When it comes to choices for Hellenic American students to stay true to their roots, the possibilities get narrower as education progresses. There are more Hellenic schools in the elementary school years but progressively less for middle school and high school. Once a student is ready to enter college, there is no choice, except of course, if he wanted to become a priest in which case he could attend Holy Cross Theological Academy in Brookline, Mass., the only institute of higher learning in the Hellenic tradition. UNTIL now–only five years ago in 2010, St. Katherine’s College was founded in San Diego, California.
St Katherine’s College is a small, liberal arts college in the Orthodox tradition. It currently houses 60 students hailing from 16 different states of the country. The school, only in the second semester of the fourth academic year of its existence, is still undergoing accreditation, a process which can take up to 12 years to complete. It has, fortunately, achieved elgilibility status, the first stage in the accreditation process, and the administration is in meetings at present to arrange for the second stage in the process, visitation. The founders hope the student enrollment will jump to 200 students in a year, then 500, and then 1000.
Its foundation is due largely to the driving need of one man, Dr. Frank Papatheofanis, who is also its current president. Dr. Papatheofanis, a native of Chicago, studied the sciences and medicine in high school. But when it came time to apply to college, he had no place to go that would be aligned with his strong Orthodox faith. He witnessed his Jewish friends going on to their predominantly Jewish institutes of higher learning, his Protestant friends to Protestant colleges and his Catholic friends to traditionally Catholic schools. But in contrast he lacked a traditional home of higher learning because no Orthodox college existed. The dream to start an Orthodox institute of higher learning was sparked from this early experience. Forty years later, after Papatheofanis retired from working as a professor in both the medical school and economics department in the University of California San Diego, he decided to start St. Katherine’s.
“We hope St. Katherine’s will be the model for other institutions of higher learning in the Orthodox tradition, something what Notre Dame is for the Catholics or Gordon College is for Protestants,” Papatheofanis explains.
How does a college who is founded in dogma and strict orthodox tradition negotiate the conflicts between religion and the scientific pursuit of knowledge based on evidence? Papatheofanis says the answer is found in the balance between inquiry and wisdom found in the college’s motto–“Inquiry seeking Wisdom.” Having dedicated his whole life to the idea of inquiry as a scientist in higher education, he acknowledges the practice of asking questions is the foundation of knowledge.
“Inquiry teaches you how to think critically,” Papathefanis says. “But as a Christian, asking question is not enough. That is when Wisdom, with a capital W, comes in. The Wisdom in the motto refers to the Holy Spirit, or Sofia, it is the third person of God, it is Christ. If you come to St. Katherine’s will will train you to ask questions and explore but the purpose is to find Christ because we are seeking Christ. As Christians, our goal is theosis, so the more we learn about the world the more we learn about our God. That’s our path to salvation.”
The vision of the college contains a deep respect for the authority of tradition and transmitted dogma because they too are part of God’s greater order, according to Papatheofanis.
“If we think broadly enough we have to recognize that everything is not revealed to us. Some questions have no answers; that is how we get a broader perspective of the creation,” explains Papatheofanis. The college focuses on the evolving nature of inquiry; as our culture changes so does our understanding of our world. Civilizations have come and gone and with them a different perspective on what is revealed and what constitutes knowledge.
St. Katherine’s is founded in the Patristic tradition and includes daily matin and vesper services. Yet, it does not champion one jurisdiction or ethnicity over another; the faculty and student body include representatives of OCA, Antiochian Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox. “The vision is to provide a balanced education rooted in Orthodox Christianity on a small residential campus of a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences university,” Papatheofanis says.
For more information and to help St. Katherine’s with its efforts to become established as a small, Orthodox liberal arts and science college, go to www.stkath.org.