Catholic education is an intellectual tradition with a long history, according to Michael Pressimone, president of Notre Dame College in South Euclid.
Pressimone, who became the college’s 15th president in April 2020, addressed the First Friday Club of Cleveland during its April virtual program.
“Humans are endowed with a yearning to ask difficult questions,” Pressimone said, like when Adam and Eve wanted to know why they couldn’t eat the apple from the tree in the Garden of Eden.
He discussed some of the early Catholic learning institutions, including the University of Paris, also known as the Sorbonne, which began about 1150 as an affiliate of the Cathedral School of Notre Dame in Paris. The institution was recognized by Pope Innocent III in about 1215 and was chartered in about 1257 by King St. Louis IX of France, the only French king to be canonized.
In the United States, Harvard was established in 1636 as the first institution of higher learning. However, Catholics and immigrants often were not welcome at such places, so congregations of priests, brothers and religious sisters began to establish schools for them. Georgetown University, founded in 1789, is the oldest Catholic institution of higher learning in the country. Pressimone said it began a movement in which countless other Catholic colleges and universities sprung up across the country.
“As immigrants arrived, they established parishes, churches, schools, hospitals and institutions of higher learning,” Pressimone said, most often the work of religious congregations.
“The stories amaze me when I imagine fully habited young men and women getting on a ship for a long journey with little or no hope of ever seeing their families again. Their journeys were an act of faith,” he added.
Pressimone said in their early years, these institutions were staffed by religious orders and reflected their charisms. “It was a ministry of presence.”
But as society changed, especially after World War II, more lay teachers were needed to help keep up with the influx of post-war students. Even as their numbers decreased, religious orders continued to help students realize their fullest potential spiritually and intellectually.
Students seek out Catholic colleges and universities because of their excellence. Although some may choose an institution for its integration of faith and learning, Pressimone said that is low on the priority list for most students.
Pressimone cited Notre Dame in South Euclid as an example of this, pointing to its diverse student body. There are about 1,000 undergraduate students, most of whom are local, from middle class to lower middle class families and a many are the first-generation in their families to attend college.
“We must be able to articulate our charism,” he said, pointing to the college’s mission: “Notre Dame College, a Catholic institution in the tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame, educates a diverse population in the liberal arts for personal, professional and global responsibility.”
The Sisters of Notre Dame founded the college in 1922 as a Catholic, four-year liberal arts institution for women. The college strives to provide a mission-focused, values-based, private Catholic education to students who might otherwise not have access to such an experience.
Over the years, Pressimone said the college has adapted in order to continue its growth in enrollment. Today, it offers more than 30 majors, bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, professional development and continuing education. Its career-focused, experiential learning adds to the liberal arts foundation to help students succeed in the real world. Internships, research or student teaching are required for all degrees and online learning options range from full computer-based courses to hybrid classrooms. In addition, the college’s sports teams – the Falcons – participate in 19 men’s and women’s intercollegiate sports and became an NCAA Division II member in 2012-2013.
The college remains true to the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame, who sought to provide student-centered education characterized by excellence. This Catholic tradition is apparent throughout the campus, including in the chapel and curricula, Pressimone said.
“We are unapologetically Catholic but are OK with knowing that our students are from all over. The new evangelism can’t be just for believers. We need to go beyond that. I see our students as unique creations of a loving God,” Pressimone said.
Pressimone said he is on a journey, too. He was raised in a middle-class family in Baltimore but neither of his parents was a regular churchgoer. After getting his driver’s license, he decided to attend Mass regularly. His wife, Cathy, was his high school prom date. The couple has a dozen children and a growing brood of grandchildren.
“We modeled our faith and our children remained faithful,” he said.
Pressimone said parents and godparents speak for the child at baptism, which he called a first conversion. However, since the child is not able to make the choice, he said it is an “imperfect, weak, unstable first conversion.”
When the child is older, he or she may have a second conversion during which he or she becomes more faithful to a spiritual life. But some people never take the step to that second conversion, Pressimone said.
“We can’t make others believe what we believe, but we can plant seeds of salvation,” he said, adding that the college continues to stand on the shoulders of the Sisters of Notre Dame.
Registration is underway for the virtual noon May 6 First Friday Club program. Speaker will be broadcaster Trapper Jack (Philip Keller) whose topic will be “Mary, His Messenger.” Click here for information or to sign up for the free program.