The College of St. Mary Magdalen
A new name, a new crest and a new curriculum for a venerable New Hampshire institution. Its president tells us why.
In October, Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., announced three significant changes: a new name, a new crest, and a renewed curriculum.
Now The College of St. Mary Magdalen, the 37-year-old school is strengthening even more its commitment to the New Evangelization.
President Jeffrey Karls, who has headed the college for 25 years, spoke from his office about the new name and re-energized curriculum with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen in early November.
Why did you decide to change the name of the college?
Through our name change we have sought to place a greater emphasis on our patroness, St. Mary Magdalen, and the original spirit of the college. St. Mary Magdalen had converted to Christ and was the first layperson who witnessed the Resurrection of Christ, addressing him at that first meeting as “Rabboni,” which means “Teacher.” She then became the apostle to the Apostles, announcing the Resurrection.
She’s a model for us who are working in Catholic higher education as we seek to bring the students to the same kind of encounter with Christ that she experienced. After reflecting upon our history as an institution, there was a sense among the faculty and board of trustees that we should highlight our patroness Mary Magdalen more than we have in the past.
Any additional reasons?
As we reflected on our own history, we decided to seize the opportunity to renew the college at every level, beginning with our spiritual commitments: We renewed our baptismal vows, our commitment to a sacramental life, our faith in Christ, and our loyalty to Holy Mother Church. As a college, we have always been faithful to the magisterium and to its Catholic principles.
Following the examples set by both Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, we also wanted to renew our spirit as an institution, making it more open and attractive to young people around the world. We wanted a fresh beginning. That’s also what prompted the name change.
Do you see the name change bringing the college more attention?
We sometimes take for granted the ways in which we have been blessed: We have an excellent academic program, a vibrantly Catholic student life, and a beautiful campus in New England. But sometimes we forget to let other people know of all the significant things happening at the college. The name change is meant to bring more attention to the good things we have and are already doing.
You apparently want those good things to get even better. Is that why you reworked your liberal arts and great books curriculum?
Our primary work at The College of St. Mary Magdalen is the liberal education and formation of our students in the best human and Catholic traditions handed down to us. It’s our hope that through this program of education our students will make an impact on the society in which they live, in whatever vocation, career, or profession they are called to. We believe that students who have been liberally educated in the Catholic tradition will have an impact that is substantial and eternal. As part of this renewal we thought, Let’s examine our past, cultivate gratitude for the gifts we’ve received, and build for a vibrant future in the service of the Church.
Did you make significant changes in the curriculum?
Yes. We examined the ways our curriculum has developed over 37 years and sought to integrate the good things we were currently doing with the very best of the great-books and Catholic intellectual traditions. We took as our guides St. Thomas Aquinas, Blessed John Henry Newman, and our current pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI.
We have always placed an emphasis on catechesis and theology and provided strong instruction in philosophy, the sciences, and writing. We increased our program in the arts from two to four years — offering two years of music and two years of the visual arts. We also reconceived our Latin program in order to help students to enter more deeply into the liturgical traditions of the Church.
Do you have an example of modifications to other liberal arts courses?
We have introduced a course in logic and added courses in which we explore ancient Rome, the Church Fathers, the Middle Ages and postmodernity. In all of our seminars we have also sought to ground historically the texts we read. We’ve also developed an honors program for our advanced students. In this year’s Honors Colloquium, our honors students are reading the complete Divine Comedy, looking closely at the Biblical, philosophical and literary sources upon which Dante draws. We’ve also strengthened our faculty by bringing in scholars and teachers who are known nationally and internationally. One of these new faculty members is our first musician-in-residence (cellist Ellie Wee).
What’s another strength, and how are you building it to a different level?
The celebration of sacred liturgy with beautiful sacred music — primarily according to the Novus Ordo, both in Latin and in English — is at the center of our collegiate life. The liturgy has always been celebrated with heightened reverence, and we’re building upon that strength.
Our students have always participated in four years of choir. They drink deeply of both the chant and choral traditions of the Church, participating fully in Mass, Eucharistic adoration, and Benediction. By changing the name, we hope to bring more attention to the ways in which we are seeking to serve young people, Catholic families and the larger Church.
We also brought to the college Benedictine Abbot Marcel Rooney, who is a very accomplished liturgist, having taught at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Liturgy at Sant’Anselmo in Rome. He has consulted on liturgy for Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is also an accomplished musician, having received a degree from the Eastman School of Music before going on to become a liturgist.
Our plan is to establish a liturgical institute that will emphasize sacred music along with sacred art and architecture, providing both pastoral and academic instruction on the liturgy, its history, and its proper celebration.
Our feeling was that we could not only celebrate the liturgy in a beautiful way but bring to others the beauty with which we have been blessed. As a foundation to this apostolate, Abbot Marcel is currently offering catechesis on liturgy to the entire faculty and staff. With the new [translation of the Roman Missal], this is a marvelous way for us at the college to be prepared, learn why the changes are being made this coming year and in turn be able to catechize other Catholics.
Will this institute reach beyond the college itself?
We want to offer this program through institutes and workshops and also offer it online as time goes on. We’d like to engage pastors and choir directors through workshops, as well as students who want to know more about sacred music and art.
We have met with our bishop (Bishop John McCormack of Manchester) and with Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston to seek their approval and blessing. Both are very supportive and they encouraged us to launch this program as soon as possible.
When might that happen?
We will begin locally, with priests in New Hampshire and New England. Abbot Marcel was invited to give Advent and Lenten workshops in Boston. Now that the strategic plan for the institute has been accepted, our goal is to get this off the ground by the beginning of the year.
How does the revitalized vision tie in with Cardinal John Henry Newman’s vision of a university?
One of the profound things about Cardinal Newman’s vision is that he saw university life and education as an opportunity for a great encounter with the person of Christ through prayer and study — through the integration of intellect and faith. So I think what we are doing makes Newman’s vision a reality. Newman’s idea and the ways it was developed by Pope John Paul II (in Fides et Ratio) animate everything we do. Joyfully and with thanksgiving, the College of Mary Magdalen has renewed her commitment to follow Christ and to proclaim the Gospel to the world.
Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.