American Places, Catholic Spaces

“The only college in America where you can’t have a cell phone, but you can have a gun.”  So runs the informal motto of Wyoming Catholic College in Lander. But the College’s administration is prudent both in the ancient sense – conformed to reality in its fullness – and in the contemporary sense, meaning aware of possible dangers. Hunting with firearms is prohibited on campus. Bow and arrow only.

I visited the college recently for the Fides et Ratio Seminar organized under the auspices of the Faith & Reason Institute, the parent institution of The Catholic Thing, both directed by Robert Royal. Superbly led by Professor Patrick Powers and Paul Jackson, also of Thomas More College in New Hampshire, the seminar draws Catholic educators and others for a week of intensive reading and discussion. A glorious week, both in the joy of intellectual endeavor with Catholic truth at the center, and in the splendor of God’s “first textbook,” as WCC’s new president, Kevin Roberts, describes the beauty around Lander.

As conditions for religious freedom and Catholic teaching continue to deteriorate in America, both will get a robust intellectual and (pardon my paranoia), if necessary, physical defense in central Wyoming.

Driving from the east coast to Lander, through what sophisticates call the “fly-over states,” I found other outposts of the one, true faith. In Europe or even formerly Spanish Florida it’s not surprising to find Catholic references and edifices. For me, at least, this journey through America brought some unexpected and refreshing delights.

The tone of the trip was set just before I left with a visit to the Benedictine Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, Virginia, on the feast of St Benedict. Famed for its bakery, it occupies a lovely setting on the Shenandoah River. Many Catholics in the Washington area benefit from visits to this serene place. The prayers and work of the monks must send much needed holiness down the Shenandoah as it joins the Potomac and flows on into the belly of the beast. What happens to it there, I will not try to explain today.

On the day of the trip itself, I started early for Mass at another great Catholic institution, Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. I don’t know if Christendom allows cell phones or guns, but I do know they are creating a faithful Catholic environment with a solid education for terrific students. And I never pass up a visit for Adoration with the parish community of St John the Baptist in Front Royal.

After a beautiful drive through West Virginia, I spent the night in Indiana and enjoyed the agricultural fair in Corydon. Steering west from there, I saw the signs for the Archabbey of Saint Meinrad, followed soon by signs for another monastery. I could pass up one, but not two.

I exited the interstate and came to the beautiful Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand, founded in 1867 by German Benedictine nuns who came as teachers for the Catholic farming community there. The church is magnificent.

            The Archabbey of Saint Meinrad in Indiana

Encouraged by one of the sisters, I retraced my route to find St. Meinrad with its own beautiful church – I listened as the organ was tuned – and its nearby Monte Cassino shrine to the Blessed Virgin. The archabbey was founded in 1854 by Swiss monks. Today, it hosts a seminary and other going concerns including a press and a casket business.

I was uncertain I would ever make it out of Indiana, or if I even wanted to, but I drove on. Kansas brought more new sights. Presiding over the plains around Victoria is the majestic St. Fidelis Church, “The Cathedral of the Plains” as William Jennings Bryant called it. This Romanesque gem is another tribute to immigrant farmers: hardy Volga Germans who had fled the Tsar, together with Capuchin priests, established the early parish. It was named one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas in 2008 by popular vote, an outcome then-Governor Kathleen Sebelius did not bother to overrule. You can’t help wondering what those Volga German farmers would have made of her.

Many beautiful Catholic churches dot the plains, visible from the highway. Some have simple, hand-painted signs along the road with the weekend Mass times for stray travelers.

Finally, on a scenic route in northern Colorado, I happened on the modest Abbey of St. Walburga, a community of contemplative nuns. Entering the gates, I saw the sisters’ herds of cattle and llamas. By this time, very little could surprise me, but that did.

All of these communities and their structures seemed to belong to a different world, yet they are very real today. One striking aspect of the drive, though, was all-too-current but still good to see.

In every state, on highways of every size, I saw signs of life – billboards or small posters proclaiming the choice of life, the evil of abortion, often with pictures of infants. Signs that many out there know the truth and want to share it.

After my days in Wyoming, the drive brought me to a different kind of pilgrimage site in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore with its sculptured faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt – a temple of American civic religion. A film describing the monument’s carving tells of the project’s origins in the 1920s, a time of soaring American confidence and growing progressivism before the Great Depression and the New Deal, World War II and the Cold War, the 1960s, and much else.

There is so much good in America, including a Catholic presence that goes back not just to colonial and missionary beginnings on both coasts but to the expansion across the frontier. A drive through the “fly-over states” reminds us of what has remained constant, and what has changed. Much of the country has decided that ideas like natural law and a divinely created order are just for backward and remote places.

Thank God for those places. We need many more of them.


Joseph Wood is an itinerant philosopher and easily accessible hermit affiliated with Cana Academy, Walsh University, The Catholic University of America, and the University of Notre Dame Australia, none of which bears any responsibility for his errors or missteps.