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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Judy Roberts | author
Sep 01, 2011
Filed under Featured

Rebirth in New England

The College of Saint Mary Magdalen hears God’s call, refounds itself in orthodoxy . . .

Nestled in New England, cradle of the most renowned schools in America, Magdalen College started its life in a defensive mode to counter the decay that had come to mark Catholic higher education in the 1970s.

Just 38 years into its relatively short history, Magdalen is making big changes while retaining its roots in fidelity to the Catholic Church. It has a new name — the College of Saint Mary Magdalen — marking a rebirth that is transforming everything at the Warner, N.H., school from academic programs to student and sacramental life.

Dr. George Harne

The college’s president, Dr. George Harne, calls what began happening in October 2010 a “refounding.”

“It’s more than a change of name,” he said. “This is really a new college.”

Harne said the rebirth started with a sense that the school needed to go more deeply into its origins by reaffirming its Catholic identity, paying greater heed to its patroness and making clear that it was embarking on a new beginning.


Like other U.S. Catholic colleges established in the 1970s, Magdalen was founded in response to those Catholic institutions of higher learning that at the time saw fidelity to the Church as being in conflict with autonomy and academic freedom. Now, in this latest phase of development, Harne said, there is less need to be defensive by refuting error and offering rebuttals.

“We’ve carved out our own space,” he explained. “We can address challenges directly. We can now build. It’s time to publicly, in a way that’s coherent and respectable, build the culture of life in the world of academics.”

This means setting the bar high both academically and spiritually, he added. “We’re in a place where we need a Catholic equivalent of Harvard or Yale.”

At the core of the college’s refounding are curriculum changes that broaden the existing Great Books program and make it more solidly Catholic. In an effort to create the best program in its class, the school compared its curriculum to other Great Books schools, Harne explained. “We also looked at the wider tradition of Catholic education and attempted to integrate the Great Books approach into that.”

Monsignor Stuart Swetland

Monsignor Stuart Swetland, Flynn professor of Christian ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., said that with the refounding he believes Magdalen will become a jewel in U.S. Catholic higher education, particularly because of the school’s emphasis on the Great Books and its new-found focus.

“It’s a Great Books program, but a really Catholic Great Books program. I like the way they are engaging issues of modernity and post-modernity in their curriculum,” he said.

Fine arts focus

As part of the refounding, Magdalen also is instituting a four-year program of music and art studies for all students.

The emphasis on fine arts, Harne said, is based on the belief that beauty is a primary way people can encounter Christ. As part of this, Magdalen students sing in a choir, learning chant and polyphony during their four years at the school. They are taught how to read music and how to sing properly, in addition to studying music appreciation and history. A similar approach is taken with the visual arts, with all students learning the craft of various media.

Harne said the college is attempting to recover the seven liberal arts — the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) — ordering them as means to the highest disciplines of philosophy and theology. “We take that tradition very seriously,” he added.

Another curriculum addition is an online catechesis program modeled on one taken by every Magdalen student. In 1983, the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy granted the school the right to award an apostolic catechetical diploma. The primary aim of the new program is to train catechists in hopes of revitalizing catechesis at the parish level.

In a related move, the college is also developing a liturgical institute that officials hope will become a center for renewal in the Church.

Student life

Besides the curriculum changes, Saint Mary Magdalen’s rebirth is having a significant impact on student life. Tim Van Damm, vice president for advancement and admissions, said that although the college had done a good job over the years in being faithful to the Church, in the process it had developed an unfortunate reputation for being a “Catholic boot camp” because of strict regulations governing student activity and behavior.

“We’re trying to do away with that reputation and keep the good points of what had existed,” Van Damm said. With the change, he explained, comes a new effort to treat students as young adults while keeping in mind their need for guidance.

Harne calls the approach “thoroughly Catholic with a common-sense approach to student life,” and one that uses “the powers of rhetoric, persuasion and mentoring to call students to a fully Catholic life.”

For example, students are told to dress professionally for class and modestly at all times. Additionally, faculty and staff make themselves available to students during meals, providing opportunities for informal mentoring.

Alfonso Sandoval, a Magdalen senior from Buckeye, Ariz., said that — as with any change — some students agree and some disagree with the reforms, but overall he thinks most are happy with the new atmosphere.

Sandoval said he originally chose the school for the spirituality and prayer life it fostered, and he finds that essentially this hasn’t changed. For example, he said, although night prayers are no longer a scheduled activity, he believes it’s better that students are deciding on their own to pray.

Monsignor Swetland said such changes will make the school more Catholic “because the Catholic tradition is to invite and to appeal to people’s freedom, not to require participation in a way that might go against someone’s choice as to whether they might wish to participate. You’re always walking that fine line in community settings between what’s required and what’s encouraged. But ideally, you want people to do things because they want to, not because they have to.”

Harne said the decision to more clearly name the college for its patroness also reinforces the school’s Catholicity. “There’s a certain segment of the population that makes an immediate connection between Magdalen and St. Mary Magdalen, but we were surprised by the numbers who didn’t.”

As part of the name change, Harne said, the school is talking about sponsoring a conference on its patroness, creating a national pilgrimage site for her at the college and building a network of schools, parishes and other institutions named for the saint.

“The college is undergoing a kind of conversion,” he explained. “In that sense, we feel very close to our patroness. She was dependent on the calling of Christ in her life. As an institution, we want to be responsive to that call.”

Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.


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