of the Mount: “For those who went here, no explanation is needed; for those who didn’t, no explanation is possible.”
Liz Monahan, director of graduate studies, is on a four-year hiatus to chair the bicentennial events. The 14-month celebration was kicked-off last August and involves an impressive list of galas and events, including 13 regional celebrations.
The Mount has been captured in a beautifully photographed coffee-table book, its history and timeline are displayed on campus and in the Maryland Senate building, and a historical documentary has been filmed, which traces the history of the country and development of the Catholic Church through the lens of the college.
“Our mission is important for everyone — a critical and positive message about our strengths as a Catholic university in our times,” noted Monahan. “We’ve graduated leaders who continue to serve in our community and elsewhere with their strong Catholic values, and we’re thrilled to promote it.”
Barb Ernster is based in