By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2005
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory dedicated the new chapel of Southern Catholic College on the windy, cold day of Nov. 22 and affirmed the college’s presence as a blessing to the Atlanta Archdiocese that contributes greatly to students from across the Southeast and beyond.
Archbishop-emeritus John F. Donoghue concelebrated the Mass and blessed the school and its campus in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. SCC opened in September and its first class has 71 students from 15 states.
The lake waters on the campus glistened and flowed in the late afternoon sun, and water quietly rushed over the large stones of the manmade waterfall above the swimming pool as about 160 college donors, board members, faculty and others passed by them and the main educational center at the foot of a hill on the 100-acre campus to enter the chapel. The newly constructed building has a wood exterior and stone base, topped with a copper cross. Inside it has a wood ceiling and a stamped concrete floor. A wood crucifix hangs above the altar and a small statue of Mary sits beyond the glass window on the ground outside amidst bare trees and bushes. The chapel seats 120 and was designed by Paul Monardo and Kohl Gramigna Monardo Architects.
Students served as ushers and led the music, while members of the 4th Degree Color Corps of the Knights of Columbus, wearing purple plumed hats, also participated. The Georgia Knights, headed by state deputy John Brenner, have donated $75,000 to the college.
Concelebrants included Msgr. Stephen Churchwell, Msgr. Hugh Marren, Father Thad Rudd, Father Peter Rau, campus chaplain Father Joseph Simburger and Father Richard Wise. Others in attendance were Father Fabio Sotelo-Peña and Father Kevin Peek. Attendees quietly chatted as they viewed the new worship space that was converted from an outdoor shelter. Many revealed a sense of gladness that the school has finally opened with the first class, a sense of satisfaction in supporting a worthy endeavor, and a spirit of optimism about its future.
“This is a wonderful day for this community of faith and a proud day for the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” said Archbishop Gregory, who attended Catholic schools his whole life and converted to Catholicism.
“This is a proud moment for all the many people who worked so hard to open a Catholic university in Georgia, and (a grateful one) for the Archdiocese of Atlanta. I thank you from the heart. I speak for Archbishop Donoghue in saying how proud and privileged we are to see this day go on, to see this special moment of beginning and blessing take shape in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, which would not be possible were it not for the generosity of countless people who generously and quite determinedly made sure education following the Catholic tradition is made available for young people not only in Georgia but hopefully throughout the region who find this place a welcoming and nurturing community of learning.”
Planning began for the independent Catholic college back in 1999, and it originally was scheduled to open in 2002, but the opening was postponed due to setbacks in fund-raising and with construction plans. The campus is located about 45 miles north of Atlanta in Dawsonville. It was purchased from the Gold Creek Country Club, and its conference center and guesthouses were converted into the education center and residence villas. Their next construction plans are to build a residence hall and activity center with a gym and classrooms. Organizers hope to add a building a year.
Before the service began, donor Angelo Sampona expressed his belief in the school’s mission to create ethical leaders and good citizens to contribute to society. He became involved with the school through his friend and the chairman of the board of trustees, Edward Schroeder, with whom he worked at United Parcel Service, and as a Catholic is glad to be a part of opening the college. This parishioner of St. Brigid Church, Alpharetta, just extended his financial support for another five years.
“It was important to get started, and they did,” he said.
As the Mass of dedication began, President Jeremiah Ashcroft, Ph.D., presented the chapel plans to Archbishop Gregory declaring, “This presentation symbolizes to you our joy for joining your pastoral family in the archdiocese.”
The archbishop explained the dedication of the chapel as a reminder that “we are God’s people and that the things that we do in worship and praise are to sanctify us, make us holy and rededicate us to God’s call to worship and service.”
“We are above all asking God to bless us, to place our hearts upon the altar and ask them to be united to Christ in His perfect sacrifice.”
His prayer for students was that “when you come into this space you will be at peace with one another and with the Lord.”
He urged them to ask the Lord to heal and strengthen their hearts so that they would be in harmony with Jesus and at peace with their neighbor, which pleases the Father.
“May it be the first of many happy days,” he said. “May this Eucharist we offer be the first of many we offer in that chapel and in the chapels that succeed it, that may bring glory and honor and peace to these people.”
The archbishop dedicated the chapel to the Lord’s lasting service, and invoked God’s Spirit to sanctify it. He then blessed the altar and asked that all who partake in the Lord’s Supper draw closer to Christ and give their lives for His glory. He spooned incense into a golden thurible and wafted it over the wood altar. Schroeder and his wife, Fran, then placed a white cloth on the altar. College founder Tom Clements and board member David Seng placed white flower arrangements before it and their wives, Juliana Clements and Erin Seng, placed candles upon it. The archbishop consecrated the chapel as an early image of the heavenly city and the dwelling place of God in its fullness. Board member Patrick McGahan and his wife, Barbara, and Ashcroft and his wife, Margaret, brought forth the gifts of bread and wine.
Archbishop Donoghue offered the final blessing for the college and blessed the campus.
“Today we are honoring this work dedicated to education. May those who come here as teachers and students always pursue the truth and learn to know You as the source of all truth.”
As he walked out of the chapel, Clements, a Notre Dame graduate and member of St. Benedict’s Church in Duluth, reflected on the progress made since planning began on the college.
“It was exciting to see both the early donors and some of the newer donors come together, the previous archbishop and the new archbishop, all here for something that has taken a long time. It’s a community effort. What’s so exciting is to see the whole community participating. I saw the Stations of the Cross (on the chapel walls), given by the Hawthorne Dominican Sisters about four years ago and by some of the early supporters, and there they are on the wall. It’s such a great cross-section of supporters across the archdiocese here today. Of course it’s great to see students from many walks of life and ethnic backgrounds.”
As the former chair of the board, Clements led Southern Catholic through hard times as planners had originally purchased another Dawsonville property but then faced fund-raising setbacks particularly after 9/11. They later sold that property to purchase the current site.
“The good and the bad, the trials and the joys, have significantly deepened my faith. I did this to give back and I’ve gotten back much more than I’ve given,” he said. “It’s been great.”
He still serves on the board, ensuring that the school is faithful to its Catholicity. He recalled how in the early days there was a concern that it was “Tom Clement’s university” and that there was not enough breadth of people involved “to really make it happen.”
“(But) when I stepped back as chair others stepped forward. And we truly have a management team at the school and on the board who are able to make it a long-term, successful venture.”
A reception and dinner were held following the dedication. Breaking from chatting with students on the porch of the education center, philosophy professor Dr. Herbert Hartmann recalled how he was teaching at Thomas Aquinas College in California when he read on the Internet about the school, and was drawn to the opportunity to help realize Pope John Paul II’s vision for the Catholic college in the modern world at Southern Catholic while helping students to become leaders and to prepare for jobs and the rest of their lives. He’s enjoying the challenge of introducing students to a subject that most know little about and that is difficult but “mind-expanding.” The school is initially offering a major in humanities with a concentration in philosophy, history or theology, as well as majors in English, business, integrated sciences and psychology.
“I’m not trying to get them to understand facts but to understand arguments and reasoning and to think for themselves and to learn how to read carefully and concisely. It started out slow, but it’s getting better. We have some very good students, some in the middle, some students at the bottom of the academic schema.”
He added that he’s been pleased with a number of students who were accepted in a provisional manner.
“I’m very happy with a number of kids we took on a probationary or provisional manner who’ve worked hard and acted well, especially a number of Hispanic students who thought this was a chance that was offered to them and they’ve responded very well and worked very hard,” he said. “You see the progress in their eyes.”
Having come from a small college, he believes “there’s a lot to be said” for having a college where teachers and students get to know one another in a “tight-knit community especially when it’s united around the sacraments and church activities.”
Student Ashley Collins served as an usher during the Mass, and appreciates the opportunity to attend just such a college. He participated in a Catholic home school instructional program growing up in Milledgeville and wanted to find a college in Georgia with the Catholic intellectual tradition, so SCC was the perfect fit. He’s already experiencing its Catholicity as in philosophy he’s reading “Confessions” by St. Augustine. In his class on religions of the modern world, there is an emphasis on the Catholic Church and the role of the papacy in Western civilization, and in English class they’re now studying the classic “The Aeneid,” where they’ve discussed Roman history.
“It’s like a big family. It’s really tight-knit so everybody feels connected to each other,” he said. “The faculty is incredible … the openness they have to everybody and that’s helped a lot.”
But Collins admits that it can be tough to “start from scratch” in building programs. He is taking ballroom dancing and is in the drama club, now rehearsing for its spring play, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He’s also trying to plan a mission trip for college students and a long-term school partnership with the Amigos for Christ nonprofit in Buford, which serves the poor in Nicaragua and with which he’s active.
“Everything is new and everything has to be started from scratch, and we are the ones who have to use that scratch and build it. We have to make sure we keep at it and we can’t allow ourselves to burn out with so few students here so later when more students come they’ll be established through our effort,” he said. “I’m looking forward to having new students here next fall.”
Donor Bill Byrne, a Boston College graduate, lives in Big Canoe and attended the dedication with his wife, Diane. A member of Our Lady of the Mountains Church in Jasper, he believes there are many people in Big Canoe and the North Georgia mountains wanting better local access to higher education and believes the school should eventually also offer night programs for adults.
“I just think it’s wonderful. It’s an opportunity to bring higher education to North Georgia. I think it’s great for people in the surrounding areas,” he said. “We’re excited about the college.”
He believes that Ashcroft is the right man for the job.
“I think he’s a marvelous person to take this situation and turn it into something really special. He’s a unique individual and he’s perfect for what they’re doing.”
At the dinner, Ashcroft recognized priests in attendance, many of whom have made personal contributions, and Clements for his visionary work.
“Everyone in this room knows it was Tom’s idea and his courage to put this (project) into action.”
He thanked David Seng, who through the support of the David and Erin Seng Foundation allowed the chapel to be constructed.
Seng, a member of Christ Redeemer Church in Dawsonville and chair of the institutional advancement committee on the board, is a graduate of Notre Dame as well, where he now serves on advisory boards for the College of Arts and Letters and for the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business. Retired as executive vice president and chief operating officer of Montag and Caldwell, Inc., investment counseling, he became a SCC board member in winter 2004 at the same time that Schroeder joined and now works on the college’s upcoming campaign to raise money for scholarships and construction of the residence hall and activity center over the next five years. He and his wife, Erin, who serves on the board of Brenau University in Gainesville from which she graduated, have donated to the college through their Seng Foundation and have a special interest in education. With SCC, he was attracted to it as it is a Catholic college focusing both on excellent academics and the spiritual life, which “we felt was extremely important.”
“We just believe that the mission of the college is very worthwhile and therefore when we first heard of it wanted to become part of it and support the effort. The more we’ve been involved and learned about it the more we believe it’s going to make a significant difference for young people in the South and nationally,” he said.
He also noted that as most Catholic colleges and universities were founded by religious orders, it’s unique in that “it’s a grassroots layman’s effort to try to found and grow a small liberal arts Catholic college.”
His own education at Notre Dame has made “a profound impact on my life,” and out of his faith he continually strives to discern God’s plan for him.
“I view this as a vocation. I feel I’ve been called to try to help in this effort to support this college, and through the donation to support the building of the chapel because that is the spiritual core of the campus,” he continued. He and Erin “believed it was important to have a finished chapel so all involved would have a place to worship and pray as they desire, and I hope others will join in the building of the college and allowing it to fulfill its mission.”
At the dinner Schroeder, retired international president at UPS, thanked the many supporters in attendance as well and asked the students to then stand up, to which the crowd applauded.
“I’m so pleased Archbishop Gregory mentioned how important it is that we now have higher education in the Archdiocese of Atlanta … The biggest challenge we have is getting the word out to Georgia, to all our archbishops and all our archdioceses as well as the Southeast region in joining with us in making sure the college is successful. There are so many wonderful kids here, and we hope to have 150 students (in the next class) here next year.”
In an interview later, Ashcroft said the college does plan next year to offer non-credit enrichment classes to adults to serve the many retirees and others with interest in the area. He was pleased to have the Southern Catholic community further strengthened with the dedication.
“We were honored to have Archbishop Gregory and Archbishop-emeritus Donoghue present for the dedication. We feel the dedication of the chapel is extremely meaningful because it is our signature building and represents our mission and purpose for the college, and we were delighted by the turnout of friends of the college for the dedication Mass and dinner.”
For more information call (706) 216-8860 or visit www.southerncatholic.org. An open house for prospective students will be held Feb. 19, 2006.