A continuing promise:
Catholic higher education in the northwest
Welcome, Abbey members, Father Hilary, faculty, staff, students, alumni,
board of trustees, and friends of Saint Martin’s.
Thank you all for being here and being a part of this celebration. I find it
difficult to believe that this day has finally arrived. Over the past nine
months, I have learned much about the Benedictines, their philosophy on life and
education, and the rich history of this place called Saint Martin’s. Knowing a
little about the history of the other Catholic institutions of higher education
in the Northwest, I thought it would be interesting to consider how similar
their origins were and how their similar sense of mission, or promise, is
something we renew today.
A history we can all relate to
Once there were six Catholic colleges in the Northwest: Seattle University,
Gonzaga University, University of Portland, Marylhurst, Mount Angel College, and
Saint Martin’s University.
All six share a story of humble beginnings in which individuals with uncommon
vision, fortitude, persuasion, and leadership carved institutions of higher
learning quite literally out of the wilderness.
The 1800s was a time of rapid change in the West, particularly the Northwest.
The population of settlers in the area nearly tripled between 1880 and 1890. In
1890, with 670,000 people in Washington and Oregon, there was a healthy optimism
that the Northwest would be an area of continued growth, attracting both
commerce and immigrants. But there was also no shortage of hardship. The
settlers had to deal with a damp and sometimes cold environment and a complete
lack of basic infrastructure. And the indigenous tribes of our area had to deal
with the settlers. Struggles were constant and perseverance was a common
attribute among all at that time, particularly the founders of these six
institutions. Those early founding days required strong leadership combined with
a never-veering vision.
The Priests and Archbishops of that time knew that Catholic education was a
necessity for the masses of immigrant children moving to the territories with
their families. Higher education provided a chance to broaden one’s view of the
world and, possibly, elevate one’s position in life. All understood clearly the
role of religion in building communities.
Religious competition also played a role in the formation of these institutions.
Jesuits from the Rocky Mountain Mission in Idaho came to Spokane and Seattle,
while the priests of the Holy Cross determined that Portland would become their
Notre Dame of the West. Sisters of the Holy Names did not wish to forget the
formal education of young women and added a college to their existing
preparatory school. Benedictines chose more remote locations, Mount Angel,
Oregon and Lacey, Washington, to place their institutions of higher learning. In
addition, there were growing populations of Protestant evangelicals in certain
regions and the establishment of three institutions by Methodists in Oregon and
Although Mount Angel closed in 1973, and Marylhurst changed its mission from a
traditional-aged woman’s liberal arts college to a co-ed “life-long learning”
institution, the other four institutions continued to prosper, adding colleges
and schools reflective of comprehensive universities. All four of these
institutions remain closely affiliated with the religious orders that were
instrumental to their founding: for Gonzaga and Seattle University, the Jesuit;
for the University of Portland, Holy Cross, and for Saint Martin’s, the
The original promise of Catholic education in the Northwest was clearly to bring
education to a growing populace in a fast-changing socio-economic environment,
an education that was formed by the Catholic tradition of knowing, of applying
reason and logic to everyday life, with religion as a rudder for an
ever-changing moral landscape.
Relevance to the present
Today’s landscape is not so different. Education continues to play an important
role in society. Like the pioneers of the early 1800s, we are living in an era
of exponential change, in just about every area one can think of. While
challenges in the past revolved around geographic remoteness, today’s challenges
involve an ethical remoteness. Vast expanses of ethical lapses blot our
landscape. We live and work in an unprecedented, at least in recent history, era
of economic turmoil. We are witnesses to a period of lax ethical behavior as
played out repeatedly, most recently, in corporate America. We also exist in an
era where faith in God is justification for hatred and war. Like yesterday’s
leaders, we have before us a need for our leaders to take risks and to establish
once more the ties between action and responsibility.
Institutions of higher education play a special role in this landscape. They can
provide the open spaces, the forums, for meaningful dialog in a world of many
faiths and cultures. Universities must have the courage to face this new reality
and help educate citizen leaders who will take global responsibility seriously.
Catholic universities have an even more special role as their value systems are
in much need.
The Northwest has been known for decades as the most un-churched part of the
country. More individuals than in any other region of the U.S. claim “none” when
asked their religious affiliation. Religious historian Patricia O’Connell Killen
calls this the “None Zone”.
Even so, the Catholic institutions in the Northwest have had a large impact in
the areas they serve. Although they exist in the least religious area of the
U.S., they take on the very important role of providing a rich, value-laden
educational opportunity to the faithful and the secular community, as well.
I find today’s promise for Catholic higher education to be greater than when the
original six Catholic institutions of higher education began. There is a renewed
need for visionary leaders, able to articulate a clear mission for their
institutions, and by extension allowing communities and countries to thrive.
When we think back, we remember that it was small religious enclaves in the
Northwest that helped establish those six institutions. Catholic citizens in
Spokane and in Seattle asking for help from the Rocky Mountain Jesuits;
archbishops in Portland and Oregon City requesting the Holy Cross and
Benedictines for higher education institutions; nuns from Canada that viewed
their mission to educate, and, yes, Benedictine monks in South Puget Sound that
eyed education as important as the sacraments.
The four remaining Catholic institutions in the Northwest—Seattle, Portland,
Gonzaga, and Saint Martin’s—have endured and thrived well over a century. Their
longevity is a testament to the power of their original leaders’ sense of vision
Our role in a brighter future
Saint Martin’s, the only Benedictine university west of the Rockies, is uniquely
positioned to lead by virtue of its Catholic roots and Benedictine foundation.
This robust institution has fine programs, serious and dedicated faculty and
staff, a continued strong partnership with its founders—St. Martin’s Abbey,
committed successful alumni and trustees, and a talented student body engaged in
a rich educational experience.
Many other Catholic orders, like the Jesuits, are best known for their
philosophy of learning. Benedictines honor and encourage a philosophy of living.
This philosophy is best explained through the Benedictine values of Community,
Hospitality, Service, and Stewardship. These values were issued by St. Benedict
to his fellow monks in the sixth century as a way of life offering security and
stability in strife-torn Italy. (And, oh by the way, Benedictines have been
directly involved in education of youth for over 15 centuries.) These same
Benedictine values that helped guide one’s path through life so long ago
continue to have tremendous application today.
The University itself is at a point of renewal in its history, a renewal of
mission and vision guided by the original promise promulgated by its founding
We have begun to plan strategically for the future. The plan includes a
reflective look at ourselves—our our own ethical audit—a review of where our
mission should stand. Saint Martin’s University should reflect wholeheartedly
its Benedictine history and philosophy.
Our mission, today and in the past, as a Benedictine institution of higher
learning includes creating those new leaders we talked about before; leaders for
today that look differently at the world’s problems and find solutions that make
Great leaders need a capacity for and understanding of Faith because of the role
that faith plays, especially today, here and around the globe.
Great leaders need an ability to Reason because learning, logic, and faith do
not need to be diametrically opposed to each other.
Great leaders need to inspire Shared commitment, a commitment that will support
and enhance communities and stewardship through the most troubling of times.
We seek to graduate individuals who can navigate the contradictions and
conflicts we see in human life and become leaders that can and will make a
difference in our global communities.
Our long-term planning efforts have led us to understand that:
Saint Martin’s is a community of people devoted to creating an environment where
faith, reason and a shared commitment to the greater good come together to shape
citizens that can change the world.
I am pleased and proud to be part of the Saint Martin’s community at this most
exciting time. Thank you for sharing this special occasion with me. Please keep
in touch with Saint Martin’s and watch this wonderful institution blossom.
Roy F. Heynderickx, Ph.D.
President, Saint Martin's University