Only Catholic College in Georgia Graduates First Class

Southern Catholic College in Georgia graduated its first class this year.

DAWSONVILLE, Ga. — The first and only Catholic college in the state of Georgia celebrated its first commencement exercise May 16. At the same time, the pioneering, lay-founded Catholic school also announced a new affiliation that could drive its future growth.

Southern Catholic College is an institution of 240 students from 26 states on 100 acres in the foothills of the western Georgia mountains, about an hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta. It is so new that Michelle Bivins visited the prospective college in 2004 as a high school senior from Owensboro, Ky., and stayed with her mother in a resort hotel room that became her dorm room a year later.

“It was still the Gold Creek Golf Resort at the time,” Bivins said. “It was, and is, absolutely beautiful.”

She went to a high school that was Catholic in name only, she said, and was looking for a genuine Catholic experience. She found that at Southern Catholic — and something more.

“It definitely exceeded my expectations academically,” Bivins said. “I love the faculty. They inspired me.”

One of those teachers is Paul Thigpen, professor of theology and editor of The Catholic Answer, an Our Sunday Visitor magazine. He was attracted to the school, he said, because of the hope it engendered in him for the new generation of Catholic students.

“Our daily Mass is quite full every day, and we offer weekly adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. These young men and women are eager about the Lord; it’s a wonderful thing to see,” Thigpen said.

He also likes the strong academics, beginning with a core curriculum each student must complete before studying for one of seven majors. It makes for a robust liberal arts education.

“All the bases are covered well and deeply, integrating faith and reason in everything taught,” Thigpen said.

Patti Blake of Greenville, S.C., liked the well-rounded approach for her daughter Mary: “I’m very pleased with the Catholicity of the school and the great thought processes of the teachers. They recruited a good core group of faculty at the beginning.”

Mary Blake felt the school was a good fit, despite the fact that fewer than 50 students graduated with her. She said the entire school is like a big family.

Enter the Legion of Christ

Southern Catholic may lose some of that familial atmosphere if it grows significantly — and indications are that it will. The college and the Legion of Christ religious order signed a memorandum of understanding on April 20 to explore making the college a Legion institution.

The Legion is a worldwide religious order with 800 priests that operates 22 universities and 175 schools, but no undergraduate college in the United States, according to Southern Catholic’s president, Jeremiah Ashcroft. He said the fit with the Legion seems almost perfect.

“There is a very positive synergy between us and the Legion,” Ashcroft said. “They said to us in our discussions: ‘Your mission and our mission are compatible. You have created a beach head; let’s work together.’ The memorandum we signed helps with our momentum.”

Legion regional director Father Scott Reilly sees his order’s high schools as adding to that momentum: “I expect that SCC will experience significant growth in student population in the years ahead, with added growth coming from Legion-affiliated secondary schools in North America.”

Diverse Student Population

Southern Catholic was founded by Tom Clement and other businessmen, thereby joining two dozen or so other new, small and orthodox Catholic colleges in the U.S. started by the laity instead of religious orders. Would the proposed Legion affiliation jeopardize that characteristic of the school? Ashcroft didn’t think so. He said that the vision of the lay founders will continue to guide the institution regardless of the probable future affiliation.

The tentative agreement also pleased Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, the archdiocese in which the school is located.

“This is a fine opportunity for the Archdiocese of Atlanta to continue to be home to this Catholic college that will develop young men and women of faith to have a positive impact on society,” Archbishop Gregory said in a statement. “I am privileged to serve on the board of trustees of Southern Catholic and have seen firsthand the good work it is attempting to achieve.”

Ashcroft said the school enjoys the solid support of the archdiocese, an important factor in its growth. The commencement speaker for the Class of 2009 was Archbishop Gregory’s predecessor, Archbishop John Donohue.

Mary Blake is one of those young people the archbishop hoped would have an impact on society. She said that her four years on campus formed her well for that task.

“The spiritual life at Southern Catholic is very good,” she said. “And I liked the diverse culture the school has managed.”

Ashcroft said that the school worked on that facet of campus life, actively recruiting in the archdiocese’s burgeoning Hispanic population. The result? Thirty-seven percent of the students are ethnically Hispanic.

“I stand in awe of them,” Ashcroft said. “They are multilingual, multicultural and are doing very well academically. Their perseverance is remarkable.”

One of those with remarkable perseverance is Cayetano Garcia, 32, also one of the few nontraditional students who graduated this year. He came back to school after eight years working with Latino youth in his Cartersville, Ga., parish. Garcia is a business major and, like many other alumni, a theology minor; he is grateful for the opportunities available to him.

“It meant being able to do everything I wanted to do. The school’s financial aid enabled me to stay here and study. The atmosphere is very positive,” Garcia said. “We’re involved in activities like the March for Life and food drives; we pray outside abortion clinics to manifest our stand on the issue; we work in a soup kitchen. And we have Mass every day and are able to confess whenever we want to. I think everybody should have a chance to go to a school like this.”

Raising Money

The downside to all new colleges is, of course, the money it takes to pay qualified faculty and offer scholarships to students like Garcia. Southern Catholic has embarked on an aggressive capital campaign, both for operating expenses and to create an endowment fund. Raising those funds is complicated by the fact that most of the South lacks a tradition of Catholic higher education, according to Thigpen.

Southern Catholic College may be small, and it may be a pioneering institution, but that doesn’t mean it will allow limitations on its plans for the future.

Ashcroft spends a lot of his time raising money — but that suits him fine because he has a vision for the future.

“After the baccalaureate program has been firmly established,” he said, “we hope to develop a solid graduate program and a robust lifelong learning program.”

Paul Barra writes from

Reidville, South Carolina.