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Our Rich History: President Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP, brought Thomas More College to another level

By Raymond G. Hebert, PhD 
Thomas More University

Part 44 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II”: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021 

On her inauguration day, Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP. spoke about the importance of three features that distinguished the sisters who began Villa Madonna College in the 1920s and were still applicable early in the 21st Century: the liberal arts orientation, catholicity, and adaptability.

As she elaborated, the emphasis on the liberal arts was clearly in a Catholic intellectual tradition (linking spirituality and community). This focus on a liberal education’s value was one coming not from its usefulness or practicality, but as an initiation to a meaningful and purposeful life.

President Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP chatting with students. (Thomas More University Archives)

In the words of Cardinal John Henry Newman, written in 1852, “a liberal arts education is one that offers an individual wealth of resources. The one who has learned to think and to reason and to compare and to discriminate and to analyze … will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any of the sciences or callings for which he has a taste or special talents with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success to which another is a stranger” (President’s Perspective, Moreover, Winter 2005, p. 1).

Later, when elaborating about this approach to “learning wisdom,” Sr. Margaret saw the link to Confucius’ “three methods for learning it: first by reflection, second by imitation and, third by experience.” All of this had been a meaningful context for her presidential term’s emphasis on the value of the liberal arts through a spiritual prism (President’s Perspective, Moreover, Winter 2011, p. 1). It is also important to emphasize that the turmoil of the previous administration had resulted in a warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Universities (SACS) because of financial difficulties. Sr. Margaret noted that this was a concern for her first three years and that turning it around was one of her major accomplishments. Her efforts set us on a positive path for the future.

As the years passed from 2005 to 2011, Sr. Margaret’s vision continued consistently with a linking of the liberal arts and catholicity but was also distinguished by its adaptability through those years. She would not leave the dreams of the original sisters far behind. It was appropriate that she was a member of one of the orders whose partnership and trust in each other made it all possible. Along the way, as well, she was successful in raising funds for programs and student support.

Second floor artist rendering of the library by GGBN Architects. (Thomas More University Archives)

There were the Cliff Borland Foundation gifts for endowed Presidential Scholarships; the Dr. George A. Renaker Charitable Foundation gift for Science Building renovations; multiple Cinergy, Council on Postsecondary Education and Ohio Casualty grants for the Thomas More College Biology Field Station; the James Graham Brown Foundation (JGBF) support over multiple years for the JGBF Honors Program, as well as other grants and gifts. There was also a major fundraising effort for library renovations to add classrooms for the Thomas More College Accelerated Degree Program (TAP) and upper-division seminars in multiple majors.

Academically, there was the expansion of the TAP Program, the initiation of new majors such as Forensic Sciences, Environmental Studies, Web Design, and Humanities, among others. Most progressive, and a prime example of adaptability, was the initiation of two programs. The first, targeted at diocesan high school graduates, was the “Diocesan Promise,” a specific and substantial scholarship for those graduates of one of our diocesan high schools. Second, aimed at our most talented students—particularly if they were pursuing post-graduate professional degrees—was a unique program. It was called the TMC3 Program, through which a student who was willing to take additional courses during the summers could graduate in three years, rather than four. A related achievement was an articulation agreement between Thomas More and Gateway Community and Technical College, which made the progression from a two-year associate degree to a four-year program smooth and without obstacles.

Sr. Emmanuel Pieper, designer of the stained-glass windows for the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel. (Photo by Patrick Reddy)

Meanwhile, consistent with all the above, was the expansion of the opportunities for students in Study Abroad and Service Learning. The students (and even faculty) could be part of either (or both) of two special programs that accepted Thomas More as members: the Cooperative Center for Study Abroad (CCSA) and the Kentucky Institute for International Study (KIIS). Large numbers of students participated. In addition, there were parallel TMU faculty programs that provided service-learning opportunities in Jamaica, on the Mexican Border, and in Guatemala. There was also the creation of an Urban Learning Center in Covington, Kentucky, a joint venture between Thomas More College, Northern Kentucky University, and Gateway Community and Technical College. Each of the three institutions offered a minimum of two courses per semester from 2005 until 2010, after which the program became an extension of Gateway’s commitment to Covington.

At Thomas More, as the enrollment grew so did the opportunities and, as proclaimed in its new Strategic Plan (2005-2010), the college was at a turning point. What seemed to be missing though (or at least less visible) within Sr. Margaret’s goal of enhancing catholicity was the presence of a self-standing chapel. In what proved to be Sr. Margaret’s final years as president, she made this a high priority and found enough advance support to propose a $3.5 million fundraising campaign. In her appeal, she quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who had spoken of Catholic Colleges as institutions “where faith is evident in our prayer, acts of charity, concern for justice and respect for God’s creation and a community that strives in each and every aspect to make that faith more real” (President’s Perspective, Moreover, Spring 2008, p. 1).

The Dedication of the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel pamphlet cover. (Thomas More University Archives)

It was in the fall of 2012 that the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel was completed, just as Thomas More’s 90th anniversary year was ending. It was a fitting wrap-up. As the decades-long dream came together, Sr. Margaret had said how she was “so grateful for all who participated in this campaign. Our new Chapel will stand as an enduring testament of the faith of that community,” noting that it had been designed by Northern Kentucky-based architects Robert & Ehmet Hayes & associates PLLC who had also designed the original Crestview Hills Campus in 1968 ( “$3.5 Million Campaign Goal Reached for Building of Free-Standing Chapel on Campus,” Moreover, Spring 2011, p. 4). One interesting side note is that one of the members of the board of trustees, Joseph Kohrs (a former chair of the board), who was president of the firm that had engineered the chapel’s mechanical and electrical systems, offered a special gift to the project—to build the altar furniture personally. It added yet another personal dimension to this long-awaited project.

Not surprisingly, with the Diocese of Covington having contributed $500,000 to the project, Bishop Foys concluded the December dedication by saying that: “in years to come, may all those who visit Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel, remember those who have gone before them, who have provided all of us with this wonderful house of the Lord. It is truly a great gift to our Thomas More community as well as the community at large” (Dedication of Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel Brochure, December 9, 2012, TMU Archives).

It is not possible to share thoughts about this beautiful chapel, now the strategic center of the campus, without talking about the magnificent stained-glass windows that grace an entire side of the structure. Designed by Sr. Emmanuel Pieper, O.S.B., of the college’s founding order of Benedictine Sisters, they are the distinguishing feature of this remarkable building. On the occasion of the dedication, they were featured in an article that appeared in the Kentucky Enquirer (“Thomas More Chapel Provides a Window into the Artist’s Soul,” December 28, 2012, p. 1). The article described how Sr. Emmanuel’s original drawings were transformed into an entire church wall, 70 feet long and over 35 feet high. In the words of the author, “While every visitor is easily impressed with the wood and the brick there was a clear consensus that the colors from the windows magnify everything.” As quoted by Sr. Margaret for that article, “you can reflect on the windows for hours … they’ve helped the chapel do what we wanted it to do: give people a place to pause, reflect and pray” (pp. C1, 2).

Since Sr. Margaret had just announced her retirement earlier in 2012, there was no more fitting farewell to the Thomas More community she loved so much than the “gift to Thomas More College” of the Mary, Seat of Wisdom Chapel. It was perhaps Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer, CDP’s finest achievement at the helm of Thomas More College, a presidency marked by many successes.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

Sr. Margaret Stallmeyer in front of the chapel for a final farewell. (Photo by Bruce Crippen)

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