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Jack Duffy working on the gardens at St. Martin’s Academy
Courtesy | Ethan Visser

When Ethan Visser heard the noon bell ring from the top of a two-story bunk house he was building, he put down his hammer and nails, took off his hat, and bowed his head to pray the Angelus. Looking out over the pas­tures and garden dotted with boys working, he saw a wave of heads bowing with him. 

“The Angel of the Lord Declared Unto Mary, and she Con­ceived by the Holy Spirit…” 

Visser, ’20, knew he had chosen a good place: St. Martin’s Academy, a Catholic boys boarding school in Fort Scott, Kansas. 

Visser and his friend Jack Duffy, a former Hillsdale student, are both house fathers at St. Martin’s, or, as Duffy calls it, “ glo­rified babysitters.” 

St. Martin’s is a clas­sical liberal arts school that incor­po­rates farming and sus­tainable living into edu­cation — or more accu­rately, incor­po­rates edu­cation into farming. 

Former head­master Patrick Whalen and current head­master Dan Kerr founded St. Martin’s in 2018. Whalen, current oper­a­tions assistant to the pres­ident at Hillsdale College, had gotten off active duty in the Marines and was fin­ishing his Ph.D. in English from Wash­ington Uni­versity in St. Louis, when Kerr, an old family friend, gave him a call. He had a business propo­sition to start a clas­sical liberal arts school on his family land that incor­po­rated farming into edu­cation.

Ini­tially, Whalen turned down Kerr’s offer. 

“I said, ‘It’s a great idea, but now I’m going to be doing some other things.’ So he said, ‘Okay cool. But when you come around just let me know. I’ll be waiting.’”

Kerr’s con­fi­dence paid off when only a year later, Whalen agreed to come on board as co-founder and head­master. 

St. Martin’s follows the ped­agogy of John Senior, a Catholic pro­fessor of English, lit­er­ature, and classics who sparked intel­lectual  rev­o­lu­tions and hun­dreds of Christian and Catholic con­ver­sions with his open lec­tures at the Uni­versity of Kansas in the 70s. 

His goal was to cul­tivate wonder in stu­dents souls.

The Ped­agogy: A Poetic Edu­cation 

“Edu­cation can’t simply be an intel­lectual propo­sition. That doesn’t work. It’s not very inter­esting. We have these bodies, and I think for all people, but maybe espe­cially for ado­lescent boys, if you try to go straight to the intellect, you won’t get there,” Whalen said. “You can only get there through the body, through the affec­tions, and through the emo­tions.” 

John Senior called this the poetic mode of edu­cation. 

Ety­mo­log­i­cally, Whalen explained, the Greek root of the word ‘poem’ means to do or to make — it is a thing fash­ioned as if by hand.  

To teach with this ped­agogy means not to just read a book, but to expe­rience it, Whalen said. “If we’re reading “Robin Hood,” I’m going to take them out to the creek and we’re going to fight with sticks. And if you lose you’re going in the water.” 

This means, too, that the boys do little sitting. Often pro­fessors lead them on marches through the pas­tures and woods during which they read out loud. 

They also take the boys on trips. The junior class began this year on a pathfinding journey, in which they spent three weeks camping, learning sur­vival skills, and learning to map their location from the stars. More con­tem­plative trips involve retreats at a monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma. 

All these ped­a­gogical excur­sions are care­fully selected to cul­tivate wonder, authentic mas­culinity, imag­i­nation, and atten­tiveness.  

To accom­plish their vision, Kerr and Whalen decided to open the school piecemeal, beginning with a freshman and sophomore class that totaled 17 boys in 2017. This year, with a total of 45 stu­dents, St. Martin’s will graduate its first senior class. Kerr and Whalen plan to cap the student body at around 60 stu­dents in order to maintain the integrity of the edu­cation. They have had to turn down a waitlist of appli­cants every year. 

Parents, Whalen said, are real­izing that the typical clas­sical Christian school simply is not working for their sons because it doesn’t address the deepest and most enduring parts of them — and is not even approaching the intellect.

“We are dif­ferent because we engage them with a real teacher and teach them a love of lit­er­ature and poetry,” Duffy said. “It’s not like the tech­nical skills that most uni­ver­sities proffer as lit­er­ature courses — like analysis and that sort of thing. Senior rec­og­nized that before you’re ready for analysis, you have to love the thing you’re engaging with.” 

The Pas­tures: Encoun­tering the Real

 

Early every Wednesday morning Visser and Duffy don their work boots, jackets, hats, and gloves and head out to the pas­tures to slaughter hogs or sheep — which con­sti­tutes the bulk of the boys’ meals for the week. For the past three Wednesdays, they’ve been slaugh­tering and butchering hogs. 

“They’re very smart,” Visser said. “We used to lure them into this wagon with food and kill them in there. But once they saw one go in and not come out, they won’t go in anymore, even for food.”

These and other duties — like milking, col­lecting eggs, herding sheep, tending the gardens, building fences and bunkhouses, and mucking out stalls — com­prise the second half of St. Martin’s boys’ poetic edu­cation. 

“All these things are soil for the life of the mind,” Duffy explained. 

If learning is always sequestered to a classroom, the student’s intellect, too, is cor­ralled into that arti­ficial space. When the time comes to pick up a hammer, or a briefcase, or a cal­cu­lator and do an “adult”  job, there’s nothing to do but leave the soul and intellect behind. 

St. Martin’s teaches boys to hold onto their souls while scraping the dung off their feet. Out in the fields, stu­dents work alongside their pro­fessors, priest, and house fathers. Con­ver­sation, ques­tions, and insights flow nat­u­rally. 

“The fact that they engage in some of their first expe­ri­ences with animals, like getting up close and per­sonal with a pig — it causes this sort of wonder to just light up in their eyes,” Duffy said.  “It has an effect on the spirit.” 

The ped­agogy of expe­ri­ential learning extends nat­u­rally to farmwork. 

“Right now we live in a vacuum, but then once you go out and you smell a pig, see it rolling around in the dirt and the mud, then the description of “Animal Farm,” for example, sud­denly comes alive,” Duffy said. “That is the basic thrust of our push for encoun­tering the real, as far as lit­er­ature is con­cerned. You just under­stand so much more lit­er­ature, when you do the sort of things that people have been doing for thou­sands of years: farming, keeping live­stock, cul­ti­vating deep knowledge of the celestial heavens.” 

Farm work not only feeds their minds and spirits — it also feeds their bellies. As of last year, the farm pro­duced all the protein stu­dents and faculty con­sumed, between chickens, eggs, hogs, and dairy products. In the dairy, they use fresh milk to make cheddar, gouda, moz­zarella, and alpine cheeses. 

Their hoop houses and tunnel frame hold sea­sonal crops. The current fall plot has squash, pumpkin, kale, arugula, corn, lettuce, radishes, etc. They plan to put the boys to work to build a per­manent green­house soon, Whalen said. 

The farm cannot sustain all of St. Martin’s staple needs. They still pur­chase things like rice, sugar, salt, flour, beans, etc. 

The Faith: The Word Incarnate 

St. Martin of Tours, born in Tours in 316 A.D., was at various times in his life a soldier in the Roman army, an elite guard for the emperor, a monk, hermit, and a bishop. All his life he was a devout Catholic. Kerr and Whalen chose him as the patron of their school because any kind of boy, from a jock to a nerd, can look to St. Martin as an example of how to be a Catholic man.  

St. Martin rep­re­sents and models the very heart of the school, and that for which all else is aimed: the Catholic faith. 

“It pro­vided us a common end toward which all faculty, staff, and parents strove for the sake of the stu­dents — that of ever more perfect union with God,” Whalen said. “Our ped­a­gogical approach, our cur­riculum, the farm, the layout of campus, every­thing was designed to cul­tivate greater virtue in the boys and dispose them to a deeper spir­itual life.” 

Prayer punc­tuates each day. They­be­ginning with Latin Mass every morning, fol­lowed by prayer before every class, the Angelus at noon, a rosary in the afternoon, and they end with com­pline every evening. 

The idea, Visser said, is that the rhythms of the Liturgy and the litur­gical year become ingrained in the boys and shape their souls for the rest of their lives, even though “we may not be able to see it right now because they are still boys.” 

“I don’t think I was like these kids when I was a senior,” Visser said. “They’re not exactly more mature, but they do a really good job of taking respon­si­bility for the younger guys. They lead all the prayers, they serve during Mass, and all learn the tra­di­tional Latin Mass.” 

Visser and Duffy, both con­verts to Catholicism, have expe­ri­enced per­sonal growth in the rich faith envi­ronment at St. Martin’s. As house fathers, Visser and Duffy are encouraged to spend regular retreats at Our Lady of the Annun­ci­ation of Clear Creek Abbey, where they practice Ora et Labora — the Bene­dictine practice of prayer and work —after which St. Martin’s is modeled. 

They also agreed on daily mor­ti­fi­ca­tions for them­selves, so that they can con­tinue to be spir­itual role models for the boys. These include saying the rosary and going to Mass and ado­ration every day, abstaining between meals, fasting on Fridays, and abstaining from alcohol except on Sundays. Every day they write down five things they are thankful for, they don’t com­plain, and they live  chaste and pure lives.  

“I can’t say I am always very good at it, but the mor­ti­fi­ca­tions are really helpful. The monk at the abbey told us any meal taken without a mor­ti­fi­cation is a meal taken as a pagan. We should always give up some­thing little that other people don’t really notice, like a few less dashes of salt,” Visser said. “It’s like sending warning shots over the demons’ heads. Making sure those guys keep their heads down.” 

Ped­a­gog­i­cally, the Catholic faith is insep­a­rable from St. Martin’s poetic edu­tation. 

“For the faith who’s central feature is the Word becoming flesh, you can see the impor­tance of a ped­agogy that does not simply leave edu­cation at the word,” Whalen said. “Sheer intel­lec­tu­alism, the rep­e­tition of words, is never enough. It must become incarnate. We must live the edu­cation in the flesh.” 

A Day in the Life of a St. Martin’s Boy

7:00 a.m. Wake up. Morning chores on the farm. 

8:00 a.m. Change into jackets and ties for Latin Mass. 

9:00 a.m. Breakfast. 

9:30 – 12:00 p.m. Class. 

12:00 p.m. Angelus and lunch. 

1:00 – 3:30 p.m. Class. 

3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Ath­letics (led by Visser ).

5:30 p.m. Rosary.

6:00 p.m. Dinner. 

7:00 – 8:30 Study hall. 

8:30 — 9:30 Free time. 

9:30 p.m. Pray com­pline. 

10: 00 p.m. Lights out.

Wednesdays the boys are exempt from classes. They spend the whole day out in the fields working after a big farm-table breakfast at 9:00 a.m. 

“Wednesdays are great,” Visser said. “Theotokos Hall is up on a hill so if you are in there and you look out over the pasture, you just see boys scat­tered herding animals and working.” 

Though the school, the land, and the vision of St. Martin’s are all idyllic, Whalen said it’s important to remember that the school was created by fallen humans with flaws — and pop­u­lated by smelly, loud, impulsive teenage boys who don’t always appre­ciate the beauty sur­rounding them. 

“We always fought this battle in the dorms trying not to be too dic­ta­torial and forbid all junk food, but given the oppor­tunity they would eat just Skittles forever instead of the tomatoes that they har­vested…” Whalen paused to con­sider the truth of his statement for a moment. “Yeah, no they would just eat Skittles. You know, and if we could plant Skittle trees they would do it.”

DuffDad, as the boys affec­tion­ately dubbed him, knows some­thing of the pugnacity of these teenage boys, and is skilled in the practice of “tough love.” 

“The boys love him. He is good and kind and he listens well, but the boys know that he could rip their head off at any time,” Visser said. “He has wrestled every one of the boys, and one time all 40 kids tried to take him and they couldn’t do it.” 

According to Visser, Kerr offered $500 to any boy who could beat Duffy in a wrestling match. 

Though he must weather and temper the blows of several bunkhouses full of boys, Duffy says this ceaseless vig­i­lance has been a source of growth. 

“Con­stantly being bom­barded by petty com­plaints and small annoy­ances is the most fruitful part and the most dif­ficult,” Duffy said, “because it is truly in the little things that sanctity grows. And you are given many, many oppor­tu­nities to grow in charity when you’re living with 40 teenagers.” 

Duffy, in turn, takes his respon­si­bility as role model and teacher seri­ously. 

“I’m trying to inculcate virtue in the stu­dents,” Duffy said. “ So I helped with steering the boys toward sort of more basic roles of duty, like waking up on time and getting the class on time. Every aspect of a school is ori­ented toward growing virtue.” 

And the boys? 

“For the most part, they love it,” Whalen said. “We are in the envi­ronment of real life. We’re immersed in the real world. Yes, you know, cleaning that dung off your boots is about as real as it gets.”