University of Mary Catholic Studies Program

Catholic Studies at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., is an academic program to help college students integrate faith, learning and life.

Begun in 2010, the program aims to help students flourish intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and socially.

The Catholic Voice asked university faculty and administrators to describe the program and its benefits.


Q. When and how did the Catholic Studies program at University of Mary begin?

The Bishop Paul A. Zipfel Catholic Studies Program began at the University of Mary in the fall of 2010 as an initiative of the Office of the President soon after Monsignor James P. Shea assumed the presidency in 2009.


Q. What inspired the program?

Catholic Studies in this country began at the University of St. Thomas where Dr. Don Briel founded the first Catholic Studies program. It was that program that inspired the program at the University of Mary. Don Briel was highly influenced by Bl. John Henry Newman and Newman’s vision of university education and the role of the tutor in the college system has played an especially important role here at the University of Mary. The purpose of the university is the pursuit of universal knowledge and this end is served by preserving the unity of knowledge gained by the different disciplines and by preserving the complementarity of faith and reason. The role of the tutor is to help students acquire a habit of mind that enables them to unite what they learn into a coherent whole and make well-formed judgments about reality and action in light of the truths of faith and reason. The project of Catholic Studies is fundamentally an integrative one – the integration of faith, learning, and life – and tutors help guide students in that project.


Q. What does the program consist of?

As our webpage says,

The Catholic Studies bachelor’s degree at the University of Mary is an exciting interdisciplinary program that examines the Catholic Church’s contributions to human thought and culture. The Catholic Studies Program seeks to build a close-knit community of faculty and students, from multiple academic and pre-professional programs, who together discover the rich and multifaceted ways Catholicism can be integrated into academic, professional, cultural, personal, and social life. This program has the flexibility to be a double major and, indeed, is designed for this purpose.

The program consists of many facets including a program of study with a major and minor, a variety of extracurricular activities, a Catholic Studies House, lecture series, study aboard opportunity in Rome, faculty and fellows, and more.


Students and Program of Study

Students at the University of Mary have the opportunity to earn a major or minor in Catholic Studies. Both the major and the minor are fruitful complements to other intellectual and professional majors throughout the University of Mary. Students pursuing the Catholic Studies major or minor have privileged opportunities to study in Rome and to participate in intimate ways with the events hosted and sponsored by Catholic Studies. They are given unique access to guest speakers and leaders.

As part of the curriculum, students are provided tutorials in which a Catholic Studies faculty or fellow helps the students to develop an integrative understanding of Truth uniting their experience in various disciplines and professions.

During each semester, students majoring and minoring in Catholic Studies will spend an Immersion Weekend of prayer, lectures, hiking, and bonfires with Catholic Studies faculty and fellows.  At our 2018 spring Immersion Weekend, faculty took freshman to Assumption Abbey in Richardton to experience and study Gregorian chant, discuss leisure and contemplation, and participate in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Through the Student Leaders program, students receive formation in the principles of servant leadership, including talks on prayer, leadership, vocation, and virtue.  The student leaders put these principles into practice through the significant role they play in the extracurricular life of Catholic Studies through their facilitation of weekly Community Nights, participation in Immersion weekend retreats, and in helping faculty to plan extracurricular activities that meet the needs and desires of students.


Catholic Studies House

The Catholic Studies House was established to provide a location for the development of friendship centered upon an intellectual life that seeks truth. This house has a central role in both Catholic Studies student formation and faculty formation for the university.

Weekly Community Nights – We typically have 85-105 students in attendance each week.

  • This often-weekly event takes different forms. One form is that a University of Mary faculty or staff member volunteers to be a guest chef for the students, faculty, and fellows at the Catholic Studies House. A student leaders team is assigned to help the chefs as needed (with cooking tasks, childcare, house duties, etc.).  Students then interview the guest chef(s) and get a glimpse into their special connection with the University of Mary.  We’ve had such a great response from faculty and staff members in the past, that we filled our dates almost immediately and had a waiting list. Another form community night takes is a movie discussion night. Additional events are student leader-led events that take a variety of other forms.


      Afternoon Parlour – We typically have 30-40 students in attendance each week.

  • The Catholic Studies House is open to students to study from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. At 3 p.m., tea and scones are served and usually a faculty member and two students engage three disputations (affectionately called the “hot seat”). After donning an academic robe and sitting before the fire, the participant receives a question written by a student or faculty member. The participant has not heard the question before and must give an answer to the question to the group. He or she is then subject to three objections or questions about the answer and must reply to each or modify the initial answer. Finally, the question is read again, and the participant summarizes his or her answer in light of discussion. Parlour can help students to sharpen their minds and develop courage and humility. One student said, “Parlour has been instrumental to my formation as a student.” Another called it the “highlight of my week.” 


     Catholic Studies Cookout – This fall we hosted over 175 at our welcoming event.

  • To open and close each academic year, we have hosted a Catholic Studies Cookout at the Catholic Studies House.  We begin with a beautiful outdoor Mass, and follow with an outdoor family dinner, fellowship and games.  


St. Hildegard Public Lecture Series 

This year, the third annual St. Hildegard Lecture was entitled “Finding Joy in the Cross: The Key to Abundant Life.” Our speaker, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, currently serves as auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota. Over 400 members of the community attended his lecture and he also had an intimate breakfast with Catholic Studies Student Leaders that morning. There were 120 students at the Catholic Studies Community night the day before.

Bishop Daniel Flores of the Catholic Dioceses of Brownsville, Texas gave the 2nd annual St. Hildegard Lecture titled “The Synthetic Impulse in Catholic Education.” Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., gave the inaugural annual St. Hildegard Lecture titled, “Reborn in Wonder.”

The St. Hildegard Lecture is an annual event meant to bring to campus significant Catholic intellectuals, both ecclesiastical and lay leaders, to reflect on the importance of the main themes of the Catholic Studies program: the relationship of faith and reason, the role of beauty and art in culture, and our mission to transform the world. The lecture is named for St. Hildegard, a 11th century Benedictine Abbess and Doctor of the Church, who as a mystic, expert on medicine, poet, and musician represents the integration we seek in our Catholic Studies Program.


University of Mary – Rome Campus

In continuity with our founding mission to prepare young people for leadership in the service of truth, the University of Mary’s Rome Campus seeks to offer students in every program and discipline a unique opportunity for academic growth and personal development.

Whether pursuing studies in the medical professions, education, business, the arts, or the sciences, University of Mary students studying in Rome work toward fulfilling core curriculum courses in a dynamic international setting created especially for them. In the classroom, University of Mary students will be invited into an engaging liberal arts environment which pays particular attention to the way in which the lessons of history, the great achievements of human reason, and the light of Divine revelation allow us to see more clearly how we might respond to the pressing questions facing humanity today.

But the classroom is only the beginning of the education of University of Mary students in Rome. The ideas and ideals our students encounter in the classroom are brought to life outside it in an encounter with the world of Italian people and culture. This encounter, in turn, invites students to examine the world of their own hearts and minds so that they might hear with greater clarity their particular calling, and be granted the courage and direction through their experience abroad to answer this call with their lives.

Through study, the experience of a foreign culture, and within the context of a small community of pilgrim learners, University of Mary students will understand themselves more clearly, and the heartbreaks and joys of humanity more deeply. They will learn to serve society as leaders in service of the truth with greater wisdom, justice, and self-sacrificing love. Catholic Studies students have special priority of consideration for study in Rome for the semester long programs and the May term.


Faculty and Fellows

Catholic Studies faculty hold joint appointments in Catholic Studies and another academic program. They organize and participate in various Catholic Studies events. Faculty take the “Profession of Faith and Oath of Fidelity on Assuming an Office to be Exercised in the Name of the Church.”

Faculty who are designated as Catholic Studies fellows occasionally teach courses or create courses that are interdisciplinary in nature for the Catholic Studies program.  As well, they help to promote and participate in faculty formation.  They participate in important Catholic Studies events. Catholic Studies faculty and fellows have the responsibility to develop their minds within the liberal arts tradition and to assist students to do the same.

The Catholic Studies faculty and fellows (including the Residence Life Scholars – see below) meet monthly to discuss readings and ideas that contribute to the growth of a well-formed Catholic mind that seeks the unity of knowledge and fundamental complementarity of faith and reason through interdisciplinary engagement. After discussion, time is spent in prayer together. Our theme last year was “How can we experience the beauty of creation through the arts and sciences?”   


Residence Life Scholars

The Residence Life Scholar program began at UMary in the summer of 2016. This unique program aims at uniting the academic and residential life of the university as a part of the University of Mary’s Education for Life student experience. Residence Life Scholars (RLS) aid in accomplishing this integration as they serve these two areas simultaneously, teaching courses in Catholic Studies and their own academic disciplines while living on campus and actively serving the residential community.

The Residence Life Scholar is an integral member of the residence life staff, working with Resident Directors and student Resident Assistants to develop creative programs in the residence halls that connect to our Benedictine values and encourage the academic, professional, spiritual, and social development of students. At the same time, the RLS is a faculty member who collaborates with fellow faculty members and advisors to educate students about the various support services and resources available.

The RLS works closely with our Catholic Studies program, collaborating with Catholic Studies leadership to plan events and retreats, participating in the Catholic Studies Faculty and Fellows formation program, attending weekly Catholic Studies community nights, teaching one Catholic Studies tutorial per semester, and supporting all other Catholic Studies initiatives.

The RLS helps to promote a joyfully Catholic understanding of education that recognizes the unity of the intellectual, moral, and spiritual aspects of a person and supports that unity through an integrated approach to the whole of life.


Q. What need does it fills in the university’s curriculum?

It serves the need that students have to unite their areas of study into a coherent whole, to form a philosophical habit of mind in light of the truths of faith, and to integrate their faith with all of life.


Q. What kind of student is the program targeted toward?

It’s targeted toward any student who wants to integrate their faith with their study and the whole of their life. Our program is designed to be the perfect double-major.


Q. How does it complement other theology programs?

In collaboration with faculty in theology, the Catholic Studies program services one of the core classes that are required of all students: Benedict: Yesterday and Today.  This course is central to the Benedictine charism of the university.  Like Theology, Catholic Studies is informed by the truths of Divine revelation. Additionally, Catholic Studies is an interdisciplinary community committed to the circle of knowledge yielded by various disciplines, including theology.


Q. What was Don Briel’s involvement in establishing the program?

Dr. Don Briel was the founder of the Catholic Studies movement in America and his vision was an animating force in the creation of the Catholic Studies here. Dr. Briel served the University of Mary as its Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Liberal Arts prior to his death.


Q. Is the program unique in the U.S.—if so, how? 

Catholic Studies at the University of Mary is unique because of the program’s many facets focused on student formation such as tutorials, which are means for faculty to play a tutor role in helping students to accomplish the integrative task of Catholic Studies, offering multiple, weekly community formation events (i.e., community night and parlour), our Immersion Weekend, our Student Leaders program, and our Residence Life Scholars program. Add to these the chance to study at our Rome campus where community, culture, and the Eternal City help students to have a summative Catholic Studies experience. Furthermore, almost forty Catholic Studies fellows who, as faculty members at the University, help to form a larger community of learning devoted to the principles of Catholic Studies. Catholic Studies at UMary isn’t an isolated program but collaborates with other programs of the university to participate in realizing a genuine Catholic education.


Q. How many students are involved, where do they come from—their demographic make up and what transformation do you see in them from the start of the program to the finish when they graduate?

When last I checked, we had 137 majors and minors involved formally. There are other students who are not formally part of the program but who regularly participate in our events such as Community Night and Parlour.

The demographic of our students mirrors the school as a whole.  We have a higher percentage of students from North Dakota and Minnesota, but representatives from the whole country and more than half of our students from outside the state of North Dakota. There are about equal parts professional majors and liberal arts majors.

Regarding transformation, I direct you to an article written by a recent graduate who sums up how her time at University of Mary and her involvement with Catholic Studies transformed her.


Q. Is there a degree and how would students use it (outcomes)?

There is a major and a minor area of study that is intended to pair well with a second primary major. Students use the program as a means to serving in religious education such as a Director of Religious Education or a teacher in a Catholic school system or for their own formation as they pursue occupations in fields such as business, engineering, nursing, or healthcare, for example.  Catholic Studies is designed to pair with our other majors so that any student can get a rich, integrative experience of Catholic community and education.


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