Trailblazer for New Catholic Renaissance
Turning 40, Christendom College – under longtime leadership of Legate Timothy O’Donnell – maintains authentic Catholic surety and attests one man can make a difference.
When Legate Timothy O’Donnell became the third president of Christendom College 25 years ago, one of the first things he wanted to do was build a chapel at the center of campus.
But Mark McShurley, then-chief financial officer, said it couldn’t be done without a major gift.
“He gave me a figure,” O’Donnell said, “and we said a prayer to the Blessed Mother. Fifteen minutes after we prayed, he came into my office shaking and saying, ‘You won’t believe what happened.’” McShurley had just received a call from an anonymous donor who wanted to make a gift in the exact amount he had named.
“I said, ‘Goodness, she works really fast!’” O’Donnell recalled. Three years later, the Chapel of Christ the King was consecrated. Ever since, it has stood as a vivid reminder of Christendom’s mission to form and send forth an educated Catholic laity to impact society and “restore all things in Christ.”
Launched during weak-kneed time in Catholic education
Christendom was founded in 1977 by Dr. Warren Carroll at a time when many older Catholic colleges were shedding their Catholic identity and legacy. A decade earlier, 26 Catholic college administrators, bishops and presidents had gathered in Land O’Lakes, WI, to forge a statement asserting that Catholic universities would be independent from the Church hierarchy, orthodoxy and spirituality. Carroll responded by creating an academic environment where students could receive an authentic, Catholic liberal arts education that would prepare them to integrate their faith into their professional lives, whether in politics, law, journalism or teaching. In starting Christendom, he fulfilled his own oft-spoken words that “one man can make a difference,” touching off a renewal of Catholic higher education that is still unfolding today.
“Christendom is probably best described as a pacesetter,” said Patrick Reilly, founder and president of the Cardinal Newman Society, which seeks to promote and defend faithful Catholic education. “It was one of the first institutions . . . to really step out and make clear that the heart of Catholic education is fidelity to the Church.” That ideal, Reilly said, has since been emulated by other institutions that have either returned to or were established on the foundation of providing a strong, authentic, faithful Catholic education. “Christendom has really set an example that is spreading rather rapidly throughout not just higher education, but also elementary and secondary education.”
Still among top picks for Catholic fidelity
Indeed, in its first Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College, published in 2007, the Cardinal Newman Society recommended 21 colleges and programs, including Christendom, for their commitment to faithful Catholic education. A decade later, the current guide lists 29, and Christendom again is among them.
Reilly credits O’Donnell’s leadership with much of Christendom’s success over the last 25 years. “Just as the key to Catholic education is strong fidelity to the faith, it also relies on leaders who are real witnesses to the faith and no one does that better than Tim O’Donnell. Teaching is his first love. If you look back to great Catholic educators, great leaders of Catholic colleges, they were educators first. And he certainly is.”
O’Donnell came as educator first … and is today
O’Donnell came to Christendom in 1985 as an assistant professor of theology and history, having been drawn to the school by its pioneering role in the effort to restore Catholic higher education. When he assumed the presidency seven years later, he did so with the provision that he would continue to teach, something he still does today. “The big thing to me is building the temple of the soul,” he said, “and I told the board I would be president only if I could keep teaching.”
Like the school’s founder, O’Donnell has been a man who has made a difference. During his tenure, which has spanned more than half the school’s history, Christendom has expanded its enrollment, physical plant and academic offerings.
When he became president, Christendom had 144 students. Enrollment since has increased to 485 undergraduate students on the main campus in Front Royal, VA. Another 175 graduate students study online and at the Alexandria, VA campus.
Staying small enough for collegium
Even as enrollment has risen, the intent has been to keep the college small enough so that there is a faculty member for every 15 students. “It’s the idea of a medieval collegium where students and faculty live together,” O’Donnell said, adding that Christendom faculty members dine daily with students and know them by name. “A lot of times conversations initiated in the classroom are carried over to lunch. It becomes a way of life.”
Indeed, that was one reason alumna Joan Watson chose Christendom, although she originally had had her heart set on a larger Catholic university where her father and brother had gone. At Christendom, she said, “I knew I was going to be known by name and that was important to me.” Watson, who graduated in 2006 and now is director of adult formation for the Catholic Diocese of Nashville, said she also liked that the president of the college and other faculty went to Mass with students and sat with them at lunch. “There was such an integration of the family of Christendom.”
Devotions led by the president
Watson said when she was a student, O’Donnell would lead a holy hour the night before the monthly First Friday observance, which honors the Sacred Heart of Jesus. “The chapel would be packed and he and [his wife] Cathy would be in the front row. Sometimes those holy hours were exactly what I needed. To have the president of the college taking a spiritual fatherhood role is enormous. That may be the greatest thing he gave me.”
The holy hour since has been moved to 9 p.m. on the first Friday and is followed by allnight Eucharistic adoration, but O’Donnell still participates by leading a scriptural meditation Rosary.
Christendom has long had a strong devotion to the Sacred Heart, which is depicted in a large window in the chapel sanctuary. Each year, the college community is consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary and O’Donnell attributes the school’s success to this spiritual practice.
“The Church hasn’t changed Her teaching … we will remain faithful”
In addition to enrollment growth during O’Donnell’s presidency, Christendom has seen a significant expansion of its campus that has included construction of a library, gymnasium and new residence halls. Now, as the college celebrates its 40th anniversary, plans are underway to build a new cruciform Gothic chapel near the existing one on the highest point of the campus overlooking the Shenandoah Valley. Seating will double that of the current chapel, which will be converted to a Catholic cultural center. The project is part of a $40 million campaign that also will build up the endowment and annual fund.
Under O’Donnell’s leadership, the college has enriched its academic offerings as well by adding study-abroad programs in which juniors spend a semester in Rome and students from Christendom and other schools can attend the St. Columcille Institute in Donegal, Ireland for three weeks during the summer. O’Donnell visits students in the Rome program, giving them a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, and teaches in and serves as dean of the St. Columcille Institute, which he founded to train students as leaders in the New Evangelization. At Christendom, O’Donnell also teaches freshman history, the history and theology of the papacy and ascetical and mystical theology.
Teaching, he said, helps him relate with faculty and students, and makes him more disciplined and focused. “I find that it allows you not to be a distant figure. The faculty see you differently and the students see you not as a remote administrator, but doing the essential work of the college, which is teaching.”
Amid the uncertainty that marks these times, O’Donnell said Christendom will stay the course. “This is a time-tested education, the education the Church has always encouraged us to do, that Catholics come in contact with their patrimony, where faith and reason work together in a harmonious synthesis. There is no reason to change because in times of confusion it is even more important that students learn to think clearly, to see fallacious thinking or argument. All this is given through the rigor of education they receive here. The Church has not changed her teaching . . .. We continue to remain faithful to the patrimony of the Church and to go forward.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.