Guest Columnist The Common Thread

The Portiuncula Chapel on the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The Portiuncula Chapel on the campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville./ Robert Pernett via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

I love baseball and the film Field of Dreams (1989). My favorite scene may be where James Earl Jones’ character says, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America … has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time … Oh, people will come, Ray. [If you build it] people will most definitely come.”

My thoughts have turned to this film and this scene as I’ve read the history of Franciscan University of Steubenville, which marked 75 years since its founding on December 10.

“Will anyone come?” had to be a big question for the founders of the College of Steubenville in 1946. After all, it’s one thing to build a fictional ballfield in the middle of an Iowa cornfield but quite another to build a Catholic college in an Ohio steel town 18 months after the end of World War II—with no money, no classrooms, no professors.

But people did come—258 students and 10 professors who doubled as administrators at the start. Today, they still come, in numbers larger than ever, to the now internationally well-known Franciscan University of Steubenville. The secret to this ongoing success comes from one constant, one common thread, through all the ups and downs of the past 75 years.

The priests and brothers of the Franciscan Third Order Regular who founded the College believed the school would flourish if they focused on what really mattered (not baseball, though I was happy to learn the College did have a baseball team by 1948). For them, that one essential thing was care for the student’s soul.

Yes, they wanted to create an institution that would equip young men and women for the growing workforce post-WWII. But it was never only this.

As the College’s first president, Father Dan Egan, TOR, told a group of Steubenville business men and women in August 1946:

“The College has a two-fold purpose … to give those who enroll here a thorough sense of values designed to train men for a full life which occupies 24 hours a day, not simply eight hours spent in the shop or office. It also aims to contribute to the development and the welfare of a man’s nature, recognizing that he has not only a body but an immortal soul.”

And, at the Mass for the opening of the College on December 10, 1946, Franciscan Father Adrian Veigel, TOR, echoed this theme saying the school’s educational purpose “will comprehend not merely the training of individuals but rather the education of the whole man never for a moment losing sight of the profound truths that man is composed of body and soul.”

Since then, through times of prosperity and struggle, care for students’ souls has remained a constant focus at Franciscan University. At my inauguration as the seventh president, I told the students my job is to see they get an outstanding education, and Franciscan’s world-class faculty and dedicated staff provide just that. I also said my job as president was not finished until each of them hears the Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into joy today” (Matt. 25:23).

Every student, every human person, is created by a loving Father God with the promise of eternal life. Therefore, a Catholic college must always seek to form not only the mind but also the heart, the soul, of the student. For what does it profit men and women to earn a degree and have the greatest of careers if they lose their soul in the process?

What greater role and responsibility does a Catholic university have than to see that its students are formed for heaven? In the end, it is what they are created for. And 75 years since its founding, I still believe Franciscan University was created to help them get there.

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