A visit to the University of Mary

Over the years I’ve been privileged to speak or teach at most of the colleges and universities recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College. Earlier this month, on Oct. 5-6, I visited the campus of the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.

It was my second visit, my first being in the fall of last year, during which I gave my personal conversion testimony and a talk on the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings. This time, I gave two talks related to the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, particularly in connection to my latest book, Heroes of the Catholic Reformation (Our Sunday Visitor, 2017).

Much had changed in the 12 months since my previous visit, not least of which was the completion of an impressive new Lumen Vitae University Center, which had been a construction site the last time I had seen it. It was in these new surroundings that I gave the first of my talks, in a multi-storied and multi-faceted space which enabled students to attend the talk in conventional fashion by situating themselves in the seats in front of the podium, or else to observe proceedings from various balconies and vantage points above.

Apart from the giving of my two talks, I had the opportunity to attend Mass in one of the two chapels on campus. I found myself in the midst of students clearly on fire for the Faith, a sure sign of the vibrancy of the school’s Catholic spirit.

The university’s President, Monsignor James Shea, celebrated Mass. Many have compared him to the late Fr. Michael Scanlan (1931-2017), the charismatic and courageous president of Franciscan University of Steubenville from 1974 until his retirement in 2000. The comparison is justified. Fr. Scanlan’s role in transforming Franciscan’s ailing and failing fortunes is rightly celebrated, presiding as he did over FUS’s transformation from a party school which had lost its way spiritually and academically, with a dwindling enrollment, into one of the leading bona fide Catholic universities in the country. Working with the same indomitable spirit, Monsignor Shea’s own track record seems to suggest that he is following in Fr. Scanlan’s footsteps.

When Monsignor Shea became the University of Mary’s president in 2009 at the age of only 34, he was the youngest college or university president in the United States. Since then, he has overseen a rapid growth in enrollment inspired by radical, innovative approaches to development and, at the same time, a deep commitment to the Catholic liberal arts. UMary now offers over 60 undergraduate majors, 14 master’s degrees, and three doctoral degrees. In addition to its primary campus in Bismarck, the university also has a presence in Arizona, Montana, Minnesota, Kansas, Rome, and Peru.

As for the Bismarck campus, it’s quirkily attractive, in spite of the utilitarian brutalism of some of the architecture. It’s perched on a bluff overlooking the meandering splendor of the Missouri River. On the morning I was there, I walked around the campus perimeter, saying my rosary in the presence of a huge harvest moon, which lit the fog-covered valley with an eerily enchanting light. There can be few campuses anywhere in the country blessed with vistas as splendid!

In the evening, after my talk, I repaired to Chesterton’s, the University of Mary’s aptly named pub, where I enjoyed a locally brewed stout and good vivacious conversation with students and faculty, accompanied by the spirit of Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and Hilaire Belloc, whose portraits beamed down at us from the walls with a timeless benevolence. This was indeed a home away from home, an elixir of life for the exiled wanderer!

As I recall my all-too-brief sojourn in this most warm-hearted and edifying of places, I find myself hoping for the opportunity to return again—and soon.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.