National Catholic Register

Education

Imbibing Truth Under Ivory Towers

Williams College’s Enterprising Catholic Club

BY STEPHEN VINCENT

April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 9:00 AM

 

At noon, students gather to pray the Angelus. Three hours later, they’re back for the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. And before turning in for the night, they’ll gather once more: Rosary time. There are regular holy hours as well as community-service projects to help the poor and disabled.

Sound like a seminary schedule? In fact, these activities take place at Williams College, an elite secular school in the Berkshire Mountains of northwest Massachusetts. So academically distinguished is the institution, and so selective in its admissions, that it stands at No. 1 among liberal-arts colleges in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. It’s also one of the most historic colleges in the country, having been established in 1793.

In this rarified air a very active Newman Club, Williams Catholic, provides an atmosphere for the faith to flourish.

“No one comes to Williams College to become a better Catholic, but that’s what happens,” says Katherine Ackerman, a junior who serves as spiritual-life coordinator for the club. “It’s a wonderful surprise. I love it.”

Senior Bryan Norton says that, after attending Catholic grade school and high school, he was looking for a top academic college that would provide a different atmosphere.

“I felt that I needed to grow, but didn’t come here for spiritual growth,” he recalls. After he joined Williams Catholic, he says, “for the first time in my life I had a daily prayer life. There’s a real fraternity, a real love that we share with one another. We have Christocentric friendships.” Norton is chairman of Williams Catholic.

Grace Tomooka, a 2005 Williams graduate who converted to the Catholic faith in her senior year, says she found friends in the Catholic group during her freshman year. She was brought up in a Protestant home but wanted to learn more about the Church because her boyfriend (now her husband) was Catholic.

“I came to the Newman room with a very open mind and lots of questions,” she says. “When people asked if I might convert sometime, they were always very respectful. They wanted to be supportive and were more curious than anything.”

Guiding Williams Catholic over the last 10 years has been Peter Feudo, associate chaplain in the school’s campus ministry. Although the Catholic group was founded as a Newman Club, Feudo prefers to use the name Williams Catholic, since the term “club” gives the sense of an exclusive group. “Williams Catholic,” he says, conveys the sense that the group is an extension of the universal Church, which is open to all people. 

Feudo also insists that students run the program. He provides guidance, resources, an open ear and friendship, but students choose from among themselves who will fill the key leadership positions each year. They also organize the activities.

“Williams attracts top academic achievers and student leaders from around the country,” Feudo says. “They are very capable of running the programs at very high levels.”

Changing of the Guard

Social-outreach programs include a campus clothing drive for homeless shelters and a food-distribution service using leftovers from the campus cafeteria.

A Franciscan tertiary who holds a doctorate in science, Feudo has devoted the past decade of his life to Williams Catholic, putting in more than full-time hours for part-time pay. His service at the college will end this summer when Father Gary Caster, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., begins the college’s new full-time position in campus ministry.

Father Caster, who has an extensive background in campus ministry, is the author of Mary, In Her Own Words: The Mother of God in Scripture (Servant, 2006).

Feudo, who invites priests regularly to the campus to offer Mass, hear confessions and provide for counseling and catechetical sessions, says he favors the college’s decision to hire a full-time priest for the Catholics on campus.

“I have said all along that the students deserve a full-time campus minister,” he says. “It is ideal that there will be a priest here on a regular basis for them.”

Norton calls Feudo’s exit “the end of an era.”

“He’s done an amazing job here and he’ll be missed,” Norton adds. “Peter has been like a father to me, and he has devoted an amazing amount of time to all the students.”

During a decade at the college, Feudo helped expand the Newman Center, which is open 24 hours a day for students to meet, pray and relax. He also developed a larger chapel space where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

He and the Williams Catholic students have invited a number of outstanding speakers to a lecture series covering pro-life issues, contraception, Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body, medical ethics, the Church’s social teachings, economic justice, and creation and evolution. Lecturers have included Cardinal Avery Dulles, Dominican Father Romanus Cessario, Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Peter Kreeft, Christopher West and Janet Smith.

In addition, the Williams Catholic section on the college’s website has links to the Catechism, the Couple to Couple League for natural family planning and Courage, the Church-approved ministry for people struggling with same-sex attractions.

History in the Happening

These straightforward Catholic speakers and resources stand in stark contrast to the usual extracurricular fare at the college, which in March celebrated “Positive Sex Week.” This featured a “Queer Town Meeting,” screenings of The Vagina Monologues and talks with unmentionable titles. The dean’s office was one of the sponsors.

“After I came here and found that not everyone in the world is Catholic or believes what the Church does, I began to have real questions about my faith,” says Ackerman, who called the campus atmosphere “generally liberal.” 

“I was able to find answers, to find out the truth, for example, why the Church says women cannot be priests,” she says. “Now I see the need to really learn and defend the faith because there are so many challenges to it.”

Adds Norton: “We’re a family. We’re just a bunch of friends trying to grow in holiness and helping one another. If anyone were to ask me what it’s like to be a Catholic at Williams, I’d say it’s wonderful.”

Col. Ephraim Williams of the Massachusetts militia couldn’t have foreseen this kind of development in 1755, when he bequeathed his remote mountainside estate for “the support and maintenance of a free school.”

“There’s a vibrant Catholic community here,” says Ackerman. “We’re helping each other grow in the faith.”

Stephen Vincent writes from

Wallingford, Connecticut.