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Cover story

Steubenville a conservative crossroads

NCR staff

At a time when many of America’s best-known Catholic colleges and universities are engaged in soul-searching about how to maintain their Catholic identity, no such struggle is underway at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. A visitor couldn’t be on the campus five minutes without realizing this is a very -- some would say almost excessively -- Catholic place.

The university is nestled on a hill overlooking Steubenville, an old steel center in the Ohio River Valley. The population today is under 20,000, but in its prime Steubenville was a much larger, swinging town -- a mob stopoff halfway between Chicago and New York, and the birthplace of Dean Martin. It featured, among other things, a notorious red-light district.

The university had always been a sleepy regional college, gradually secularized like many Catholic institutions of its era. As the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s, many believed the college would go down with most of the rest of the local economy. That’s when the board of trustees turned to Third Order Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlon.

Scanlon was by that time a leading figure in the Catholic charismatic movement, and as university president he quickly turned Steubenville into a center of charismatic activity -- healing, speaking in tongues and prayer rallies under a huge tent on campus. Though controversial -- some people charged the university had a cult-like atmosphere -- the charismatic emphasis gave Steubenville a reputation for fierce devotion to the church.

Scanlon’s vision of “dynamic orthodoxy” has over time attracted like-minded faculty, administrators and students. Today the university boasts an undergraduate enrollment of over 2,000, including the largest undergraduate theology program in the country, and a thriving graduate program in theology. Almost 80 young men are in preparation for the priesthood.

As Catholicism’s center has gradually moved to the right over the past decade, Steubenville has emerged as something of a Holy See for the conservative -- or “faithful” or “orthodox” -- wing of the American church. The local Holiday Inn is a kind of conservative Catholic crossroads. Hang out there long enough and you’ll bump into virtually every right-leaning prelate and lay person of note in the church these days. While you’re awaiting, you can watch Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network 24 hours a day on the hotel’s cable system.

On campus, the conservative Catholic milieu could not be more clear. The two most striking spots are the John Paul II library, a two-story structure with a special room devoted to the writings of the pontiff, and the Portiuncula -- a replica of the small church the young St. Francis repaired near Assisi, Italy. There the university sponsors round-the-clock eucharistic adoration. Even at 2 and 3 a.m. on school nights it’s reputed to be full of students and faculty. And, in an indication of the lively belief in the supernatural that pervades Steubenville, a university media relations officer said that once the monstrance was stolen out of the Portiuncula -- and the city’s water supply promptly fell until the Eucharist was restored.

Next to the Portiuncula is the Tomb of the Unborn Child, where the remains of five aborted fetuses are buried. The simple marble marker is draped in teddy bears, holy cards, rosaries and even cash that visitors have left behind. Cardinal John O’Connor of the New York archdiocese was so impressed that he asked the Knights of Columbus to sponsor similar tombs across the country.

The bookstore in the J.C. Williams Center, sort of a student union, may be the only college bookstore in America that seems to offer as many statues of the Virgin as it does books. Also on sale are a “Wojtylaphile” T-shirt honoring the pope and a “Top Ten Reasons to Stay Catholic” T-shirt-- the latter features as reason No. 1 “The Eucharist,” with a huge image of a monstrance on the back.

Add in other landmarks -- the national headquarters of Catholics United for the Faith on 4th Street, the nondescript Opus Dei facility in the middle of a residential neighborhood and the nearby Catholic Familyland retreat center (dubbed “Candyland” by local wags) -- and it’s clear that for someone drawn to a conservative Catholic experience, there’s just no place like Steubenville.

National Catholic Reporter, September 11, 1998