Monks Sue College They Founded To Try To Keep It Catholic

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Both Saint Anselm College in Goffstown and the Order of St. Benedict in New Hampshire were established 130 years ago. 

“Saint Anselm is a Catholic, Benedictine college providing all its students a distinctive liberal arts education,” begins the school’s mission statement. 

However, school leaders apparently want to lessen the influence of the Order of Benedict. Last October, the school’s board of trustees attempted to remove the Order’s authority to amend the college bylaws:  in essence, giving the board uncontested power to run the school. 

The monks are fighting back, fearful that someday, the school’s Catholic identity will evaporate. On November 27, the Benedictines filed suit against the board of trustees to keep the trustees from completely taking over.  

The lawsuit is obviously unique, with monks suing their own college. How many lawsuits begin their listing of facts with a theology lesson? From the lawsuit:

“St. Benedict (480-547) founded the monastery of Monte Cassino where he wrote the Rule of St. Benedict. Through the prayer and work of his followers, Benedict profoundly influenced the spiritual, educational, and cultural life of Western civilization.”

The lawsuit goes on to detail the founding of the Order in New Hampshire in 1889, the establishment of the college’s governing board (made up of nine monks) to run the college, and the eventual expansion of the board to 40 trustees (seven of whom were monks) in 2009. But the order retained control, according to the lawsuit:

“The 2009 Bylaws reserved several powers to the Monk Members (the Order) including the power to determine the Catholic and Benedictine mission and identity of the college and to approve any changes to the bylaws.” 

But last spring and summer, the board began negotiating with the monks for more authority. The monks would not yield. In a letter dated August 30 (and included in the lawsuit) from Abbot Mark Cooper to the trustees, he wrote, “These changes put forward by the leadership of the Board of Trustees carry an unreasonable risk of secularization of Saint Anselm College.”

The leaders of the board of trustees said the board must have independent authority in order to be accredited by the New England Council of Higher Education (which states that a board must have “sufficient independence”). However, Abbot Cooper answered that the council calls for independence from influences outside the college, and the monks “are members of the College. They are not a separate entity …”

Abbot Cooper’s letter also addresses trustees’ concerns about the budget:

It was suggested that financial pressures facing the college are great and that the [monks] cannot be counted upon to make the right and necessary choices to compete with other schools for enrollment. There is no choice. Saint Anselm College is, always has been, and is resolutely determined to remain a genuinely Catholic liberal arts college … committed to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and to the principles of its Benedictine identity.

Bravo, Abbot. One can imagine what some of the trustees’ “choices” would be to compete with other (read, secular) schools for enrollment. Other Catholic colleges hide their Catholic identity or at least water it down. Without the monks’ real influence, where would Saint Anselm be headed?

Abbot Cooper told New Hampshire Public Radio that the monks and trustees have worked well together, and can continue to do so:

“You have this group of people who live there on campus, are teaching, are administering, and then you have the trustees who have backgrounds in different areas, expertise in different areas. If you can blend those two well, I think it leads to superior decision-making.”

New Hampshire Public Radio also contacted officials at the New England Commission on Higher Education, who said there is “no formula” for a school’s bylaws.

Using a threat – that the commission not accredit Saint Anselm College – appears phony, an excuse to bar the monks from their rightful role as overseer.

Benedictine monks began St. Anselm 130 years ago and have not ceded their authority.  The trustees are attempting to wrest it from them. If they are successful, they should be honest enough to change the mission statement, because the future of Saint Anselm will neither be Catholic nor Benedictine.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and teacher living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.