The two words that best describe Christendom College are Catholic and traditional, in the very best sense of both words. The College was founded in 1977 by the late historian, Warren Carroll, to counter harmful trends in American higher education and return to an emphasis on serious study and student development. Today Christendom sets a standard for fidelity and traditional education against which other Catholic liberal arts colleges are measured.
“The College has a very clear vision,” says President Timothy O’Donnell. “We stress academics and Catholicism. …We end up attracting a person who hungers for what we are providing.”
Proudly proclaiming that Catholicism is “the air that we breathe,” the College’s vision statement proclaims, “Only an education which integrates the truths of the Catholic Faith throughout the curriculum is a fully Catholic education.” All professors are Catholic and teach all classes with a clear Catholic worldview. They annually make a Profession of Faith and take the Oath of Fidelity before the Bishop of Arlington. The 15-member governing board, including one priest and Dr. O’Donnell, also takes the Oath of Fidelity annually.
Nestled in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Christendom is intentionally small, with an undergraduate program at Front Royal, Virginia, and a graduate theology program in Alexandria, Virginia. The College is designed to reach a maximum number of 450 residential undergraduates, only 20 above its current enrollment.
Christendom undergraduates choose among six major areas of study, with a traditional emphasis on the liberal arts. The 86-credit core curriculum constitutes about two-thirds of the four-year program, with emphasis on Catholic theology and philosophy. The study-abroad semester in Rome is popular among third-year students.
Dr. O’Donnell has taught at Christendom since 1985 and was named its third president seven years later. He has a doctoral-level degree in theology from the Angelicum in Rome, has been a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the Family since 2002, authored two books, and has hosted of numerous television programs for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).
Christendom has been on a path of steady growth, building, and expansion. Upcoming planned expansions will include a piazza, two academic buildings, the expansion of St. Lawrence Commons, and a cruciform Gothic Church with a 100-foot tower.
The tuition rate is below the average private college cost in Virginia, and the typical financial aid package at Christendom is generous. The College is wary of government entanglements and so does not participate in the federal student aid programs, but it provides scholarships and loans from its own resources, as well as helping students obtain funds from private sources.
All courses in the freshman and sophomore years are prescribed and include four theology courses and four philosophy courses. Juniors and seniors must take two more theology courses and two additional philosophy courses. Two years of a foreign language—Latin, Greek, or French—are required as are courses in English, history, math, science, and political science.
Students can select from six majors and begin work in a concentration in the third and fourth years. The majors are classical studies, English language and literature, history, philosophy, political science and economics, and theology. Students can also choose to minor in mathematics, economics, or liturgical music. An 86-credit hour Associate of Arts degree is given to undergraduates who choose to transfer elsewhere to major in disciplines other than the six at Christendom.
Students have the opportunity to attend the Junior Semester in Rome either in the fall or spring. It is a rigorous semester that includes one course each in theology, art and architecture, Italian, and interdisciplinary studies. Dr. O’Donnell said that in their senior exit interviews, most students talk about the transformative power of the Rome experience. There also is a shorter summer program available in Ireland.
As a helpful complement to its academic program, Christendom has recently hired a full-time career development officer and has rolled out a series of classes and workshops to help students discern career vocations and prepare for job interviews.
The Chapel of Christ the King is at the center of the campus and of campus life. The chapel bells ring several times each day, calling students to Mass and prayer. Time is set aside daily for Mass, which about 70 percent of the students attend. Masses are reverently celebrated, and a more solemn Ordinary Form liturgy is celebrated in Latin on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Fridays, with one of the daily Masses each week offered in the Extraordinary Form. The liturgies are traditional with traditional music. On Sundays, some students attend the 12:30 p.m. Extraordinary Form Mass at St. John the Baptist parish in Front Royal.
Confessions are available daily, normally twice a day throughout the week and once a day on the weekends. There is Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament most mornings and recitation of the Rosary and Evening Prayer. On the first Thursday of each month, a special holy hour is offered in reparation to the Sacred Heart, followed by all-night Adoration ending at the 7:30 a.m. Mass on Friday.
All religious ministries at Christendom are specifically Catholic.
Emphasis is placed on both religious and married vocations. A vocational discernment weekend is held annually, and Christendom offers a debt forgiveness program for graduates entering religious life who take a vow of poverty. In a given year, about five percent of graduating students choose a religious vocation, with more than 140 men and women as priests, religious, or in seminary formation, and Christendom has had more than 350 alumnus-to-alumna marriages.
Campus housing is provided for full-time students. About 90 percent of students live on campus, while others may live at home and commute to campus.
There are five female and six male residence halls. Freshmen males are mixed with upper classmen. Inter-visitation is prohibited.
Every floor in every hall has a resident assistant whose job it is to promote community life, enforce college behavior policy, and assist students. There are weekly room inspections. Neither television nor Internet access are available within the residence halls but are provided in campus centers. Freshmen and sophomores under the age of 21 have a curfew of midnight during the week and 1:00 a.m. on weekends.
Students eat all their meals at the St. Lawrence Commons. It is common to see professors and staff eating and talking with students during lunch time.
Alcohol is prohibited in the college residences, but at some campus events, students over the age of 21 are allowed to consume a moderated number of alcoholic beverages. There is also a restriction on public romantic displays of affection.
The College has a part-time nurse for student medical care. If needed, Warren County Memorial Hospital is a 196-bed facility in Front Royal about ten minutes from campus. There are also medical specialists and hospitals in Washington, D.C.
The small town of Front Royal has a population of about 14,500. Downtown has quaint shops including a Catholic book and gift store, coffee shop, laundromat, antique shop, boutiques, restaurants, and a three-screen movie theater. There are newer hotels, restaurants, and retail stores nearby.
Front Royal is easily reachable. Dulles International Airport is about an hour east of the campus, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport offers flights closer to the nation’s capital.
A professional dress code is maintained in the classroom—as well as at Mass, lunch, and special events. Usually this includes a dress shirt and necktie for men and a dress or blouse with skirt or dress slacks for women. A jacket is also required for men at Sunday Mass and for speakers’ presentations.
For a small school, Christendom offers many activities, with approximately 20 different clubs and organizations. The St. Lawrence Commons, where students dine, is the scene for dances and performances sponsored by the Student Activities Council. There are a variety of college activities, as well as Catholic cultural festivities and lectures.
Students in the Shield of Roses pray the Rosary and offer sidewalk counseling in front of Planned Parenthood in Washington, D.C., each Saturday morning. Participation in the annual March for Life, also in the nation’s capital, includes nearly the entire student body, with the College cancelling classes on that day.
The Corporal Works of Mercy group ministers to the poor in the Front Royal area by helping at soup kitchens, delivering meals, and visiting nursing homes.
The St. Juan Diego Confraternity assists in the formation of student missionary workers who participate in the college mission programs to such places as Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and the streets of New York City. Members pray for the Catholic evangelization of the Americas and participate in trips within the region. In 2014, 25 percent of the college's student body participated in a spring break mission trip.
The College has a student schola that provides music and Gregorian chant for Mass. There is also an active drama contingent on campus, called the Christendom Players, and there are many opportunities for students to participate in musical events, such as the annual St. Cecilia’s Eve, Coffee House, Piano Night, and various Pub Nights.
Cultural opportunities and lectures also exist through the Major Speakers Program and the Beato Fra Angelico Arts Program. In addition, the Chester-Belloc Debate Society helps students hone their argumentation and rhetorical skills. They can also write for the student journal, The Rambler, or for The Chronicler, a weekly synopsis of life at Christendom.
The John Paul the Great Student Center is the locus for student activity after class. It houses the Student Life office, Career Development, a lounge, and student post office boxes, as well as St. Kilian’s Café, which often becomes a working pub. The lower level features a large-screen television, ping pong, foosball, pool, and air hockey tables. The St. Louis the Crusader Gym is also available for student use, which has a full-size basketball court, a weight room, an exercise room, and two racquetball courts, as well as a student lounge area.
Christendom is a member of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association and the Shenandoah-Chesapeake Conference and has seven varsity teams and various intramural sports.
The Blue Ridge Mountains provide a beautiful backdrop for Christendom, and outdoor opportunities include the Shenandoah River for canoeing, tubing, and fishing. Hiking is available at Shenandoah National Park and mountains. In addition, the nation’s capital is about 70 miles away and presents historical, cultural, artistic, and political opportunities for students.
The Bottom Line
For more than 35 years, Christendom College has made a vital contribution to American Catholic life through its solid spiritual formation and its liberal arts curriculum. What was once a tiny holdout against the decline of higher education is today a model for Catholic liberal arts colleges, with a well-deserved reputation even in Rome.
“It is refreshing to see a Catholic college where the parents can send their children and not get worried whether they will get serious Catholic education—without discount—just as it is,” said Cardinal Francis Arinze, then-Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, while visiting Christendom in 2008.
Students seem to appreciate Christendom’s commitment to the Catholic faith and its small size, friendliness, and close-knit community. On the key measures of Catholic identity and liberal arts education, few American colleges can compare.