Ex Corde on the Great Plains

Since the start of the new century, several entrepreneurial Catholic institutions of higher education have formed to meet the demand for well-rounded, liberal learning that emanates — in accord with Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on Catholic universities Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church).

Wyoming Catholic College, which will welcome its first class in September 2007, is promising prospective students all that and one thing more: the untamed outdoors.

The college will strive to put students in contact with what founding President Father Robert Cook, a pastor in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo. (pictured), calls “God’s first book, the created world.”

“It seems so natural to do all this in Wyoming,” adds the priest, “because it has so much of that Western heritage still present.”

What the state doesn’t have — for now at least — are universities. The 119-year-old University of Wyoming, in fact, is the only four-year university or college in the state. That places Wyoming among 11 states without a Catholic college or university.

That changes a bit more than one year from now when Wyoming Catholic College classes commence on a temporary campus in Lander, Wyo., a town of about 7,000 people nestled against the eastern foothills of the Wind River Mountain Range. Construction of a permanent campus is expected in two to three years on land already donated — more than 2,300 acres of it on a ranch 15 miles southeast of Lander. Long-term leases are held on 6,300 adjoining acres boasting prairies, streams, woods and high-mountain country.

At roughly 14 square miles, the area will allow Wyoming Catholic College to claim one of the biggest “campuses” in the nation.

“Someone told me this is a very bold thing to do,” says Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken. “I think it is a sign of hope to people of our area. It is a sign of hope that we want to show this much concern for our youth and make sure they can intersect with the truth.”

The boldness goes beyond the college’s sheer size.

The school’s genesis dates to August 2003, when Bishop Ricken and parish leaders considered its plausibility during the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought, a six-day spiritual-academic retreat hosted annually by the Cheyenne Diocese. The discussion was publicized the following May; two months later, 48 potential campus sites were under consideration.

By July 2005 the college was incorporated and had its new home on Broken Anvil Ranch, donated by Francie Mortensen-Perkins. Father Cook was named president in December 2005.

While the college’s founding addresses the paucity of Wyoming’s higher-ed offerings, Bishop Ricken also sees its formation against a backdrop of Catholic higher education across the country that, he says, is “struggling to recover, maybe, the lost sense of Catholic identity.”

Nature as Teacher

Adherence to “the moral and intellectual heritage of the Catholic Church” is among Wyoming Catholic College’s tenets, according to the mission statement posted on its website, wyomingcatholiccollege.com.

The school’s first convocation will feature Catholic faculty reciting the Nicene Creed and swearing fidelity to the magisterium of the Church. Non-Catholic faculty will pledge to respect the Church’s teaching authority and to never publicly oppose the pope or Church.

“There will be no apologies about the fact that this college will be deeply rooted in the magisterial teaching of the Church,” Bishop Ricken says. Spiritual direction will be available to students, devotional practices encouraged and Mass offered daily.

Wyoming Catholic College, notes its mission statement, also will offer a classical liberal-arts education imbued “with the best that has been thought and said in Western civilization.”  This, Father Cook says, responds to a general trend of higher education that “has gone too far in the direction of making productivity and economic productivity the touchstone for curriculum.”

Wyoming Catholic’s curriculum will require study in philosophy, theology, literature, history, the arts and languages, mathematics and the basic sciences.

That’s what it takes, says Father Cook, to “educate a person for the whole of life. If your education focuses primarily on getting a job, there is so much of your life that is left out by that. You may know what to do from 8 to 5, but at 5:05 …“

Wyoming Catholic College’s most singular selling point might be its commitment to an “outdoor” education that, the mission statement says, “steeps its students in the awesome beauty of our created, natural world.” There’s plenty of that surrounding Lander, which Outside magazine recently named one of 20 “dream towns” for recreation and quality of life.

The college’s emphasis on the great outdoors, Father Cook says, is one way of reaching that student “whose imagination has withered from thousands of hours in front of the television and movies.” Campsites will become classrooms and fishing rods learning tools. Stewardship, gratitude, self-reliance, commitment to others and courage are some of the lessons to be learned.

The college, which has five faculty members and a chaplain under contract, expects 35 students enrolled when it opens in the fall of 2007. Eventually, it will limit total enrollment to 400 students. “I don’t think there will be trouble finding students,” says Father Cook. Pursuit of its first class began formally June 9-10 when Father Cook and other school representatives addressed the Catholic Home Educators Conference in Denver.

Once students arrive, they will meet in classroom space available at Lander’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church. They’ll also have food service there and will live in nearby apartment buildings. Tuition, books, room and board the first year is expected to be $21,250.

The college hopes to begin construction on its permanent campus around 2008-2009. Master plans call for a commons area with chapel, a classroom-administration building, library, recreation area, and men’s and women’s dormitories. Expected cost is around $20 million.

The school initially needed $400,000 in anticipated architectural, engineering, mapping, marketing and other startup expenses. The Lander chapter of the Knights of Columbus gave $100,000 in August 2005, part of more than $550,000 donated so far with a $1 million donation pending.

“I really believe that this is God and the Blessed Mother’s project,” Bishop Ricken says, “and that the Lord and the Blessed Mother will lead us to the people who will be generous and able to provide.”

The least populous state, Wyoming akso has a small Catholic presence. Only 10% to 15% of the state’s 500,000 residents are Catholic. Catholic or not, though, the state has embraced Wyoming Catholic College “with extreme enthusiasm,” Father Cook says.

“It’s been almost startling how many people have wanted this to come to reality,” he adds. “The Wyomingites, of course, recognize immediately that the outdoor aspect will teach young people skills and virtues and wisdom that they too often lack in the urban cultures.”

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.


Wyoming Catholic College