The Success of Wyoming Catholic College
Photos by Fr Jeffrey Keyes
Dr Peter Kwasnewski is a professor of Theology who has been with Wyoming Catholic College since its inception a few short years ago. In this candid interview, he takes REGINA on an insider’s tour of the College, and the joys and challenges of hewing out a brand new Catholic institution in God’s country.
REGINA: Tell us about yourself.
PETER KWASNEWSKI: I come from a family of six, all born in Chicago, although I grew up in New Jersey. In high school I rediscovered my faith in a serious way, thanks to a curious combination of a charismatic prayer group and a Latin-loving teacher who introduced me to Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas. My growing passion for philosophy and theology led me to Thomas Aquinas College, The Catholic University of America, and my first job at the International Theological Institute in Austria. Along this path, God in His mercy led me to discover the liturgical heritage of the Church, especially Gregorian chant, the venerable Roman Mass, and authentic Benedictine monasticism. I fell head over heels in love with it all.
REGINA: You have been with the College since its inception. How did you get involved?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: I had a little time off of teaching and came back to the United States to do research, in the summer of 2006. While here, a friend mentioned to me out of the blue that a new liberal arts college in Wyoming had just been founded and that I should check out its website. (I later discovered that the website had only been launched a couple of weeks earlier.) I read with curiosity, which turned into fascination, and finally became conviction. This place was going to be very different, very special, and after discussing it with my wife, I sent a letter to the co-founders, asking if I could come for a visit. The reply came swiftly and the visit was fruitful. I left convinced that this quixotic plan could succeed. By the end of the summer, I’d been hired as the first faculty member, with a year to work on the curriculum, recruit the first class, and basically do any odd job that needed doing before we opened our doors in August 2007.
REGINA: Why was Wyoming College started?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: Our philosophical vision statement is a small but wise book by Dr. Robert Carlson that I highly recommend reading as a potent critique of contemporary Western education and an eloquent apologia for the timeless relevance of liberal education. This book takes as its point of departure the obvious moral and intellectual bankruptcy of modern colleges and universities (including all too many Catholic ones), which have sold their souls to relativism, materialism, and careerism.
REGINA: So, in place of the morally bankrupt environments in which we are educating our children, you wanted to offer…?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: We wanted to offer an antidote to reductionism: the reduction of a person to his parts, the reduction of a citizen to a cog in the machine, the reduction of society to a network of utilities, the reduction of the university to radically disconnected departments, the reduction of education to narrow job-training.
REGINA: So, what was Wyoming College founded to do?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: We were founded as an organized protest against intellectual incoherence, moral depravity, and spiritual mediocrity; we were founded to form young men and women who would be notable for their versatile intelligence, integrity of character, and Christian maturity.
PETER KWASNEWSKI: It was—and is—a remarkably big boast for a small school to make, and none too easy to pull off in today’s world, which is pretty much ranged against us in almost every respect. It’s like the shepherd David with his simple slingshot going up against Goliath with his more advanced technology and better government funding.
REGINA: And today?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: I think that our boldness of vision is a good part of the reason the college has caught the attention of so many people so quickly and has gained a nationwide student body and support base, at least among God-fearing Catholics. We opened a little over eight years ago (August 2007), with 34 students. Today we have 150 students. They have come from 46 of the 50 States. There are young men and women from outside the USA wanting to attend as soon as we are able to accommodate them. We started with a handful of teachers and now, if we include everyone who teaches in the program in some capacity, we have a faculty of 20.
REGINA: What do you think are the greatest challenges the College has faced?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: Without a doubt, the financial challenge is always in front of us. Although America is a great place to start up something new (what we are doing would probably have been impossible in Europe), higher education is inherently an expensive enterprise, even with the tightest controls and the cleverest strategies. Our particular educational model, which strongly emphasizes student-teacher interaction, is costly; the tuition, room, and board covers less than half of our expenses. The rest has to come through philanthropy, to the tune of over $2 million per year. So, this is a constant challenge.
REGINA: Speaking of finances, the College has decided to reject nearly $1 million in federal aid. Why?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: WCC’s president Dr. Kevin Roberts has written convincingly and thorough of this question, but I can give the short answer. The federal government has shown an increasing willingness to overreach its functions by establishing invasive requirements and even riding roughshod over human rights. We can expect any time now a more liberal or progressive president or congress to enforce conformity with aberrant sexual ethics as the price to be paid for government assistance with educational loans and funds. We simply don’t want to be encumbered by such a compromising alliance. Institutions that are already dependent will find it nearly impossible to extricate themselves. Our donors respect our convictions and courage, and are supporting us in the difficult task of making a go of it without such aid.
REGINA: What have been your biggest surprises in these years?
PETER KWASNEWSKI: A few of the many surprises: the fact that we convinced 34 students to come to a college that didn’t exist. (That was surely God’s doing.) The way teachers kept applying to come here and teach, not primarily because teaching jobs are not plentiful, but because they actually loved the philosophical vision statement and were ready to dedicate themselves to an audacious experiment. This allowed us to pick out the very best faculty, highly qualified and driven by high ideals.
The very first class, which graduated in 2011, is the one I still think of the most fondly, because it felt like they were my own children, more than any other class. I taught them all, they “grew up” with my own family, and their success made WCC seems worth all the crazy days and nights of work that we had to pour into it. I’m not sure I could do it all over again (if such an option were at hand), but I’m sure it was all worth doing, because it was always for Christ and His Church. And He has blessed us tremendously, far beyond our deserts.
“WE HAVE NO MAJORS, NO MINORS, AND NO ELECTIVES: EVERY STUDENT TAKES THE WHOLE PROGRAM, EVERY PART OF IT, STARTING AT THE BEGINNING.” Dr Peter Kwasnewski (l) with Dr. Kent Lasnoski.
Dr Kwasnewski is a Professor of Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. His most recent book is Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church (Angelico Press, 2014). He is currently working on a book: Ecstasy and Rapture in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Our campus in town has grown impressively: we started at the local parish, using its church, classroom building, dining hall, and two nearby apartment buildings, and today, while continuing to use those places, we also have several dormitories and an historic downtown building large enough to accommodate all the faculty and staff offices, several more classrooms, the library, computers and mailboxes, and, at the very heart of it, a chapel with the Blessed Sacrament, where daily Adoration is held and Masses are offered.”
“This liberal education, the kind of education that befits and equips a free man, prepares for and leads seamlessly into man’s ultimate perfection, the knowledge and love of God. We are pursuing, with our own custom touches, the educational ideal of the Greeks, the medieval scholastics, and John Henry Newman. The Catholic Church has always praised this holistic ideal, and it would be hard to deny that it is more needed now than ever, as our society rushes headlong down the path of fragmentation, dissipation, and self-destruction.”
“While we’ve had students from public and private high schools and students who have already completed some years of college or even a degree elsewhere, our single largest source of incoming freshmen is homeschooling families. It’s not surprising that these families would see the immense value of an integrated liberal education, the need for orthodox Catholicism, and the desirability of high moral standards. “
“We have graduated five classes so far, and the alumni have gone into quite a number of areas. Many are in grad school—philosophy, theology, art history, psychology, nursing, medicine. A good number have become grade school and high school teachers. Several are working for the college—in admissions, horsemanship, student life, food service, and maintenance. Some are serving their local communities as law enforcement officers, paramedics, social workers, and caregivers for the handicapped; others are working for the Church as musicians or diocesan employees. A few have continued working the family farm or ranch, gone into real estate, or started their own businesses. “
“One alumnus is working full-time for a foundation that trains exorcists; another is in charge of weed and pest control (actually almost a parallel field when you come to think of it). There is a computer programmer, a Forestry Service ranger, and a clerk for Wyoming’s representative in Congress. Some alumnae are now mothers, taking care of their small children at home.”
“Six alumni have entered religious life: two monks and four nuns. I’ve heard that others are discerning the priesthood. Thanks be to God, it is a heartening harvest of professions and vocations, as diverse and interesting as our students themselves.”
“WE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO MOVE OUR ENTIRE OUTDOOR LEADERSHIP PROGRAM IN-HOUSE. When we opened our doors in 2007, we were heavily dependent on outside providers of services for our freshmen orientation, namely, the three-week summer backpacking trek in the wilderness and the one-week winter camping experience. With incredibly hard work on the part of dedicated faculty and staff, alumni who had acquired further training, and current students, this past summer we were able to run the three-week trip with all of our own people and equipment. Just a few years ago, no one would have thought this possible.”
“A DIFFERENT KIND OF SURPRISE HAS BEEN THE SLOW AND STEADY GROWTH OF THE TRADITIONAL MOVEMENT in this country, as seen first hand in the student demographics. Only a few members of the first class had any awareness of the traditional Latin Mass. In contrast, about half of this year’s freshman class of 58 students either attended it before coming to WCC or have a clear idea of what it is. One can certainly see the gradual effect of Summorum Pontificum on the Church, and how WCC’s faithfulness to Pope Benedict XVI’s provisions has become a significant element in our good reputation among orthodox Catholics. We currently have a Low Mass every Wednesday and a High Mass every Sunday, both of which are well attended by students, faculty, staff, and locals.”
“PERHAPS THE BIGGEST SURPRISE OF ALL has been our transition from an original master plan of building a campus on a big ranch outside of town, fifteen minutes away by car, to a revised plan of building up the college in town and, eventually, building a campus adjacent to town. The students and faculty just love being in the town of Lander (pop. 7,500), rubbing shoulders with the locals and making a difference here—and the locals definitely like us and want us to stay nearby. It was a really interesting evolution of thought and feeling to watch take place.”
“ANOTHER, RELATED CHALLENGE IS GETTING PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS AND DONORS TO VISIT A PLACE THAT IS QUITE REMOTE. We are nowhere near a major airport. Lander is a beautiful place, a peaceful place ‘far from the madding crowd,’ and that is a large component of its charm and its suitability for our philosophical vision, but it still makes it harder, initially, for people to motivate themselves to get out here and experience in person the wonderful things that are happening. Once they visit, they’re usually hooked.”