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Columbia University gets its own Catholic center

Students walk across campus at Columbia University in New York

Dmitrii Sakharov | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 02/16/23

Named for school's most famous convert, the Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life will be at heart of Ivy League institution.

Columbia University, one of the premiere institutions among the Ivies, now has a proper Catholic center. 

The Thomas Merton Institute for Catholic Life had a “soft opening” at the upper Manhattan campus this week, as the center continues to finish construction. 

Named for who is most likely Columbia University’s best-known Catholic convert, the Merton Institute is being constructed at the Church of Notre Dame. 

Thomas Merton graduated from Columbia in 1938 before going on to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky. He is known for his many books, most famously The Seven Storey Mountain.

“So much about the living of the Catholic faith goes beyond worship,” said Fr. Roger Landry, the chaplain to the Merton Institute and Columbia’s Catholic religious life adviser. “We do have a place; we’ve always had a place where we’ve been able to get together to pray. But Catholicism is not a classroom. It’s not, strictly speaking, a church. It’s a way of life.”

Fr. Landry arrived at Columbia last year after serving at the Holy See Mission to the United Nations.

Intellectual pursuit of the Faith

The Columbia Spectator said that prior to establishment of the Merton Institute, the Columbia Catholic Ministry was based at nearby Corpus Christi Church, using space in the rectory. The new center should afford students much more space to “find community and connect further with the Catholic faith,” as the Spectator put it. 

Fr. Landry said that in addition to focusing on prayer, formation, charity, and community, the Merton Institute will place special emphasis on intellectual pursuit.

“What is going to distinguish us here, because of our being at Columbia, is the students here are so smart, that we are going to try to feed those intellectual hungers with the best of Catholic light,” the chaplain said.

David Oakley, a Columbia alumnus and executive director of the Institute, emphasized the center’s focus on what he called the “relationship between … the formation of the mind and the heart.”

“We want to present the faith at a level which is roughly commensurate with the various intellectual abilities of the students,” Oakley told the Spectator.

The newspaper said that the Merton Institute is an independent nonprofit, financially separate from the university and the Church.

Columbia Catholic Ministry is planning a grand opening of the Merton Institute for later this semester, when the space is better furnished, said CCM co-president Joel Kattady.

“It’s a long time coming,” Kattady told the Spectator. “It’s awesome to … have a dedicated space in which we can grow in our faith and grow in greater fellowship with the Columbia community at large. … I’m just looking forward to so many generations of Columbians who can come to use this space.”

Merton Institute President Brian McAuliffe, a Columbia alumnus, estimates it will take $10 million to finish the Institute, which still requires further construction and furnishing. McAuliffe anticipates that successful alumni fundraising will meet this need.

CatholicismEducationSpiritual Life
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