Christendom College is a unique educational institution. Its purpose of imparting an authentic Christian education with emphasis on preparing the laity for their apostolic duties in modern society, distinguishes it from the majority of colleges existing today. The story of how the College came to be is no less unique.
December 1965 brought the close of the Second Vatican Council. Many in the Church were using the Council to promote all manner of heterodox teaching. September 1966: enter Triumph magazine, a plucky Catholic monthly of uncompromising orthodoxy. Founded by L. Brent Bozell and Frederick Wilhelmsen of the University of Dallas, Triumph sought to fill the need for a truly Catholic magazine of opinion in the United States. Its editorial policy placed emphasis on bringing Christ’s message to bear on the public order. Triumph counted among its contributors some of the finest Catholic intellectuals of the time: men like Sir Arnold Lunn, Charles Cardinal Journet, and Christopher Dawson. It was a journal of considerable intellectual acumen and moxie.
In 1973 Warren Carroll, holding a Columbia University Ph.D. in history, became a contributor to Triumph magazine. That same year Dr. Carroll took charge of the Christian Commonwealth Institute, an educational program held in Spain. The Institute as well as Triumph magazine and a speaker’s bureau were sponsored by an umbrella organization, the Society for the Christian Commonwealth. Held at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the Institute offered students a chance to study and experience the achievement of Christian culture first-hand. The palace of Escorial was a perfect setting for this kind of study. Built during the reign of Philip II, the complex includes, in addition to the palace and monastery, a college, a royal mausoleum, a basilica , and a small town. It embodies the triumphant Catholic culture of 16th century Spain.
Those attending the Institute learned the joys of living as the Spanish do, with a siesta each afternoon and plenty of time for leisurely reflection. Once a week students went on day trips to nearby sites of interest, such as the town of Avila and the ‘Valley of the Fallen’. Surrounded by this living Catholic culture, students received instruction in Philosophy, Theology, and other disciplines from a Catholic perspective. Teachers came from all parts of Europe and America, many being contributors to Triumph. Along with their growth in wisdom and culture, students were encouraged to grow spiritually. Spiritual direction from a priest/faculty member, daily Mass and weekly benediction were all available.
The integrated philosophy of education that informs Christendom College grew directly out of these summer sessions in Spain. Dr. Carroll continued his role as director of the Christian Commonwealth Institute until 1975. But by 1975 Triumph and the Society for the Christian Commonwealth were experiencing serious financial difficulties. In July of that year the last issue of Triumph was published. The last Institute in Spain under the direction of the Society for the Christian Commonwealth was held in July and August.
In September the Society for the Christian Commonwealth also sponsored its last educational program in this country. Designed for families, courses were offered for adults, teens and grade schoolers. The program was held at an AFL-CIO labor camp located in the Shenandoah Valley. William Doherty, the supervisor of the camp, made it available to Catholic groups during the off-months at a very low cost. Dr. Carroll helped to organize the program and taught some of the courses, although at the time he had no idea the camp would one day be the site of the College he would later found.
After Triumph folded, Warren Carroll began seriously considering starting a four year liberal arts college. There had been a consensus at Triumph that a more extensive educational effort than the S.C.C. was needed, but plans had never gone beyond a one-year institute. In the Fall of 1975 Dr. Carroll decided to go ahead with his plans for a college and began looking for support. He appealed to former Triumph subscribers and those who had attended the program in Spain. Then Miss Regina Graham, a former C.C.I. student, sent $1,000. Two more contributions for the same amount followed.
Convinced by these and other donations that he had enough support, Dr. Carroll began looking for teachers . Using the contacts he had developed while working for Triumph and the C.C.I., he gathered four more members for his “founding team.”
Dr. Carroll knew Kristin Burns (then Kristin Popik) from the Institute in Spain where she taught philosophy for two years. Burns was a student of Prof. Frederick Wilhelmsen, one of Triumph’s founders, at the University of Dallas where he taught philosophy. There, according to some, she was a member of the legendary Sons of Thunder. Wilhelmsen, the group’s leader, claimed direct sanction from Spain to found this Carlist cadre in the heart of Texas. After graduating from Dallas, Miss Popik received her masters degree in philosophy from Niagara University. Soon after, Dr. Carroll invited her to head the philosophy department at Christendom. Later, she went on to receive her Ph.D. from the University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, the first woman to be so honored.
Mr. Raymund O’Herron was the second member of the founding team. He met Dr. Carroll at a weekend forum sponsored by the S.C.C. in February of 1975 and later expressed his interest in teaching at the College. In November of that same year, the two met again at another weekend forum where they had a chance to talk more. When Warren Carroll’s wife, Anne, opened Seton high school in 1976, O’Herron was given a position teaching there while assisting Dr. Carroll in setting up the College for the following year. When the College opened, he became Dean of Men and professor of philosophy.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Mirus, a historian educated at Princeton, was teaching at Pembroke State University in 1975. Dr. Carroll knew of Mirus from Triumph, for which the latter had occasionally written. Dr. Carroll was also acquainted with Mirus’ own publishing venture, Faith and Reason. Frustrated with the lack of solid Catholic scholarship, Dr. Mirus began Faith and Reason to provide a forum for the work of orthodox scholars in all fields. The future Christendom president sent Dr. Mirus a prospectus on the College. Mirus thoroughly reviewed the plan and sent back his suggestions, and Dr. Carroll was impressed enough to ask Mirus to join the Board of Directors of the Corporation which was to launch the College- and, in time, a full-fledged publications apostolate as well. Mirus accepted and was later given a teaching position.
Dr. William Marshner was the last of the founding five. Dr. Carroll knew him from Triumph, where Marshner had been an assistant editor. Prior to this, he had done language studies at Yale and had attended the first Christian Commonwealth Institute in Spain. In the Summer of 1973 Marshner went to work for the Catholic weekly, The Wanderer. Here also the two worked together. Carroll worked with The Wanderer setting up Wanderer Forum Weekends. Marshner was among the lecturers who regularly spoke at these functions. In 1975 Marshner went to the University of Dallas to do graduate work in philosophy under Dr. Wilhelmsen, but a shake-up in the administration made him decide to switch to theology. After extensive study in that field, he was made head of the Theology Department at Christendom.
With these five teachers, a great deal of faith and a minimum of material resources Christendom College began in the Fall of 1977. If any members of that first Christendom class were expecting luxurious accommodations, they certainly did not find them. What they found, however, was something much better, something unique: a liberal arts education of high academic quality that was thoroughly, and unashamedly, Catholic.