From Coast to Coast, America is Throwing an Eclipse Party

Benedictine College in Kansas is showcasing the harmony of faith and science with a celebration of the phenomenon that includes the opening of a new observatory.

(photo: Damien Deltenre [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Editor's Note: This story was originally posted on Aug. 9 and appears in our Aug. 20 print issue. Information about the path of the eclipse from the print story has been added below.


ATCHISON, Kan. — It isn’t every day that the sun completely disappears from sight. And from coast-to-coast, America is throwing a party.

For one hour and 40 minutes on Aug. 21, a total eclipse will be visible in a narrow band running southeast over the American heartland, from the coast of Oregon to South Carolina.

Benedictine College sits right in its path. The Kansas college will hold a public viewing to celebrate the celestial event and its continuing commitment to scientific education.

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and sun and blocks its light. In a total eclipse, the moon completely covers over the sun, casting a shadow over the ground beneath it. Only the much fainter corona, or crown, of the sun can be seen during a total eclipse.

The movement of the moon across the sun’s face can take nearly three hours, but totality in any particular place lasts less than three minutes. All of the United States will be able to view the eclipse, though most people in the country will only see the sun partially covered.

Benedictine has set up an extensive program for the eclipse viewing. The college’s new observatory will have its grand opening, and astronomers from the Vatican Observatory will give two talks. In addition, the college will offer Mass, host family activities and feature live music. The college is also offering free solar glasses and has set up telescopes to view the eclipse.

President Stephen Minnis of Benedictine College told the Register that the college is “excited to host the most educational eclipse viewing around.”

“This most likely will be the largest group of people on our campus at one time, and we want it to be an enjoyable and educational experience for them,” he said.

Ryan Maderak, the director of the astronomy program at Benedictine, told the Register that the eclipse-viewing event is a “fantastic opportunity” for public outreach and education and a once-in-a-lifetime event to promote the college. Benedictine College, he said, is the only Catholic liberal arts college that offers a degree in astronomy, and there was “no question of taking full advantage” of the opportunity to highlight the college.

About 5,000 people are expected to visit the college during the viewing, Maderak said, and more continue to RSVP, coming from both the local area and across the country. Also, 17 elementary and high schools and an entire school district are expected to visit campus for the viewing.


Viewing the Eclipse

The event provides the college an opportunity to showcase the new Daglen Observatory, a four-telescope showpiece of the college’s astronomy program. At the observatory’s dedication Aug. 20, two saints’ medals will be placed in the foundation. A St. Benedict’s medal will be placed there to bless the ground, along with a medal of St. Dominic, the patron saint of astronomers.

Two Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican Observatory, Fathers Christopher Corbally and Paul Gabor, have been invited to speak at the college.

Father Corbally will discuss the history of the Catholic Church’s relationship with astronomy and the sciences, while Father Gabor will speak on the history of measuring eclipses, which began with the ancient Babylonians.

The eclipse will begin around 11:40am at Benedictine College, and the campus will be totally in shadow at 1:07; and for the next two minutes and 19 seconds, viewers will get to experience day without the sun’s normal light. (Do not look at the eclipse without special glasses to protect your eyes.)

Father Gabor told the Register that a total eclipse is quite dim, but what makes one special is that the quality of the light changes. Some of the wavelengths emitted by the sun are typically absorbed by the corona and never make it to earth. Because only the corona will be illuminating the area in darkness, only those missing hues will make it to earth.

“As a result, colors are ‘all wrong,’ and everything looks odd,” he said.

During the event, Benedictine College, which has recently been accepted into the Vatican Observatory Consortium, will take photographs of the sun’s inner corona as part of the National Solar Observatory’s Citizen CATE project.

The partial eclipse will end at 2:34pm, and in the evening the college will hold a Mass and a concert, featuring celestially themed pieces from composers like Dvořák and Handel.

Father Gabor said that the sky has been “one of the most powerful sources of inspiration” for humanity throughout its history. Except for those living in areas where light pollution obscures the view of the night sky, he said, “the starlit sky is the most accessible and universal reminder that there are things that transcend our earthly preoccupations.”

“What I find interesting,” he continued, “is that the awe felt by our ancient ancestors when looking up towards the stars has not eroded or evaporated in the light of scientific discovery. If anything, science enhances the awe of the heavens, making it greater and more profound.”


A Century of Science

The eclipse viewing is the culmination of a yearlong celebration of the school’s scientific heritage and future.

In 1916, Benedictine (then-St. Benedict’s College) issued its first bachelor of science degrees. In 2016, a construction campaign began that will nearly double the size of the college’s science and engineering building.

Steve Johnson, the college’s director of marketing and communications, told the Register, “We believe that faith and ethics are important aspects of the sciences, as they are in any other part of our lives,” he said.

Maderak added that the emphasis in papal documents like Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the importance of scientific education, as well as the love of learning that is emphasized in the Rule of St. Benedict, played a strong role in Benedictine’s commitment to scientific education.

In Maderak’s own life, he has followed the calling to be “an excellent scientist and Catholic” and exemplifying the coherence between faith and science. For him, studying the sciences is important because it “tells us much about ourselves and allows us to understand our relation to the universe and the universe’s relation to God.”

“By investing heavily in the sciences at this time, we see ourselves as acknowledging our past as a way to set up for our future,” he said. “More than a culmination of where we’ve been, it’s an indication of where we are going as a college in the future.”

Click here for more information about viewing the eclipse in your area.

Register correspondent Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.


In the Path of the Eclipse

Springfield and Belleville, Illinois: Schools in the Dioceses of Springfield and Belleville are hosting assemblies or taking their students on field trips to view the eclipse.

Hopkinsville, Kentucky: NASA has designated the area around Hopkinsville “the point of greatest eclipse,” and at least 100,000 visitors are expected to arrive for the eclipse. Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Hopkinsville will host Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican Observatory’s director, for a talk on faith and science.

Fremont, Nebraska: Archbishop Bergan Catholic School will be purchasing eclipse glasses for students and providing an opportunity to view the eclipse during the school day.

St. Louis: Parishes are holding viewing parties, and Catholic schools in the archdiocese have been encouraged to use the eclipse as an opportunity to combine faith and reason. The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville will be directly in the path of the eclipse, and the archdiocese is encouraging people to visit the shrine and view the eclipse.

Lander, Wyoming: Wyoming Catholic College and Cor Expeditions have arranged a five-day backpacking trip through the Wind River Mountains that will include a total-eclipse viewing. 

Nicholas Wolfram Smith

Eclipse Facts:

The lunar shadow will be 60-70 miles wide.

The last total solar eclipse on the U.S. mainland occurred in 1979.

The last time a total solar eclipse went coast-to-coast was 1918.

The next total solar eclipse visible in the U.S. will be April 8, 2024.

There are about two total solar eclipses every three years.

— The first successful calculation of a solar eclipse was on May 3, 1375 B.C.

— In fewer than 600 million years, the moon will have moved too far away from Earth to cover the sun during an eclipse.