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St. Anthony’s RCIA class of 2019. Courtesy | Phil Bernston

At a college where more than 90% of stu­dents actively practice a religion and where debates about tran­sub­stan­ti­ation versus con­sub­stan­ti­ation, the sig­nif­i­cance of Christ’s incar­nation, and, most con­tentiously, Mary’s per­petual vir­ginity echo through the halls, Catholicism seems to be gaining new ground. 

Between 2016 and 2019, 76 people con­verted to Catholicism at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church and were con­firmed after under­going the Rite of Christian Ini­ti­ation of Adults. Many of them were Hillsdale stu­dents. In 2019 alone, 12 out of 24 con­verts were Hillsdale stu­dents. 

Nationally, the per­centage of Catholics declined from 24% to 21% of the pop­u­lation since 2014. Approx­i­mately 2% of U.S. adults identify as Catholic con­verts, according to a PEW Research Center survey in 2018. At Hillsdale, 26% of the student body iden­tifies as Catholic according to a 2018 Col­legian survey. 

Though national Catholicism is on the decline, Catholicism at Hillsdale is clearly growing. 

Based on their per­sonal expe­ri­ences, nine recent Catholic con­verts cited three major factors that impacted their the­o­logical beliefs and led to their con­version while at Hillsdale: a unique blend of pas­sionate and respectful the­o­logical con­ver­sation, a com­munity of devoted Catholics, and Hillsdale’s focus on clas­sical liberal arts and the Western tra­dition.

Sophomore Shelby Dorman cur­rently attends RCIA classes and intends to join the Catholic Church at Easter. Her interest in Catholicism began with ques­tions about tran­sub­stan­ti­ation and the incar­nation, but before coming to Hillsdale, she said she didn’t think about becoming Catholic or even know anyone who prac­ticed Catholicism. 

Encoun­tering people of sincere faith from all dif­ferent denom­i­na­tions at Hillsdale helped Dorman begin to process the ques­tions that had been sim­mering in the back of her mind since high school. 

“When I went to Hillsdale, I held a lot of classic stereo­types against Catholics,” Dorman said. “I think there were a lot of bar­riers in my mind because of incorrect things I had heard. So having those lies torn down, I was able to see some truth in there.” 

Friends opened a door that Dorman hadn’t even rec­og­nized before, and, “after a lot of angst,” she began attending RCIA. Dorman empha­sized that, despite fears about how her Protestant friends would react, they were all sup­portive.

Junior Grace Mauck is in the process of con­verting and agreed with Dorman. 

“The main thing is just how open people are to talking about their faith. When people try to convert you, it is off-putting and offensive, like they don’t respect your own faith,” Mauck said. “I never felt that way. It was more that people here wanted to tell me how they loved, wor­shipped, and prayed to God.”  

St. Anthony’s Catholic Church is also uniquely attractive to con­verts. Senior Claire Calvert and her father, Kenneth Calvert, a pro­fessor of history, live in Hillsdale and con­verted as a family. Claire Calvert’s older brother forged the path, then she, her parents, and her younger brother fol­lowed suit. Though Claire Calvert began the con­version process before enrolling at Hillsdale College, she said that St. Anthony’s plays a special role in the Catholic com­munity at Hillsdale and in her con­version. 

“Anyone I have talked to who comes and goes from Hilldale says that St. Anthony’s is so dif­ferent and so special,” Claire Calvert said. “It is hard to pin­point what it is. It’s Father David, it’s the local fam­ilies, it’s a con­glom­er­ation of all these people who really have a passion for their faith and a love for this tiny little church in the middle of nowhere. It somehow draws you in and you feel this presence of God and a wel­coming spirit.” 

Rev. David Ream­snyder, pastor at St. Anthony’s and convert to Catholicism himself, empha­sizes rich the­o­logical under­standing and scrip­tural teaching in his weekly hom­ilies, which, according to Dorman, is very com­forting and familiar to Protestant lis­teners. 

Many con­verts are uncom­fortable with the word “con­version” to describe their entrance into the Catholic Church. Rather, they see it as another step in their per­petual journey toward Christ.

Junior Isaac Kir­shner, also in the process of con­verting, espe­cially took offense to calling his faith journey a “con­version.”

“I have always loved Jesus,” Kir­shner said. “I don’t worship a dif­ferent Christ now, but through his church, a fuller Christ. I mean that he has so rad­i­cally illu­mined more of himself to me and has blessed me with a deeper desire to love Him more. Con­version, for me, has been the daily turning of my heart toward the heart of Christ, which is love.” 

Both Kenneth Calvert and his daughter stressed that Protes­tantism was crucial in their faith for­mation and played a key role in their journey toward Christ. 

“From ages 5 to 18, I went to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church just outside of town. It was the first place where I learned cat­e­chism and church doc­trine and where I began to form an appre­ci­ation for having a strong spir­itual life,” Claire Calvert said. “There was a real beauty in the service that I still to this day appre­ciate.” 

Kir­shner, Mauck, Dorman, Claire Calvert, and senior Phil Bernston, Pres­ident of the Catholic Society, all said they expe­ri­enced an intel­lectual con­version before their hearts turned to Catholicism. More than a place for reli­gious beliefs to intermix and per­colate in dis­cerning minds, Kir­shner said his expe­rience at Hillsdale was a journey toward intel­lectual orthodoxy and true con­ser­vatism.

“For me, becoming tra­di­tionally con­ser­v­ative made me con­sider Catholicism,” Kir­shner said. “The idea that we should con­serve what we have been handed down and not just do away with the wisdom of the ages. No, truth is truth a thousand years ago the same as it is today.” 

Reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Earth’s Holo­caust” in American Her­itage marked a shift in Kirshner’s under­standing of the extra-litur­gical. 

“In the story, the towns­people burn a cru­cifix and books and other accou­trements of religion because they say desire to get to the pure, simple faith by doing away with all that seems extra,” Kir­shner said. “But as you read it, you realize that all that had been passed down is actually your pure and simple faith. They burned every­thing they have been given, and they end up with nothing.”

For Bernston, a 2019 convert, Western Her­itage and Great Books classes piqued his curiosity about church history. 

“I never really under­stood his­torical Chris­tianity until I came to Hillsdale,” Bernston said. “Western Her­itage, and really the whole core, lends itself to con­version because you start reading the great thinkers of the faith — Augustine, Aquinas, and the church fathers — and I was amazed that I had not learned any of this stuff.” 

Mauck said Aquinas, Augustine, and Dante, in par­ticular, led her to question the rela­tionship between scripture, tra­dition, and the his­torical church. 

“I was reading these books of the Western canon that really focus on God and I was exposed to so much more under­standing that really spoke to me on a spir­itual and intel­lectual level,” Mauck said. “I started to notice that before I became familiar with the Catholic Church, I didn’t give cre­dence to how many intel­lectual ideas went into the church and how beau­tiful that really was.”

Though Mauck and many of her fellow con­verts first expe­ri­enced an intel­lectual con­version, she said her heart stub­bornly resisted her reason. One of the biggest problems for Mauck, and also for Kir­shner, Dorman, and Claire Calvert, was Catholic doc­trine about Mary. She said over the course of a few months she could not stop thinking about Mary and how she fit into the church. Mauck stumbled into con­ver­sa­tions about Mary all over campus, caught herself thinking about her all the time, and even dreamed about  her often. 

But Mauck’s biggest road­block into the church trans­formed into a serious drive toward con­version. 

“I am so blessed because I gen­uinely believe that Mary came to me,” Mauck said. “My best friend is a devout Catholic and I told her what I was going through and I was like, ‘I think I need to pray the rosary.’ So she taught me what to do and we started praying it and I just broke down in tears because I felt so much of her presence around me and that was it. From that moment, I was like, ‘I need to join the church.’”

While con­ver­sions are exciting for Catholics in Hillsdale’s small com­munity, given the decline of Catholicism in the U.S., Kenneth Calvert empha­sized the global trend of Catholic resur­gence. The Catholic News Agency reported a 17.8% increase in Catholicism globally. Because Hillsdale is a rel­a­tively small college campus, stu­dents and faculty can see the effects of the Catholic resur­gence more per­sonally. 

Claire Calvert said this is one of her favorite parts about Hillsdale’s spir­itual com­munity. 

“It is not just a Hillsdale thing,” she said. “It is just the will of God working here and every­where else. I think it is a beau­tiful thing because it is such a small com­munity that we can really see it hap­pening in people that we know really well and care about very much.” 

Mauck said her expe­rience of con­version at Hillsdale was multi-faceted. Though dis­cus­sions, classes, and pro­fessors played a role, she ulti­mately placed the credit far above the earthly. 

“I just think God’s presence is so clear at Hillsdale. I have never been in a place where I feel the Lord’s presence all the time,” Mauck said. “I don’t think it is a coin­ci­dence that there are so many con­ver­sions here. I think it is because the Holy Spirit is so present here. It is really beau­tiful.”