In a dozen years or so, Yale University will mark the centennial of Catholic ministry on its campus. The growth and development of the Catholic presence at that elite academic institution are remarkable and bode well for the future of the Church.When T. Lawrason Riggs (born in 1888) graduated from Yale in 1910, he was one of eight Catholics in his class. Raised in a family of wealth and status and well versed in literature and the arts, he was a popular force on campus, his religious affiliation notwithstanding. Upon returning from World War I, Mr. Riggs began preparation for the priesthood and was ordained in 1922. He was granted permission to rake up residence at Yale and to become its first Catholic chaplain.
Fr. Riggs’ vision was to build a center that would be a focal point of Catholic identity on Yale’s campus. In 1922 out of a student enrollment of 3,930 there were about 300 Catholics. For the ensuing two decades before his death in 1943 the example of his academic stature, cultivated intellectual and artistic tastes, and tolerance encouraged Catholics students toward a more confident involvement in the secular world. It was during this same period that many of the Catholic graduates, inspired and guided by Fr. Riggs, launched a campaign to raise funds for the St. Thomas More House and Chapel which were built in 1938. (Not without justification does the Center’s website liken T. Lawrason Riggs (the ‘T’ is for ‘Thomas’) to St. Thomas More, both “renaissance men”.)
Seventy years later, the St. Thomas More Center would dazzle secular and religious schools alike with the rededication of the Chapel and the completion of the Thomas E. Golden, Jr. Center—a beautifully designed multi-purpose building that provides a locus for the social, religious and spiritual life of Yale’s students (Catholic or not). With this facility the Catholic Center at Yale will enhance its already impressive service as it continues to form a community of faith, to educate for peace and justice, and to provide assistance to students, faculty and staff in their personal spiritual development.
Today, Yale University’s general enrollment is over 11,000 students. Catholics represent the largest single religious denomination. Approximately 30 percent of the entering class is Catholic. Fr. Riggs must be impressed with how fruitful his vision has been.
The greatly admired Fr. Robert Beloin is Yale’s current Catholic chaplain. In a congratulatory letter to him occasioned by the rededication of the Chapel in 2009, Bishop Mansell of Hartford writes: “…over the years More House has served as a center for mature religious inquiry and worship for Catholics and guests at Yale University…” He also expresses his confidence in an “even stronger vibrancy of life and faith” made possible by the Center.
“Mature religious inquiry”: a definite ‘must’ as the Kingdom advances.