Tag Archives: Christendom college

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.

Rediscovered roots

The New Evangelization is taking root in the picturesque country setting of Donegal — a beautiful part of northwest Ireland where local traditions and Irish culture remain vibrant.

Legate Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College, gathers with students of the 2015 Columcille Institute

Legate Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom
College, gathers with students of the 2015 Columcille Institute

With a commanding view of the Atlantic Ocean, the bay, beaches and windswept hills, a small group of American and Irish college students gather at Ards Friary for three weeks every summer to learn how Catholicism shaped the soul of Ireland — and how they have a role to play in revitalizing the Christian roots of Western Civilization.

“Ireland is a country that, if it were to rediscover its Christian roots and really become fervent, could, within two generations, really turn around and have a profound impact on Europe and the rest of the world,” said Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va.


O’Donnell, a member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, said the St. Columcille Institute exists to form leaders for the New Evangelization. Since Christendom College instituted the program four years ago, dozens of students from Christendom and other American colleges have traveled to Ireland to study the Catholic faith with local Irish college students.

Timothy O’Donnell

Timothy O’Donnell

The students learn about the Catholic sacramental imagination, not only in the classroom but in nature. In the morning, they are attending Mass, classes and Eucharistic adoration, then later in the day they are hiking mountains, taking in scenic ocean views, visiting shrines or having a pint of Guinness in a local pub.

“They get a sense of what Catholic festivity really means, and what the true foundation of friendship is,” O’Donnell said, noting that the great Christian writers G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis used to vacation in Donegal.

“There is a Catholic-Christian pedigree in this area,” O’Donnell said. “It allows the students to get back into contact with the beauty of God’s creation and form really good friendships. So you end up having conversations not only in the classroom, but over meals and when you’re going on hikes and walks together in the evening.”

The St. Columcille Institute is named after a sixth-century missionary evangelist born in County Donegal who founded a number of monasteries in Ireland and on the island of Iona, where he began a great mission to Scotland. Trained in the school of Christian asceticism and monasticism, Columcille was one of the great lights of the early Middle Ages.


The institute grew out of an idea that O’Donnell and other Christendom leaders had been mulling over for several years. In 2012, during a Eucharistic Congress in Dublin where O’Donnell was a featured speaker, many Irish attendees expressed their desire for solid doctrinal teaching and catechesis.

Discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit, O’Donnell said Christendom College decided to launch the St. Columcille Institute in 2012. The program focuses on three areas: apologetics, history and literature.

With apologetics, students learn how to present and defend the Catholic faith. A theology course examines timeless questions surrounding the problem of evil, the historicity of the gospels and the resurrection of Jesus. Students also read papal encyclicals and writings on the New Evangelization.

“The New Evangelization is really the old evangelization, but new in the sense that there are many people in countries where the Gospel has been proclaimed previously who have not been evangelized at all,” O’Donnell explained.

Students also learn the importance of using modern means of communication, such as film, television, social media and the Internet to proclaim the New Evangelization. For example, Vatican Radio’s director of English-language programming teaches workshops for the institute on the art of communication.

Eily Weichert

Eily Weichert

“The whole focus of the apologetics class is learning to defend the faith gently, but strongly, so you can connect with people,” said Eily Weichert, a Christendom alumnus who graduated this past spring. Weichert, 21, attended the St. Columcille Institute in 2015, and said she learned a lot about her Catholic faith.

“The overall message of the program was defending your faith in really subtle ways,” she explained. “It was very moving.”

In addition to apologetics, students also learn Irish history and the incredible contributions that Ireland made to the Catholic Church — particularly from the sixth to ninth centuries. As O’Donnell noted, Pope St. John Paul II taught that a country which doesn’t know its history will have no future.

“We want to give the students a sense of the history, the patrimony, the remarkable story, oftentimes untold, about the role that Ireland had in Western culture and Western civilization,” O’Donnell said.

Closely related to the patrimonial lesson is literature. Students read several short stories and other writings by notable Irish and European authors that raise fundamental questions about the meaning of life, death, marriage, family and what it means to be a good man or good woman.


James Sheehan, a member of Legatus’ Dublin Chapter, presents a leadership talk at the St. Columcille Institute. He tells students the importance of their taking on leadership roles in society.

James Sheehan

James Sheehan

“It’s a dynamic program for young people,” Sheehan said. “Those students I spoke with seemed to be entirely enjoying the experience.”

Weichert said she not only learned a great deal in the classroom, but also from taking nature hikes with her peers and instructors — and while sitting in pubs and conversing with local residents.

“It was gorgeous scenery and the people were very genuine and interested in hearing about you,” she said. “It was a life-changing event for me in many ways.”

Of course, Catholic spiritual formation is woven through the three weeks that the students stay at Ards Friary, which is owned by Franciscan Capuchins and includes more than 200 acres of scenic waterfront countryside.

The program offers morning Eucharistic adoration, followed by breakfast, then classes, daily Mass and a common meal. Some of the local Irish college students who attend the program are not familiar with devotions like Eucharistic adoration, but they quickly learn.

“Everything is done to communicate that the faith should be like the air we breathe,” O’Donnell explained. “It’s not just something we do on Sunday. So you get into the rhythm of regular prayer, and it just flows out of the beauty of God’s creation.”

Christendom may expand the St. Columcille Institute to two summer sessions if interest and demand continue to increase, though he said the program as currently organized is working well.

Said O’Donnell, “We’ll just see where the Holy Spirit wants us to go.”

BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.

Learn more: Christendom.edu/academics/st-columcille-institute/