The Abbey tower and cross rise above the trees as you approach Benedictine College, set on the Kansas bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Although these sure signs of a Catholic community have dominated the landscape for generations, the College has more recently found a renewed strength in its Catholic identity—with very exciting results.
Students describe the Abbey as “The Rock,” referencing the limestone blocks that make up its imposing Church. But there is also a deeper meaning: the Abbey tower sits precisely above the Tabernacle at the center of the 100-acre campus, a reminder that Christ and His Church are the true foundation of the monastic community and the College.
What was originally St. Benedict’s College was founded in 1858—a men’s college before its merger with the all-female Mount St. Scholastica College in 1971. Despite efforts to maintain a strong Catholic identity—for instance, the Abbey leased its land to the College on the condition that all students take nine credit hours of theology—the College became something of a “party school” from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Suffering financially, Benedictine almost closed on more than one occasion.
But Benedictine’s recent turnaround is a remarkable example of what can happen when a college embraces its Catholic identity with passion. Today Benedictine routinely refers to its four “pillars”: Catholic, Benedictine, liberal arts, and residential. As a result, Benedictine has experienced tremendous success, and the School’s enrollment has doubled within the past 10 years.
Stephen Minnis has been the College’s president for much of that period. A former prosecuting attorney and corporate lawyer, Minnis is a Benedictine College alumnus. His wife Amy is also a graduate and teaches math and computer science at the College, as well as serving as one of the caretakers for the Marian Grotto.
The board of directors is composed of 43 lay members and College personnel, including four priests, the prior of the Abbey, and three religious sisters.
As a liberal arts College, Benedictine requires every student to complete 58 credits in foundational courses. These include core courses in English composition, a foreign language, theology, logic and nature, wellness for life, physical fitness, and the Benedictine College Experience. The latter course introduces first-year students to the value and qualities of a Catholic liberal arts education.
In addition, students have a variety of choices from various disciplines to fulfill the Foundations requirements in areas such as faith, aesthetics, philosophical inquiry, and understanding the natural world. Likewise, Skills and Perspectives courses are required in broad areas such as global perspective, communication, and scientific method.
The College offers more than 40 traditional majors. Business, education, biology, and theology are popular majors, and Benedictine is one of few Catholic liberal arts colleges to offer engineering and astronomy.
Benedictine is careful when hiring theology professors. It wants only “candidates who will seek the mandatum from the local ordinary in accordance with Ex corde Ecclesiae,” according to Dr. Richard White, associate professor and chair of the Theology Department.
Benedictine recently expanded its engineering physics major to a complete engineering program that offers accredited chemical, civil, mechanical, and electrical engineering degrees through a partnership with the University of North Dakota. Also, Benedictine’s nursing program was approved by the Kansas State Board of Nursing in 2010.
The Education Department has been nationally recognized by the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education.
About 70 percent of students majoring in natural sciences continue in graduate and professional schools, nearly twice the national average.
Benedictine offers a study abroad semester at its Florence campus in Italy for up to 40 students per semester. They reside at Villa Morghen, a former monastery located approximately three miles from the historic center of Florence. In addition to courses in Italian, Florentine history and culture, and the saints and mystics of Italy, students visit Subiaco, Monte Cassino, Assisi, Perugia, Pisa, and Livorno. The final week of the program is spent in Rome.
The College is also part of an exchange program that allows students to study in Australia, Ireland, or anywhere in a network of 275 colleges and universities in 39 different countries. Students majoring in French or Spanish are required to complete one semester abroad.
The presence of the Benedictine monks on campus is a blessing. Not only are five chaplains available to celebrate Mass and hear confessions, but several also provide spiritual direction.
Four Ordinary Form Masses are available daily at the various chapels and churches on campus, with five Masses on Sunday. In total, daily Masses are attended by approximately 600 students, more than one-third of the student body. Father Brendan Rolling, OSB, college ministry director, estimated that 80 percent of Benedictine students worship weekly.
“You have your options from a very conservative Mass [at the Abbey] to a more charismatic Mass with praise and worship,” said one student. “There is nothing irreverent and you can find one that fits your spirituality.”
Confession is available 30 minutes prior to each Mass, and Perpetual Eucharistic Adoration is offered at St. Benedict’s Parish Church adjacent to Ferrell Hall. A variety of retreats are regularly made available to students as well.
The St. Gregory the Great vocational discernment group is active on campus, and over the past few years, 60 students have announced their intention to discern the priesthood or religious life.
At least half of Benedictine’s college ministry programs are dedicated to social justice and human rights. One group of students is engaged in prison ministry. Past mission trips have gone to Belize, El Salvador, India, Tanzania, and Indian reservations in North Dakota.
Students are also involved in serving the poor through Simple House, an outreach program in Kansas City. Each week, more than 400 students skip a meal and donate the food to the poor. In addition, students have sponsored a Christmas giving tree for foster children, adopted poor families in Kansas City, visited local senior citizens, volunteered at a soup kitchen, and participated in Habitat for Humanity.
Benedictine has nine residence halls, five for women and four for men. Each of the residence halls has a different style and houses students depending upon their class. One hall features lofts, suites, and apartment-style rooms for upper-class women. Another has single rooms for men and has been described as a mini-seminary. There are also newer two and four bedroom apartment-style residences for upper-class men and children of alumni.
Each hall is staffed by a residence director and multiple student resident assistants. “All resident directors study the virtues, Ex corde Ecclesiae, the Rule of St. Benedict, the Pope’s Theology of the Body, and the documents on the dignity of the human person and the vocation of women,” said Father Rolling. Residence Life structures fellowship around a “family model” that promotes wholesome community.
The College maintains a strict visitation policy for each of its halls: between 12 p.m. and 12 a.m. on weekdays and between 10 a.m. and 2 a.m. on weekends.
Benedictine has a household program, called the School of the Lord’s Service, where students live together and act and pray as a community. This is a joint initiative of the College, the Archdiocese of Kansas City’s Office of Evangelization, and the Minnesota-based St. Paul’s Outreach.
The campus has a strict no-smoking policy that allows students to smoke only in designated areas. But there is no dress code, and moderate drinking is permitted by students of legal age. Whereas the party atmosphere was prevalent in earlier decades, it has diminished in recent years, and underage drinking and partying takes place largely off-campus.
Situated along the Missouri River, Atchison is quintessential small-town Midwest. There is a main street with local businesses located just blocks away from campus and larger retailers located a bit farther near the edge of town. The town boasts of more than 20 sites on the National Register of Historic Places and is the birthplace of famed pilot Amelia Earhart.
In addition to Kansas City, students can easily reach St. Joseph, Missouri, which is about 20 miles across the state border.
Benedictine has more than 35 student groups, clubs, and organizations, including academic clubs, sports clubs, and others. The most popular student organization is Ravens Respect Life, which takes large numbers of students to the annual March for Life. In addition, the University has a Theology of the Body club, a Knights of Columbus group, the BC Nun Run (for women considering a religious vocation), a Swing and Social Dance club, Pipe and Cigar Enthusiasts Club, and many others.
The Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) was founded at Benedictine, and the local campus-based team maintains an office on campus. Seventy percent of new students sign up for the 68 FOCUS Bible studies taking place on campus, and nearly a quarter of the student body attends the FOCUS national conference.
Benedictine has seven different student choirs. Among them, the Chamber Singers have traveled to Italy several times, performing in Venice, Rome, and even for the Pope. Other active groups on campus are the Communion and Liberation group that meets weekly, and a Hunger Coalition that serves approximately 400 meals to the Atchison community each week.
The College is a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and offers 16 varsity athletic programs including women’s basketball, cross country, soccer, softball, Spirit squad (cheer and dance), indoor and outdoor track and field, and volleyball; and men’s baseball, basketball, cross country, football, soccer, and indoor and outdoor track and field. There is also an intramural and club sports program that includes rugby and ice hockey.
The Student Union and the Haverty Center, including the Monte Cassino Inn restaurant and pub, are popular student social hangouts. The Center also features a student lounge area, a coffee shop, and a bookstore. The Student Union includes athletic coach offices, the office of student life, some classrooms, the mailroom, an auditorium, a gymnasium, campus ministry offices, and a deli.
The Bottom Line
In many ways, Benedictine College is the “new Steubenville,” with an equally compelling story to tell. The Franciscan University of Steubenville is well-known for its transformation from a wayward party school into a vibrant, Catholic institution. At Benedictine, the transformation can be attributed to remarkable students and faculty as well as inspiring leaders. The results are impressive.
Benedictine is a growing college located in a small town, where the president still tries to learn all of the incoming students’ names. Because of the wide range of opportunities at Benedictine, nearly any type of student should be able to fit in and have a successful college experience.
Students seeking a solid Catholic college offering a host of majors and a family-like environment—all with the excitement and confidence of newfound success—will find much that is attractive about Benedictine.