‘We Owe Everything to Our Lady’: How Mary Assisted Benedictine College Threatened With COVID Lockdown
The college community’s prayers, combined with the threat of a lawsuit, persuaded county officials to forge a less restrictive and more collaborative response.
ATCHISON, Kan. — Facing a county order to quarantine them to their dorm rooms or housing for 14 days because of the novel coronavirus, hundreds of students at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, invoked the Blessed Mother’s assistance early this month and found relief from the threatened lockdown.
“We owe everything to Our Lady,” said the college’s president, Stephen Minnis. “She really helped us in this process. We believe Mary chose this place and each of our students to be here as well.”
On Aug. 28, the college had 55 active COVID-19 cases — double the number health officials had seen before August for the county, said Minnis, noting that many of the cases were asymptomatic. Although the college had increased protective measures to stop the spread of the virus, including making all campus food service takeout and enacting more stringent mask requirements, county officials recommended a mass quarantine.
Apart from a county order, the college has isolated or quarantined at least 509 students, most of whom have been released, according to a college report.
After averting the quarantine of the college’s record enrollment of 2,100 students — those living on and off campus —the college and Atchison County officials agreed to less drastic restrictions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
As the number of cases of the virus on campus continues to trend downward, Minnis and the college staff are working with health officials to mitigate the virus. But he questioned the constitutionality of a mass quarantine, which initially made no provision for students to attend religious services.
Along with Benedictine, colleges and universities throughout the country are experiencing increases in coronavirus infections while testing their incoming students. Schools are placing students who are infected or have come in contact with infected persons under quarantine, as well as entire fraternities and sororities where the virus has been transmitted at gatherings. At least one university and one college recently quarantined all their students to dorm rooms or other housing to stem increases in novel coronavirus cases.
In an Aug. 28 video, Minnis asked the college community to pray and fast until Sept. 8, the Blessed Mother’s birthday, to avoid the mass quarantine. “It was natural for us to call on her: ‘Can you help us out?’” he said.
The college was consecrated to Our Lady on her Sept. 8 feast day in 2013. Its Marian devotion dates back to its founder, who, two years before establishing the college in 1858, was able to reach safety during a storm because of a light placed in a window after a child was awakened by “a lady in white” — presumably the Blessed Mother.
On Sept. 2, Minnis received a county quarantine order, scheduled to go into effect that night. It stipulated that students remain in their dorms or on-campus housing and leave only to pick up cafeteria meals or go to medical appointments. Off-campus students were to quarantine in their housing. Classes would be remote, and students could not return to their permanent-address homes.
The original order did not allow students to leave their housing for church services, though health officials later revised the order to permit it, Minnis said. With or without the provision, the college would have filed a legal challenge if the order had gone into effect, he said.
“It was wholly unconstitutional, let alone the First Amendment — you prohibited people to gather; you were confining them,” Minnis told the Register. “It was literally house arrest of these young people. How did we allow this pandemic to take so many of our rights as Americans away without a fight?”
County officials agreed to delay imposing the order for two days so they and the college could discuss it.
The idea of the quarantine was frightening to Andrew Reasor, 20, a sophomore from Overland Park, Kansas, who lives in a campus dorm. After he saw Minnis’ Aug. 28 video, he told the campus evangelization director that he thought students should come together to pray the Rosary. On the evening of Sept. 3, about 700 prayed the Rosary together in a campus park.
The prayer reinforced the students’ bond because they wanted to stay together, Reasor said.
On Sept. 4, with the order scheduled to go into effect that night, Vincent Schiffiano, 20, a junior from Charlotte, North Carolina, living in on-campus housing, prepared to challenge it. “The student body as a whole was really upset,” he said. “I had to talk people out of a class-action lawsuit.”
Largely by posting announcements on an app that many students use, Schiffiano and friends encouraged more than 500 fellow students to walk together to the courthouse that afternoon to request individual hearings, as county law stipulates, he said.
But during discussion with college leaders that day, health officials agreed to a compromise that doesn’t quarantine students to their rooms and houses but instead requires students living on campus to stay within campus confines with some exceptions from Sept. 5 to 18. It also restricts students living off-campus from entering campus except for certain reasons during that time.
The potential cost of students’ claims and the difficulty of enforcing the order both played a role in health officials’ decision to compromise, Minnis said.
Though ultimately Schiffiano and his fellow students didn’t have to challenge a quarantine order, he said he’s committed to fighting for religious liberty.
It was the Rosary that brought victory, he said. “We were absolutely covered by Mary,” he said. “We were protected the whole way. We were wearing the armor of God.”
While health officials and college leaders continue to work together, there is a chance the quarantine order could come up again, Minnis said.
According to Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit legal and educational institute seeking to protect religious expression: “The fact that Benedictine and the county health department were able to work together shows that schools, religious groups and local governments are able to find ways to keep their communities safe while at the same time safely reopening.”
“An oversight in not allowing religious services trends with the rest of the country; when reacting to panic situations, government officials often overlook their oath to uphold the First Amendment. Citizens are called to and must be ready to remind them of that promise,” she said.
A mass quarantine would have been devastating for students, said Minnis, adding that he was glad to see the college come together to fight it. He said he hopes that by increasing the number of additional Masses, priests and opportunities for spiritual direction, the college also will help unite students.
“There’s no question those prayers, those students, the willingness to first pray this Rosary and, second, file lawsuits against the county really had a huge impact,” he said. “We’ve been giving a lot of kudos to Our Lady here on this one.”
Grateful for Mary’s help, Reasor said he is hopeful for the school year. “I think just trusting in God and the intercession of the Blessed Mother, we’ll continue to do that all throughout the school year,” he said. “We’re all just happy to be here.”