ATLANTA — A new Catholic college, the first to model itself on Ex Corde Ecclesiae, has taken an apt regional name.

Southern Catholic College, located about 50 miles outside Atlanta in Dawsonville, Ga., is the first Catholic college in Georgia and one of only a handful in the Southeast.

The coeducational independent liberal arts school broke ground in July for its 356-acre campus. When it opens in fall 2003, it will be on its way to achieving what founder and chairman Tom Clements hopes will be a college known for its strong values, rigorous academics and an authentic, vibrant Catholicity.

When Clements sold his software company in 1999, he knew he wanted to build some sort of community. After starting a men's group at his home parish, he realized it wasn't enough. “Some of the people then said to me, ‘Let's talk about a school,’ so we did,” Clements said.

After that, it was a short jump from a business plan to a $34 million fund-raising campaign that will provide for just a fraction of the $300 million campus.

“Tom Clements has taken from Vatican II the instruction that laymen take responsibility,” said Jeremiah Ashcroft, president of Southern Catholic and a 29-year veteran of university administration.

Although completely lay-run and lay-founded, the college will be advised by several religious orders, including the Benedictines and Jesuits. The sacraments will form a critical part of the structure. Daily Mass, frequent confession and spiritual guidance will be offered. The administration hopes to have a resident campus priest.

“In order to be Catholic, from our perspective, you have to have the sacraments,” Clements said.

Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said the emphasis on Catholic identity is what most impresses him about Southern Catholic.

“They've made it clear that this identity will be extremely important in every facet of what they do,” he said.

Also enhancing the Catholic foundation is the college's dedication to Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the 1990 apostolic constitution from Pope John Paul II that calls on Catholic colleges to more readily adhere to their Catholic identity and to Church teaching.

Literature describes the college as “dedicated to providing a technologically advanced learning environment grounded in the teaching of Catholic values and the Catholic intellectual tradition.” It also presents itself as committed to the authoritative teaching of the Church.

Its mission is “to prepare moral and ethical leaders who will enlighten society and glorify God.”

“I just love the kind of evangelical, Gospel-oriented spirit of the mission. It's faith-filled,” said Father Dennis Dease, member of the new college's board of trustees and president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

He said he is also attracted by the opportunity to build a college from the ground up. “You can do so many things when you start from scratch. You're not saddled by histories that can distract,” Father Dease said.

But it also presents potential students and parents with a quandary: Whether or not to take a chance in such an unknown entity.

Jan Caron's son, David, is considering applying for the first year. “The ideals are right,” the Atlanta resident said. “And what I have seen and heard so far gives me confidence that it will be very ‘in the heart of the Church.’”

But, she acknowledged, the unknown still lingers. “I just have to be hopeful,” she said. “Whenever you have a Catholic college that's being built in your back yard, you take a look.”

And that “back yard” has experienced tremendous growth in its Catholic population, according to retired Msgr. Daniel O'Connor, who served in Atlanta for 41 years.

“I've seen it grow from 75,000 to 300,000,” he said of the area's Catholic population. “We're one of the few archdioceses without a Catholic college, and I think this one will be a great benefit to young people and to the local Church.”

Archbishop John Donoghue of Atlanta attended the dedication in July and gave the opening prayer. “The Catholic college is a place where this revelation of faith and this enlightenment of the human spirit can and will take place,” he said. “Too long our home — this beautiful state of Georgia — has been without a temple for this synthesis of faith and reason.”

Community-Building

The campus will also fulfill Clements' original desire to build a community. Located in the rolling foothills, the school will form the center of a residential and commercial district complete with a convention center and health care facility.

“We want the college to be integrated with the community so that after Mass on Sundays people will go over to the coffee shop or bookstore and interact,” Ashcroft said.

The founders see this taking shape over the next 15 years. But within five they see the college as a school of 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. They envision a place where parishes and other dioceses will sponsor summer camps for Catholic children and where senior citizens will gather for programs.

But when it opens in fall 2003, it will start much smaller. The residence halls — apartment-style, fully wired and accommodated with study, recreation and lounging areas — will house just 135 beds. Intramural sports and clubs, mostly determined by student interest, will be an important part of university life. Ashcroft said the college could one day compete in intercollegiate athletics. Yearly tuition will be about $15,000 and housing and meals around $6,000. Financial aid is available.

Majors for the first class include history, philosophy, literature, business writing and theology. Others will be added as students request them.

“If there are 10 students who are interested in a B.A. in French, then we'll add a major in French along with the others,” said Paul Voss, vice president for academic affairs.

Some standards are already set. The core curriculum requires students take at least nine hours of philosophy, theology, foreign language, English literature and math/science, along with classes in social and political science, fine art and history for a total of 61 credit hours in the first two years.

The college will become a candidate for accreditation before the first class graduates. It will not receive accreditation until one year after that (five years after it opens). Five years is standard for all startup colleges applying for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges. In August, the school received official college designation from the Nonpublic Postsecondary Education Commission, a state of Georgia agency overseeing private postsecondary education. Southern Catholic can now accept student applications.

In all possible cases — both inside the classroom and out — Catholicism will be integrated. “Obviously, there won't be a Catholic calculus class,” Voss said, “but in a business class we might talk about business ethics or about being a Catholic and the responsibility we have as stewards and to be charitable.”

Of requirements for hiring administrators and faculty, Voss said, “Our litmus test is if they are interested in building the Church.” The majority of the faculty will be practicing Catholics; the rest must at the very least be respectful of the Church's teachings.

According to the norms set forth in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, all Catholic faculty teaching theology will be required to sign an oath of fidelity to the Church and to the Holy Father. Furthermore, faculty will be encouraged to begin class with prayer and to “provide a living model of authentic Catholicism,” according to information on the school's Web site (http://www.southern-catholic.org).

“It's a very bold undertaking, a tremendous task,” Msgr. O'Connor said, “but they've set out in faith that their hopes will be realized.”

Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.