At the end of 2003, Bishop David L. Ricken of the diocese of Cheyenne was speaking to a group of lay leaders from a number of parishes in the Diocese. He said that he wanted to promote Catholic education beyond the level of elementary schools, but that this might have to be in the form of academic retreats and seminars since “we don’t have a Catholic college in Wyoming yet.” The people listening asked if he were planning to build such a college and they added that they would support such a mission. At the time, Bishop Ricken had no intention of starting a Catholic college in Wyoming, yet the word “yet” just popped out of his mouth. (Was this a “peep” from the Holy Spirit?)
Bishop Ricken subsequently asked Dr. Robert K. Carlson, a humanities and philosophy professor at Casper College, what he thought about the idea. Dr. Carlson replied that he had long wanted to start a Catholic liberal arts college and that if the Bishop wanted him to proceed, he would dedicate the remainder of his life to such a mission. Father Robert Cook also of Casper was approached and agreed to help in whatever way he could.
Friendships that begin in college can last a lifetime. This often happens when the search for wisdom is genuine and the love of learning takes hold. So it was, thirty years after graduation, that a group of college friends came together with Bishop Ricken to help start the college along with Dr. Carlson. This group included Msgr. James Conley (now bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska), a Vatican official, Scott Bloch of Washington, D.C., David Whalen of Michigan, and others from the fields of corporate finance and law. Their careers had taken very different directions, but they never forgot the benefits they received as students in a “great books” humanities program led by the late Professor of Comparative Literature John Senior, the late Professor of English Franklyn Nelick, and retired Professor of English Dennis Quinn at the University of Kansas.
This group became the Founders committee, joined by a Wyoming attorney and rancher Ray Hunkins and Father Robert Cook. They met over the next few months to articulate the philosophical principles upon which the college would be based, as well as to consider various ideas about curriculum and faculty. The group visited potential sites throughout Wyoming. Bishop Ricken then formed an Implementation Committee comprised of himself, Dr. Carlson, and Father Cook, which began the process of shaping the structure and curriculum of the college. An article published in the Wyoming Catholic Register (Spring, 2004) set forth the vision of the college.
The college would be authentically Catholic in all ways, adhering to the Magisterium of the Church and practicing the rich traditions of the Church.
From the outset, the Founders knew that the college would have a classical liberal arts curriculum that was integrated horizontally and vertically. That is, it would begin with Greek history, literature, art, philosophy, and mathematics and proceed horizontally from freshmen to the senior year where it would conclude with present day-modern ideas in all these vital subjects. At each stage, the curriculum would have a kind of vertical integration whereby the faculty combined some content of their individual courses with the other courses being offered. For example, Greek history could be tied to contemporaneous Greek art, or Greek philosophy understood in light of contemporaneous Greek literature. The ultimate objectives of the curriculum would be to teach students how to think critically while seeking the truth and enable them to learn a subject quickly and thoroughly. The college would use the Great Books and other “Good Books” in lieu of text books, primary rather than secondary literature. Students would read the original works considered the best in Western civilization. The essentials of mathematics and the theories of science would also be scrutinized. Writing composition and oratory would be studied all four years. Theology would also be included all four years so that the students would have a sound understanding of the Catholic faith and would embrace the moral practices of God’s law of love.
The college would be authentically Catholic in all ways, adhering to the Magisterium of the Church and practicing the rich traditions of the Church. Faculty were to promise their fidelity to the teachings of the Church, and a substantial majority of faculty and administrator s would have to be practicing Catholics in good standing. A full complement of Catholic liturgies, devotions, retreats, and methods of prayer would be presented at Wyoming Catholic College.
There was some initial concern that many youngsters from today’s culture might not rise to the academic challenges at this college. There was concern that the reading abilities of many young people are inadequate because movies, television, and videos cripple the imagination, so critical to reading well. Youngsters these days also suffer from poor decision-making abilities, being frequently shielded from the consequences of their decisions. Facing and dealing with consequences are the best way to develop prudent decisions. A final caution regarded the common self-centeredness of the current generation of students.
Facing and dealing with consequences are the best way to develop prudent decisions. A final caution regarded the common self-centeredness of the current generation of students.
The founding committee devised an antidote for these difficulties. The students would peruse God’s first book, that of the natural world. Majestic mountains, the night sky filled with stars, a field of wild flowers, and so forth, would invigorate their imaginations and help them to read even the most erudite Great Book. They would go backpacking, an activity that would require sure-footedness, prudence and planning, as well as cooperation within a group. An equestrian program would further teach students that this is a relational world. Being autonomous and willful will not work on a horse any more than in life. The comprehensive outdoor education came to be called the Outdoor Adventures Program. It was planned to be part of all four years and eventually included rock climbing, trail riding, winter skiing, and fishing.
The article in the Wyoming Catholic Register publicized a request for suggestions or offers for a prospective site for the college. The criteria were that it was to be at least a hundred acres, out of town (away from urban distractions) near BLM land or forest, and have the necessary water, natural gas and utilities.
The response numbered forty-eight 48 sites throughout Wyoming. Some were offered as outright gifts, some for sale at a reduced price, and some for full price. During the summer of 2004, Father Cook and Dr. Carlson visited every site and had the opportunity to tell a substantial number of Wyoming citizens the vision and purpose of the planned college. The educational vision appeared to be greeted unanimously as something worthwhile that could correct many of the ills of higher education.
In the fall of 2004, a forty-ninth site was offered by Francie Mortenson of Lander. It was to be a gift of approximately 600 acres of deeded land in a ranch valley. Another 1800 acres of BLM and state lands surround this valley, and these would be accessible to students for exploration, horseback riding, and recreation.
Bishop Ricken immediately favored the Lander site. The Lord seemed to have a five-fold plan in directing the committee to this site: First, the town of Lander offered $300,000 in pledges if the college was built in that area. Second, the National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS), internationally recognized as the premier wilderness program for teaching leadership and outdoor living skills, was located in Lander. The instructors were enthusiastic in willing to help with the Outdoor Adventures Program throughout all four years of the students’ college career. Third, Central Wyoming College in nearby Riverton (23 miles away) had a widely recognized equestrian program, and was willing to add up to thirty-six students to their roster. Fourth, until WCC’s permanent campus was built, the Catholic parish of Holy Rosary generously offered the use of its dining room for the students’ food service, allowed the college’s liturgies to be held in the church, and made opened an unused educational building with eight classrooms for the college’s indoor course work. Fifth, an owner of nearby apartments made those available at operating costs alone for the first class of students. Subsequent space for student housing seemed likely to be found close by. In short, everything fell in place for an interim location and needs of the college. It could have its entire program operating while raising the funds necessary to construct the permanent campus on the ranch site.
Understandings and agreements for the services and facilities of Holy Rosary parish, NOLS, CWC, and the apartment owners were settled in the spring of 2005. At the same time, the non-profit corporate structure of the college was devised and written up in the “Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws.” Accordingly, the bishop of Cheyenne was to be the permanent chairman of the board. He would appoint one-third of the members of the board of directors, and he could veto any move away from the college’s educational mission. The remaining two-thirds of the board would by appointed by the board. The operations of the college were to be accomplished by majority vote of the board. Another feature of the corporate structure required at least two-thirds of the board to be practicing Catholics. Additionally, at least two-thirds of the faculty and administrators were to be practicing Catholics. Finally, the entire corporation was to be an independent college, responsible for its own programs, and be a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
In the meantime, during the Fall of 2004 and the early Spring of 2005, Dr. Carlson wrote the “Philosophical Vision Statement” that guides the college in its commitment to educate the whole person, body, soul, and mind, through a classical liberal arts curriculum, and the Outdoor Adventures Program, all within a totally authentic Catholic environment, both inside and outside the classroom. This “Philosophical Vision Statement” was included in the “Articles of Incorporation,” so any change to it would require a two-thirds vote of the entire board of directors and the approval of the bishop of Cheyenne.
Wyoming Catholic College came into formal, legal existence on July 11, 2005, by the filing of the “Articles of Incorporation” with the secretary of state in Wyoming. This beginning was announced in Cheyenne at a press conference, attended by the press and media. The Honorable David Freudenthal, the governor of Wyoming, the Most Reverend David L. Ricken, and Ms. Francie Mortenson spoke eloquently about the need and vision of the college.
In the last half of 2005, the initial Board of Directors -- Bishop Ricken, Dr. Carlson, and Father Cook, -- was expanded to include Harry Flavin of San Antonio, Kate McDonnell of Chicago, and Victor Riley of Cody, Wyoming. Fr. Cook was appointed president of the college effective December 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. The new board chose the Blessed Virgin Mary under her title “Seat of Wisdom” to be the patroness of the college.
In first six months of 2006, Dr. Carlson and Father Cook wrote the college catalog, created a booklet with text and pictures that provide an overview of the college’s program, created the website and prepared the student application and financial aid forms. Also during this time, the college retained the services of the architectural firm of Anderson, Mason, and Dale from Denver, Colorado, which specializes in college campus designs. Within a year, a master plan for the ranch valley site was prepared. A number of people provided suggestions for this plan, including citizens from the Lander area. An architectural model was produced which is now available for viewing at the administration facility in Lander. This master plan allows prospective students and, especially, capital campaign donors to envision the future campus.
The gathering of the faculty for the college took on a life of its own. As the word circulated through the “academic grape vine” and the new website, the college received approximately 175 applications for teaching positions, all within the last six months of 2006, and early 2007. This, despite the fact that the college had not advertised for any teaching positions. The plentitude of interested and qualified professors enabled the College to pick a stellar faculty for its first school year of operation, 2007-2008.
In the spring of 2006, Dr. Carlson left Casper College and moved to Lander, followed soon by Fr. Cook. That fall Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, who would become associate professor of Theology, also arrived in Lander.
Dr. Kwasniewski assisted in fleshing out the college’s various programs. He helped prepare the student handbook and design and codify the many issues of how to limit technology so that students could concentrate on a demanding academic curriculum. Dr. Kwasniewski also became the Admissions Director responsible for recruiting the first class of students, and he prepared the numerous documents necessary for this effort.
In July of 2007, thanks to a generous gift, the college established it development office in charge of raising funds for annual operating expenses and the anticipated capital campaign. Herbert Mosher and Joseph Susanka came aboard to begin these efforts, and about the same time, Dr. John Mortensen joined the faculty and preliminarily set up computer systems that enabled accounting and data-base functions. April Pendleton was hired as business manager and given the task of equipping the apartments as dormitories, preparing the kitchen facilities at Holy Rosary, and finding the necessary personnel to operate the food service. Kyle Washut was hired as assistant dean for student life, and he reached out that summer to help the incoming students accomplish those myriad details all students face as they begin college life.
Students had been recruited, and a faculty of seven had been hired, and on August 9, 2007, the first class of thirty-four freshmen attended a three-week wilderness backpacking trip directed by NOLS. On September 3, 2007, a Convocation Mass was celebrated by Bishop David L. Ricken, the homilist being Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M., Cap, of Denver. On that occasion, the Matriculation Ceremony was held, enrolling students under the direction of Father Cook, the president, and Dr. Carlson, the academic dean. The first academic course class for the freshmen was held on September 4, 2007.
In light of the smooth processes of establishing Wyoming Catholic College, one is grateful for the assistance of the Lord’s Providence. The speed of formation, the desired location being provided by a gift, the ready offerings of the requisite facilities for the college’s interim operations, the financial contributions that enabled the college to begin operation, and the experienced and excellent men and women who came to comprise the initial faculty and administrative staff all comprised a great blessing. While establishing the college has been and continues to be a journey of faith by the founders, and those who have joined them in their mission, the results already bear the marks of a college needed and appreciated by the Catholics and non-Catholics interested in a bona fide higher education in America.