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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Alumnae, parents establish Loretto Trust in wake of controversy

With help from the Sycamore Trust, founding members of the fund intend to defend socially conservative Catholic values

After the original discovery of an updated admissions nondiscrimination policy, students, parents and alumnae of Saint Mary’s College entered into a period of uncertainty for the future of the College. 

Although the policy was reversed over Christmas break of the 2023-2024 year, community members still had mixed reactions to the policy in general and whether it aligned with the Catholic identity of the College. Many social conservatives took issue with various courses offered, lectures given and the overall political atmosphere on campus and argued that Saint Mary’s has begun to fall away from the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

“It's not that they've lost their Catholic identity, it's just sort of weakened,” Susan Powers ‘81, one of hundreds of alumnae concerned about the current state of the campus, said when reflecting on her experience of attending Saint Mary’s. “[The Catholic identity] was just part of the ether, it was there. You know, it wasn't anything you had to go hunting for, it was just kind of part of your everyday life … now, it's like, I believe it's more of a question of you notice it's not there.”

After the reversal of the nondiscrimination admissions policy, members of the community say they found the lack of communication with their alumnae and other supporters disheartening, one of the issues with the current administration that Powers points out. 

“The danger [here] is [that] the lack of two-way dialogue and transparency, unfortunately for Saint Mary's leadership, allows everybody to fill in the gaps in their way, which I don't think does any service to anyone in the community,” she said. 

Some time after the announcement of the nondiscrimination policy, Linda Van Eck Shepard ‘84, who is concerned with persevering the College’s Catholic roots, began reaching out to other alumnae to establish the Loretto Trust, to receive “prayerful” and monetary support from the Saint Mary’s community dedicated to the betterment of the Catholic identity on campus. 

According to the Loretto Trust’s mission statement, the non-profit promises to “provide a source of information, a means of communication, opportunities for joint action , and a collective voice to Saint Mary’s College alumnae and others in the Saint Mary’s family who are concerned about preserving the college’s Catholic identity and its tradition as a women’s college.” 

Van Eck Shepard said her efforts for the creation of the trust have been in progress for the past four years. She began her endeavor by contacting board members of the Sycamore Trust, an independent alumni organization for “an authentic Catholic renewal” on Notre Dame’s campus. After reaching out to Sycamore Trust president Bill Dempsey ‘52 and executive director Tim Dempsey ‘89, Van Eck Shepard began the process to create the Loretto Trust. 

“[In 2020, someone] told me about the Sycamore Trust that was put together by the Notre Dame alumni, so I contacted Bill Dempsey and talked with Bill and talked with Tim Dempsey. And they said they would help us if I wanted to get something started,” Van Eck Shepard said. 

She was able to take Bill and Tim Dempsey’s invitation for help after several other women contacted her about wanting to help through a private Facebook group named the "Concerned supporters of Saint Mary's College,” which was created after the nondiscrimination policy was made public. 

“I was told about the concerned supporters page … and I started leaving messages on Facebook. And I said, ‘Facebook, I'm very concerned about this. And if you're interested, and you want to get together and see what we can do, this is how you reach me … ’ And so people started reaching out to me,” Van Eck Shepard said. 

She said the founding group of women met together via Zoom in December and began establishing the trust. Van Eck Shepard serves as the board’s president, Monica Dolenc ‘08 serves as secretary, Shannon Ferguson, a parent of current Saint Mary’s students, serves as treasurer and Caitlyn Buttaci ‘08 and Powers both serve as board members. 

Van Eck Shepard feels grateful for the help she received from the Sycamore Trust in organizing the Loretto Trust. 

“I really want to thank the Sycamore Trust. They’ve been doing this with Notre Dame for [18] years, and it is only because of their guidance in the systems that we’ve been able to accomplish as much as we have in just three months.”

The trust is still within its startup phase and did not disclose specific numbers to The Observer, but Van Eck Shepard said the trust had roughly 185 subscribers at the beginning of April.

Powers believes the trust will last beyond the current atmosphere on campus and hopes it will help bring positive change for current and future generations of students in terms of preserving the College’s Catholic identity. 

“It's going to be something that's going to be there forever if we can make it work. We're not just going to be here until the controversy ends. And we're pretty excited about what we can bring to the table. We want to work with Saint Mary's, we don't feel that we're in competition with them. We don’t want to hurt Saint Mary’s, we want to see it thrive,” Powers said. 

Van Eck Shepherd also believes the motivation and support towards the trust may inspire other Christian or Catholic private universities to take steps forwards to preserving their religious identities as well. 

“I think we can be a positive example for others to do this, because there are other Christian schools and Catholic schools around the country that are struggling as well with dealing with these issues that are making it difficult to be authentically Christian at their colleges. So I think we can be a beacon on the hill, and Saint Mary’s shouldn’t put their Catholicism under a bushel basket kicked in the corner,” Van Eck Shepard said. 

Powers stated the trust will not at this time hand out scholarships or grants to students, but rather focus on working with Saint Mary’s to host Catholic-centered events and speakers as well as provide spaces for students to practice their faith. 

“We're kind of going to be that gadfly. When we see something that doesn't fit with the Catholic identity, we're going to call it out. We're going to be very strong if we see abuses against religious freedom. College is all about looking at controversy and things that you don't agree with, or even the institution doesn't agree with. However, what we disagree with is presenting it and not saying, ‘This is where it deviates from the Catholic faith.’ We don't see that happening in all incidents. If I chose an all women's Catholic College, I would kind of want to know that. We think that that is diluting the intellectual excellence of the institution,” Powers said.