Christendom comes of age
Northern Virginia college builds on its faithful past and plans for future growth . . .
When Dr. Timothy O’Donnell visited Christendom College 25 years ago to consider joining the faculty of the fledgling school, he thought he had just arrived at a day camp.
“Where’s the campus?” he asked. “This is the campus,” came the reply.
Back then, Christendom was only eight years old and part of the beginnings of a quiet, but powerful movement to reform Catholic higher education by establishing colleges that were boldly Catholic in identity and faithful to the Church’s Magisterium.
It was a time when Christendom and other newly founded schools like Magdalen College in Warner, N.H., and Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., “carried the banner for faithful Catholic higher education while most Catholic colleges and universities rapidly secularized,” said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.
Today, Christendom is considered a successful model for authentic Catholic education, Reilly added, along with newer like-minded institutions such as Ave Maria University in Florida and John Paul the Great Catholic University in San Diego.
Although Christendom lacked the buildings to make it look like a real campus on O’Donnell’s initial visit to the school more than two decades ago, he said there was no shortage of students who were “joyfully Catholic.” Seeing them convinced him to relocate from California to the Front Royal, Va., college.
“I remember going over to Mass, and I saw students kneeling outside the door [of the original chapel] on a concrete slab,” said O’Donnell, a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter. “I was so impressed. This was like Poland or Ireland in an earlier time. The chapel was packed. The beauty, devotion and reverence captivated me.”
After Mass, O’Donnell said, some of the students remained and continued to pray. When they went outside, they were talking, laughing and joking. “They were normal kids, but they were joyfully Catholic. I realized that if there was hope for the future, it was going to come from places like this where faith was being lived in an authentic way and where faith and reason can interact with one another.”
In deciding to teach at Christendom, however, O’Donnell had no inkling he would become the college’s third president. Nor did he have any desire to go into administration.
But the ensuing years saw him taking on more responsibility, first as chairman of the theology department and later as a dean overseeing student life. When he was asked to assume the presidency in 1992, he agreed to accept, provided he could continue teaching theology and history — something he still does.
Under his leadership, Christendom has flourished in both its physical plant and enrollment, which now exceeds 400. O’Donnell also oversaw construction of most campus buildings.
Frank O’Reilly is a Christendom grad and member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter. His company, Petrine Construction, built all Christendom’s structures. O’Reilly said that O’Donnell has been responsible for building the Chapel of Christ the King, St. John the Evangelist Library, and St. Louis the Crusader Gymnasium.
O’Donnell is now planning a comprehensive 20-year master plan involving expansion of the chapel, athletic and fine arts facilities, a three-tiered piazza and two academic buildings.
The first project will be a cruciform Gothic structure enlarging the chapel and doubling the amount of seating. The new marble cornerstone to be used in the expansion has already been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.
Longer-range aspects of the master plan include a retreat center and a marina on the Shenandoah River, which the campus overlooks.
Although O’Donnell considers development of the campus one of his most significant achievements as president, he said a more personal accomplishment has been starting the school’s study abroad program in Rome. About 80% of Christendom students participate in the program.
“That’s kind of my baby,” he explained. “We’re now in our eighth year of having this and it’s been a life-changing experience for students. I wanted this program because I know what a big impact Rome had on me when I went there to study.”
O’Donnell was the first layman to receive a doctorate in ascetical and mystical theology from Rome’s Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelicum, where he also earned a master’s degree and a licentiate in sacred theology.
He also is pleased that of his nine children, five have graduated from Christendom — and two others are current students.
“Speaking as a parent,” he said, “I have been so happy that my kids have all wanted to go here, have gotten this education, are all successful professionally, and most of all, that they are deeply committed, articulate Catholics who want Christ as the center of their lives. The college has strengthened what we want to do in the home. To me, that is the greatest joy of my life.”
Jeffrey Karls, a member of Legatus’ Boston Chapter and president of Magdalen College, said besides O’Donnell’s “very intelligent and personal leadership” of Christendom, “he sets a wonderful example for all of us in that he is the father of a large family — as am I — and we know that the first and primary vocation is that of being a husband and father.”
O’Donnell has done an excellent job of balancing all his roles, making him a wonderful exemplar of Catholic leadership, Karls added.
Bishop David O’Connell, past president of the Catholic University of America, said he has great respect and admiration for O’Donnell and the work he has done at Christendom. “In so many ways, he is a model of fidelity to Christ and the Church,” said Bishop O’Connell of the Trenton, N.J., diocese. “He has made many an outstanding contribution to Catholic higher education.”
The Cardinal Newman Society’s Patrick Reilly credits O’Donnell with giving Christendom “a unique and recognizable branding in the Catholic Community” by hiring excellent liberal arts professors and securing funding for the college to continue its mission without accepting government aid. That unique branding is reflected in the school’s profile as it appears in the Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College: “While some colleges in this Guide may match Christendom’s Catholic commitment, it is unlikely that any exceeds it.
“It would be difficult for Christendom to have a fuller Catholic identity,” the Guide says. “It does truly permeate the campus. All faculty members are Catholic and annually make a profession of faith and take the oath of fidelity before the bishop of Arlington.”
Frank O’Reilly — whose late father Dr. Sean O’Reilly was a founding board and faculty member of Christendom — said O’Donnell has not only taken the college in the direction the founders desired, but has extended it in a way that is on target with the college’s mission and the founders’ intentions.
O’Reilly described O’Donnell as a “unifying figure” with a gift for bringing people together. “He is deeply, theologically sophisticated and intellectually alive in the history and the theology of the Church — and has a great love for the institutional Church and its traditions.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.