St. Anselm Lawsuit a Clash Over How Best to Protect Catholic Identity

The monks of St. Anselm College are suing its board of trustees, alleging that the trustees’ proposed expansion of their powers puts the college at risk of secularization.

St. Anselm College's Alumni Hall, built in 1889, is the current administration building.
St. Anselm College's Alumni Hall, built in 1889, is the current administration building. (photo: 2009 photo, public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

The monks of St. Anselm College are suing its board of trustees, alleging that the trustees’ proposed expansion of their powers puts the college at risk of secularization.

St. Anselm College is a Benedictine Catholic college founded in 1889 near Manchester, New Hampshire. For most of its history it was governed by the Benedictines who established it. A decade ago, the monks relinquished some power to a lay board of trustees, but pushed back last year after they say the board tried to wrestle more power away from them. That led to the lawsuit, which was filed at the end of last year in the Hillsborough County Superior Court in Manchester.

In legal terms, the battle is over the power to amend the bylaws. In practical terms, the lawsuit boils down to one fundamental question: Should the monks or the board of trustees have the final word in determining St. Anselm’s future as a Catholic college?


Monks vs. Board

Benedictine Abbot Mark Cooper told the Register the monks believe it’s their responsibility.

“The amending power is important to the members [of the Benedictine community] so that we can give as much of a guarantee as possible to the bishop and the diocese and Church that we can watch over and guide the fundamental direction and mission of the college in the future. That could be 10 years from now. That could be 50 years from now,” Abbot Cooper said.

The monks currently have the authority to make changes to the bylaws. The trustees want to change that arrangement so that they can amend the bylaws. Under the trustees’ proposal, the monks would still have the power to veto any changes by a two-thirds vote.

But according to Abbot Cooper, losing the power to change the bylaws would undermine the monks’ ability to protect the college’s Catholic identity. In an Aug. 30, 2019, letter, Abbot Cooper was explicit about what he saw as the risks: “These changes put forward by the leadership of the board of trustees carry an unreasonable risk of the secularization of Saint Anselm College. Saint Anselm College is a Catholic institution and the members have certain powers in order to guarantee fulfillment of their ecclesiastical responsibility to educate consistent with the Catholic faith. The members would be violating their own fiduciary duties to the college to allow it to be secularized.”

“The board of trustees in no way is seeking to secularize the college, and in fact bears a fiduciary responsibility to maintain the Catholic and Benedictine mission of Saint Anselm,” added Ann Catino, chairwoman of the board of trustees, in a statement to the Register.

Ovide Lamontagne, the attorney for the trustees, says that Abbot Cooper’s letter is a “false statement.” “The notion that delegation of governing authority from the sponsoring monastic community to a lay board with the involvement of the monastic community is secularization is just wrong as a matter of civil law and certainly wrong as a matter of Church law,” he said.

In terms of Church teaching and law, he pointed to the Second Vatican Council, which called for greater participation of the laity in the Church, specifically in Apostolicam Actuositatem, the Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. More recently, the 1983 Code of Canon Law affirmed that the laity can participate in the apostolic works of the Church, according to Lamontagne, who is not a canon lawyer but says he was worked with Catholic organizations in the past.

But Abbot Cooper insists the monks are better positioned than the trustees to ensure the mission. “The members are there permanently,” citing the Benedictines’ vow of stability. The abbot himself has been at St. Anselm for 49 years.


Identity vs. Accreditation

For the trustees, the battle for control at the college does not risk the college’s Catholic identity, but its accreditation. Lamontagne said the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) has been pushing the college to switch to lay governance since the 1970s. Although the college recently had its accreditation renewed, he said that NECHE included a note of concern regarding the debate over its governance structure.

“While it is unfortunate this dispute could not be settled privately, the issue at stake must be settled to ensure properly independent governance that is necessary to maintain accreditation,” Catino said in her statement to the Register. “We love the members of the monastery, and we respect and value their essential role in the identity of the institution, but it cannot be overstated how important it is to the future of the college to have clear lines of authority and operation.”

Abbot Cooper said the monks believe that the trustees already have sufficient power to maintain the school’s accreditation. For example, he noted, the board has say over tenure and promotion and controls both the operating and capital budgets. Since its inception, the board has approved the construction of three buildings, totaling $30 million. Abbot Cooper says that all the monks want is final say over the ultimate direction of the college.

“We disagree with that vehemently, that it is not necessary nor ever should it be necessary for a college to give up its religious identity in order to obtain or maintain accreditation,” added Michael Tierney, the attorney for the monks.

Tierney provided the Register with examples of bylaws from nine other Catholic colleges where the religious orders that founded had ceded operation of the college to another entity but had also retained powers akin to what the monks at St. Anselm want to preserve. The colleges Tierney cited include Stonehill College in Massachusetts, founded by the Congregation of the Holy Cross; Providence College in Rhode Island, founded by the Dominicans; and Marian University in Wisconsin, founded by the Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes.

But Lamontagne countered that each college had its own particular arrangement, suggesting that their circumstances do not make them analogous to St. Anselm. “Every college is different in the way it’s structured and organized and functions, and that’s important,” he said.


Conflict Upon Conflict

The clash between the trustees and the monks has its origins in a 2009 reorganization of the college’s governance, which led to the formation of a 40-member board of trustees that includes 32 lay members and eight members from the Benedictine community. The reorganization came at the encouragement of the accrediting agency, the New England Commission of Higher Education, according to Lamontagne.

Lamontagne describes the issue as a stage in the college’s “growing pains” as it adjusts to its new governance structure. He said the accrediting agency believes that without the power to amend the bylaws, the trustees’ ability to serve as an effective governing body for the college is called into question.

Amid the unresolved question of the trustees’ power to amend the bylaws, a further conflict over the bylaws themselves arose last August when the board of trustees proposed changes to the bylaws that would shift more power from the monks to the board, according to court filings. The monks, using their current authority, rejected those changes. The trustees tried again in October 2019, and the monks again refused.

Tierney said the lawsuit was an attempt by the monks to settle the matter once and for all.

The case hangs upon a number of legal technicalities. The trustees are asserting that a New Hampshire state law, the Revised Statutes Annotated 292:6, gives them the power to amend St. Anselm’s bylaws. The law states that the power to amend a corporation’s bylaws is vested in the corporation’s board of directors, subject to a two-thirds veto by the members of the corporation, which, in the case of St. Anselm, would be the monks.

“The only change the board was seeking was to align the existing bylaws with New Hampshire law, which allows the trustees to propose amendments to the bylaws but does not strip the monks from authority to review and, if warranted, deny any changes proposed by the trustees,” Catino said.

But Tierney says the law, which was enacted in 1992, applies only to colleges and other institutions that do not have a legislative charter. St. Anselm received such a charter in 1889. Tierney said the law cannot retroactively be applied to older charters. In strictly legal terms, Tierney is asking the court to make a ruling affirming that conclusion and invalidating the way the board of trustees is interpreting the law.

Lamontagne says the law gives final say to the monks. Tierney disagrees, saying it’s too much of a limit on their power.

The case has become a highly contentious one, at least in its legal filings. Technically, the college corporation is listed as a plaintiff along with the monks. Lamontagne has filed a motion to strike the corporation as a plaintiff, saying that the monks do not have its best interests at heart given that the lawsuit imperils its accreditation. For related reasons, Lamontagne has asked the court to disqualify Tierney as the opposing attorney in the case, since he has been the attorney for the college for the past 35 years. On March 2, the New Hampshire court ruled in favor of both motions to disqualify. Abbot Cooper has hired Concord, New Hampshire-based attorney Samantha Elliott as a replacement for Tierney.

The court held a hearing on those motions on Jan. 6 and, as of this writing, had yet to issue a ruling.


Campus Life

Even as the court battle plays out, life is proceeding as usual on campus. “The day-to-day lives of students are undisrupted on campus and amazing work continues to be done every day by faculty and staff, despite a governance controversy over which we have little control or interest in taking sides,” a senior St. Anselm faculty member said, speaking to the Register on the condition of anonymity.

The faculty member said that “most” faculty are hopeful that “well-mediated and frank discussions between the monastic community and the trustees will bring about a better and more lasting resolution than any external legal ruling from a state court.”

But he worries that Abbot Cooper’s pursuit of the lawsuit could bring about the very thing he says he is trying to avoid: “Few of us see the Catholic mission of St. Anselm as under any real threat. But some of us fear that this very public legal action taken by the abbot, in combination with some of his public statements, may ultimately do real and lasting damage to that mission if the campus community were to lose trust in the goodwill of the monastic community.”

Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.

This story was updated March 3.

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