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Benedictines in the Bible Belt

Saint Gregory’s University growing in Oklahoma.
by Anthony Flott | Source: NCRegister.com

It’s easy to feel out of the loop when you’re the only Catholic university in the middle of a Bible Belt state.

“Make no mistake,” says St. Gregory University professor Jean Thornbrugh, “Catholicism is not the prevalent religion.”

Yet even that is not without its advantages at St. Gregory’s, a Benedictine-run liberal arts institution in Shawnee, Okla.

“If somebody says, ‘Are there any Catholic institutions?’” says Thornbrugh, “pretty much everyone knows there’s just one, and it’s St. Gregory’s.”

Now, university officials are hoping the good word gets beyond the Sooner State. Benedictine Father Lawrence Stasyszen, the 10th abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey and SGU chancellor, wants to become more visible and accessible to Catholic families throughout the country.

“Our goal is to increase the number of Catholic students on our campus so that our Catholic culture can be increasingly strengthened,” says Abbott Stasyszen, an Oklahoma native. “One way that we are doing this in the coming year is significantly increasing our scholarship program which offers support to students simply for being Catholic.”

That’s in keeping with one way that Abbot Stasyszen describes the university, calling it a “missionary institution … located on a frontier of the Church where Catholics are a minority and often-persecuted population.”

Deep Roots

St. Gregory’s roots stretch back to 1875 when French Benedictine Father Isidore Robot and Brother Dominic Lambert came to Indian Territory and began ministering to the Citizen Band Pottawatomi Indians in south-central Oklahoma. That’s marked as the beginning of the Catholic Church in Oklahoma, and no wonder: The two monks soon established a school for the children of American Indians and white settlers in present-day Konawa, Okla., the first of more than 45 Oklahoma missions and parishes founded by the order.

In 1913 the Benedictines began constructing a new high school and college in Shawnee. Two years later it was incorporated as the “Catholic University of Oklahoma,” though popularly known as St. Gregory’s.

SGU today has 800 undergraduates, 330 of them traditional students at the main campus in Shawnee (the “Redbud” city of Oklahoma 35 minutes east of Oklahoma City, population 28,600). Roughly a third of the students come from outside Oklahoma, representing 15 states and 18 countries. Abbot Stasyszen calls it a diverse campus whose Benedictine hallmarks of hospitality and community welcome a variety of religious, ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

As its Shawnee campus approaches its centennial anniversary, St. Gregory’s is stressing faith, focus and flexibility.


The first of those, not surprisingly, is led by the witness of 28 monks, most of whom reside at the on-campus monastery, others in area parishes.

“The monastic community gives witness to the vital necessity of prayer and of the reality of God’s transcendent love to our students, faculty, staff and guests,” says Abbott Stasyszen, a 1984 SGU graduate. “Several members of the campus community join us regularly for our celebration of the Divine Office and for our daily celebration of the Eucharist. We hope that the work of members of the monastic community in the classroom, in administrative roles, in efforts to beautify the campus grounds, and in our ministry as chaplains and mentors to students and members of the faculty and staff have a positive impact on their lives.

“St. Gregory’s remains a vital extension of St. Gregory’s Abbey. The monks of St. Gregory’s consider the university to be our primary offering in service to the Church and to humanity.”

The examples go beyond work and prayer. President David Wagie, who in April 2007 followed Abbot Stasyszen in that post, adds that the “Benedictine value of excellence is reflected in our overall academic programs and focus on the students.”

Abbot Stasyszen provides a few examples:

• The conceptual model for SGU’s teacher education program, “Reflective Practitioner,” immerses students in the practice of contemplative reflection on curriculum, field experiences and the ongoing discernment of a vocation to be a teacher.

• A new core curriculum centered on a four-semester study of great texts called “Tradition and Conversation” draws upon the Benedictine traditions of lectio divina (a slow and prayerful reading of texts) as well as communal discussion.

• The design of new student housing is considering models for “community living and mutual respect and service.”

Ex Corde Ecclesiae

Such immersion in Benedictine and Catholic values was one of the reasons St. Gregory’s was among 21 recommended colleges in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College: What to Look For and Where to Find It, published last November by the Cardinal Newman Society. Editor Joseph Esposito also points to the university’s student-monk interactions and to its religious outreach efforts. The latter includes the Buckley Outreach Team through which SGU students conduct retreats for youth in Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. In a typical year the team will conduct 20 retreats for some 50 parishes and nearly 1,000 youth.

Esposito also is impressed with St. Gregory’s commitment to Pope John Paul II’s Ex corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities) and with its role in the New Evangelization.

“We are heartened to see a number of older Catholic colleges and universities who have rejuvenated their Catholic identity and rededicated their commitment to Catholic evangelization,” says Esposito. “The reason for this rebirth is the faithful leadership of new presidents and other administrators. Leadership at the top is extremely important.”

Says the Oklahoma-born Father Stasyszen, who was elected abbot in January 2006, “Benedictine spirituality and education is hardly a new fad. It is also a tradition that does not foster extremism. Rather, Benedictine spirituality fosters a sense of healthy balance based on firm identity and purpose. I believe that this resonates well with people today.”

Focused, Flexible

The university’s two other areas of emphasis, focus and flexibility, perhaps are best witnessed by an impressive student-to-faculty ratio of 11 to 1.

“We all work together to help provide a great education and help students succeed,” says Wagie.

Such personal attention allows for flexibility, most evident in the option of personalized degree programs that SGU promotes as “Design your very own university experience.”

Additional flexibility is illustrated through its College for Working Adults founded in 2003 in Tulsa. The college provides accelerated evening classes for working adults, a student segment not often mentioned in New Evangelization discussions.

“They come to us from many different perspectives,” says Thornbrugh, who taught the first CWA class in 2003 before becoming the college’s dean in 2005. “We might have people who were fortunate to be able to go to college after high school but maybe didn’t take advantage of it as they should and perhaps academically underperformed. And then we have people like me who didn’t have the means to be able to afford to go to a university. I think ‘life happens’ to these adults for various reasons, and now they’re able to complete their education.”

The program began with 15 adult students. Last year, prior to graduation, there were 429 CWA students pursuing mostly business degrees at the associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s levels on three campuses. That includes the recently opened third campus in Oklahoma City.

Students meet once a week for a four-hour class. Like communal monks, they also work together in teams of three to four “cohorts,” meeting outside the classroom to achieve team objectives and assignments. Classes last five weeks, and the program is structured for completion in 18 months to two years. Already it boasts 252 alumni, including 26 with master’s degrees. The university hopes to have 600 CWA students by 2010.

President Wagie is hoping for an enrollment boost throughout the college. Plans also call for expanded academic offerings and for improved facilities (new resident halls and a library learning center). Long term, Wagie hopes St. Gregory’s will “become regionally known as a beacon for Christian values, educational opportunity, and community service.”

Word has already gotten out in Oklahoma.

“When I teach,” says Thornbrugh, “I go around and ask, ‘Why did you pick St. Gregory’s?’

“I will tell you, 80% of every class says they chose us because we’re religious. By and large what is the draw is being religious. Being in the Bible Belt, that’s very strong here.’”

Anthony Flott is based in
Papillion, Nebraska.

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