Marianist Father Johann Roten has gotten the e-mail more than once.

“People write in and tell us, ‘You’re going straight to hell,’” says Father Roten, “because we ‘worship’ Mary.”

Father Roten doesn’t worship Mary, of course. But dispelling that myth and other misunderstandings, misconceptions and misapprehensions is part of his mission directing the Marian Library and International Marian Research Institute (IMRI) at the University of Dayton, Ohio.

The two-pronged conservatory of all things Mary aims to gather and present information about the Virgin Mary and to lead people to a loving knowledge of her, according to a statement on its website. “Learning more about Mary,” it points out, “we develop a fuller knowledge of Christ, his Church and Christian life.”

Fundamentalist e-mailers aren’t the only ones taking notice of the institution. No wonder. Its website is touted as the world’s biggest on Mary and — with more than 1 million visitors to date — it is one of the busiest Catholic websites in the world. The Marian Library boasts the world’s largest collection of printed materials on the Blessed Virgin and thousands of other Mary-related items.

The Marian Research Institute, meanwhile, is academically incorporated with the Pontifical Theological Faculty Marianum in Rome. As such, it is the leading Mariology center in the United States, offering students advanced pontifical degrees.

“It’s a far-reaching domain, even if to begin with you’re dealing with a single person, which is Mary,” the Swiss-born Father Roten says. “For us, Mariology cannot be formulated without reference to Christology, to ecclesiology, to women, to culture, to spirituality, to the arts, to devotions and so forth. I think that’s probably our greatest merit.”

Among many.

Dayton, a Catholic university, was founded in 1850 by the Society of Mary (Marianists). Its Marian expertise and global stature, though, took some time to materialize.

The Marian Library came first, founded nearly 100 years after the university’s start, in 1943. It’s grown considerably since. The library has more than 250,000 items related to Mary available to students and researchers — books, article clippings, prints, holy cards, postcards, statues, music, medals, rosaries and more. More than 10,000 Marian stamps from around the world are on hand, as are 1,000-plus nativity sets.

If a work is related to Mary, its headed for their shelves.

“If we find a wine label that has a Marian motif,” Father Roten says, “we would collect it.”

From the library was born the International Marian Research Institute, founded in 1975. It was incorporated into Rome’s Faculty of Theology Marianum, the only such center in that city dedicated to Mariology. The current rector there, Servant of Mary Father Silvano Maggiani, recently appeared in an interview with Zenit news service, saying he was “very pleased to say that there is great appreciation and recognition of the Marianum by the whole Church.”

By association, that appreciation could be said to extend to the Marian Research Institute at Dayton. Thirty years after its founding, the institute today issues licentiate of sacred theology (STL) and doctorate of sacred theology (STD) degrees with a concentration in Marian studies. Students come from all over the world — Venezuela, Taiwan, Korea, Africa, India and elsewhere.

Father Roten says approximately 60% of the students typically are priests, the rest religious and lay people. The faculty of 15 (six on campus, nine who travel to teach) also is diverse, hailing mostly from the United States and Europe.

Classes explore Mary’s importance in areas including the liturgy, doctrine, apocrypha, theology, spirituality and so on. Sessions are held during intensive periods of study — two to three weeks in the summer with shorter terms in the spring and fall. Currently, 52 students are pursuing degrees at the institute.

That includes Teresa Monaghen, a consecrated layperson who lives in Elkhorn, Neb. She is national moderator of the Secular Institute of the Apostolic Oblates and national director of the Pro Sanctity Movement. Monaghen, who has multiple degrees, was considering another degree in hagiography when a friend led her to the International Marian Research Institute. She is pursuing her STL in Mariology, which she should earn in a year.

“I love the institute and love the gift that it is to the Church,” Monaghen says. “It is hidden, like Our Lady herself: unknown to many, but what a gift.”

Monaghen says the most important thing she’s learned thus far at the Marian institute is “the absolute centrality of Mary in the life of the Church and all the faithful. It is not a matter of devotion or devotionals,” she points out, “but she played an essential role in redemption and continues to cooperate in the redemptive process.”

Monaghen hopes to apply what she learns to her work in formation, including the spiritual direction she provides during the summer at Creighton University’s Institute for Priestly Formation.

“I want to study, write and present Mary and the saints as spiritual guides in our formation process,” she says. “I desire that all know the power of the communion of saints and closeness of Mary in our daily lives.”

World, Meet Mary

Many students at the International Marian Research Institute, says Father Roten, “know exactly what they want and make of their studies something that can be of contribution to their church or their own religious community.”

Like one student from Taiwan trying to “build a bridge between the veneration of ancestors in the Buddhist culture and, if you want, the communion of saints in the Catholic Church,” he says. “There you have a specific and explicitly intercultural interest.”

Father Roten, director since 1987, says the institute is looking to expand. A secondary center is being established in Seoul with a library and Mariological society, though no academic program yet exists. A similar movement is afoot in Rwanda and the idea to establish some presence in India is also on the table.

Those not fortunate to have the International Marian Studies Institute in their back yard can take advantage of the institute’s website, familiarly known as “The Mary Page,” at udayton.edu/mary.

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.