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Tiny Catholic college in Warner a perfect fit for some students

New Hampshire Sunday News

October 26. 2013 7:36PM

Serenity abounds on the campus of the College of Saint Mary Magdalen in Warner, a Roman Catholic liberal arts college. (Shawne K. Wickham/Union Leader)

WARNER - It's 9 a.m. on a Friday and the serenity of the small campus tucked in the woods is what strikes a visitor right away.

It's not that students are sleeping off a party from the night before.

They're in church.

This is the College of Saint Mary Magdalen, a Roman Catholic liberal-arts college founded 40 years ago in response to the Second Vatican Council's call for renewal in the church. It's not just small; it's tiny, with 62 students who live, work, pray and study together.

The college offers a rigorous "Great Books" curriculum, based on classic texts of Western civilization and taught through the Socratic method. In their four years here, students will read Kant and Kafka, Homer and Hemingway, Darwin and Dawkins.

There are no lecture halls. Students sit in circles or around oval tables, where the questions they ask are as important as the answers they seek. And the entire student body participates in the college choir, which students jokingly call "the football team of Magdalen."

Nine prospective students were on campus Columbus Day Weekend to sample what Magdalen has to offer. They attended Mass, freshman classes in humanities, Latin, astronomy and music, and spent Saturday night praying the rosary followed by swing dancing.

Daniel Dytewski, 17, of Portland, Ore., said the school's religious identity is what drew him to visit Magdalen: "not just Catholic in name but one that actually acts Catholic."

That also appealed to Melody Wiklund, 16, visiting from Upton, Mass. "I like how Catholic it is," she said. "You could go to Mass every day here and you say the rosary at night, so that's nice."

"The one thing that really worries me about here is I'm not sure I can get a job because it's a liberal arts school," Wiklund said.

That prompted a glare from her 18-year-old cousin, Connor Curley of South Carolina, who is a freshman. He's confident the education he's getting will open doors for him.

"You will rise to the top more quickly from your Magdalen education because you'll be able to think," he told his cousin.

"I love the place," Curley said. "Love the school, the people, everything about it."

Katie Moffett, Magdalen's director of admissions and communications, tells prospective students up front about three rules. There's no co-visitation in the single-sex dorms; it's a dry campus (although students who are 21 or older can find a pub in Warner village); and there's a curfew - midnight during the week and 1 a.m. on weekends.

"I want them to be successful," Moffett said. "If someone comes and they're truly unhappy and it's not a good fit, that can be cancerous."

She said parents are grateful for the strict rules.

Kathy French of Siren, Wis., sent her daughter Shayla to Magdalen after she found the school recommended in The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College."

"We figured it would be a good fit for Shayla coming from a home-schooling environment," she said.

Shayla French, now a senior, said she "fell in love" with Magdalen on the first visit. "I just felt like I was at home."

And she said, "Every time I come back, I fall in love with the people all over again."

Because of the college's size, people learn how to get along despite their differences, French said.

"Sometimes I wonder how we haven't killed each other yet," she said with a smile. "You have to learn how to deal with people; you can't pretend they don't exist.

"You have to face your problems, and you have to grow up."

She likens Magdalen to a greenhouse: "You don't put tomato plants out when it's liable to frost. You let them grow stronger so they can handle the world outside."

In the freshman humanities class during visitors weekend, two students are leading a discussion about "The Odyssey." On the board, they've posed a question: "Does good storytelling require morality?"

In true Socratic form, teacher Neil Gillis presses them to defend their assertions; questions lead to more questions. And the students rise to the challenge, finding humor and wisdom in the ancient text.

Gillis, a 1995 graduate of Magdalen, addresses the students as "Miss" or "Mister." The women wear long skirts or dresses to class; the men are in dress shirts and slacks, and most wear sport coats and ties.

Magdalen, Gillis said, offers students a chance for deeper reflection, uncommon in today's fast-paced world. And he doesn't see the "intellectual gamesmanship" he's found at other colleges, he said.

"The point for us is not ... to outdo each other. We're all in this together."

Class ends with a prayer, led by a student. Gillis said the college "takes its faith seriously, which sometimes isn't the case in some other Catholic colleges."

Indeed, the deepest roots of the church are embraced at Magdalen. In the chapel, stained-glass windows feature images of both Eastern and Western bishops.

The chaplain, the Rev. Roger Boucher, says Mass in English and in Latin, facing the altar as in the time before Vatican II. "It's because they want to stress transcendence," he said.

A retired Navy chaplain, Boucher has been at Magdalen about four months, and he's deeply impressed with the student body.

"I just can't get over how bright they are," he said. "I see them as future leaders."

Students do most of the work on campus, raking leaves, vacuuming rugs and making meals. That's also true in chapel, where they lead prayers and the evening rosary. "I just do Mass," Boucher said.

The work element helps keep tuition relatively low - $27,800 for tuition, room and board and fees for 2013-14 - and builds a sense of community, Moffett said.

Sophomore Miriam Torres of Ann Arbor, Mich., jokingly calls Magdalen "an acquired taste." And while she said the size could be off-putting to some, she likens it to a family whom you love "even with all its funny quirks."

Sophomore Aaron Greene of Meredith, a recent convert to Catholicism, was raised a Jehovah's Witness. "I was searching for truth, searching for meaning in life," he said. "I feel that God answered my prayer and brought me to the Catholic Church."

Greene is one of only two commuter students; his pastor recommended Magdalen. He said the campus setting, in the shadow of Mount Kearsarge, contributes to its contemplative nature.

Roommates Hannah Howard of Boise, Idaho, and Angela Zikowitz of Readfield, Maine, left Magdalen last May after freshman year.

Howard wanted to study bioethics and get more involved in politics. Zikowitz chafed at Magdalen's work and service requirements.

The two transferred to a larger Catholic university in Florida. But one week into fall term, both realized independently they'd made a mistake.

"I didn't find the community as intellectual as it is here," Howard said. "I tried engaging other students in the cafeteria, and they told me I was thinking too much."

Instead of reading original texts, there were large lectures where professors talked and students listened. They missed the conversations among students and professors that often spill over into the dining hall after class ends, they said.

"It's great to be able to sit down around a table at a meal and discuss things after a class that you're still pondering," Zikowitz said.

They also missed the Socratic method of learning.

"It's not about just parroting back information on a test," Howard said. "It's about understanding where the author is coming from and if you agree with them or not."

They begged Magdalen to readmit them, and drove 27 hours straight to get here. It was, they said, like coming home.

"We felt like the prodigal daughters," Zikowitz said.

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