Fifty years working with students in Cambridge

Fifty years is a long time. Fifty years ago, I was about to enter third grade in Rockville, Maryland. (I’m 58 now.) Newly-elected Pope John XXIII suddenly announced in late January 1959 that he was convoking an ecumenical council, Vatican II, to begin in the early Sixties. Senator John Kennedy of Massachusetts was gearing up for his successful run for president the following year. And on Follen Street in Cambridge, a block north of Cambridge Common and a couple of blocks away from Harvard Law School, the first Mass was celebrated at Elmbrook Student Center on Sept. 15, 1959.

Elmbrook is a corporate apostolate of Opus Dei, the Catholic prelature dedicated to fostering the search for holiness through daily work and the Christian’s ordinary duties. When I was an undergrad decades ago, the Harvard Crimson published an article about Elmbrook entitled “Holiness North of the Common.” While the title may have been intended ironically, at least the quest for holiness in ordinary secular life at Elmbrook is completely sincere. Since its founding, countless Boston-area college and graduate students have frequented Elmbrook for study, prayer and friendship. I should know, as I lived there from 1970 until 1973, and again from 1987 to the present--a quarter of a century (and half of Elmbrook’s existence)--so I’m hardly a disinterested observer.

Much has happened in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Catholic Church, and the United States since those last days of the Fifties: the turbulent Sixties, the assassination of President Kennedy, Vatican II, Harvard student strikes, M.I.T. hacks, 9/11, and several wars and economic downturns. Throughout all that time, in a quiet but effective way, Elmbrook Student Center has been offering students an atmosphere conducive to cultivating both professionalism and the faith. We continue to have a weekly meditation for college men (a spiritual conference preached by our chaplain), circles or practical classes in Christian life, and student get-togethers with professors and area professionals.

College and grad school can be a challenging and difficult time in the lives of students, perhaps more so at places like Harvard and M.I.T., and other Boston-area colleges and universities. An oasis like Elmbrook for refreshing heart and soul has been a boon for many. I know it has been for me.

Matt McDonald, an area journalist who studied at Harvard in the early 90s, has this recollection: “When a fellow student in the house where I lived challenged me on how Catholic doctrine can be reconciled with the Bible -- something I knew very little about -- residents at Elmbrook provided me with just the right book as well as tips from their own studies and experiences. The exchange opened for me a world of theology and Scripture that helped me understand my faith better and present it to others. I don’t think I ever would have lost my faith (at least I pray that’s true!), but I never would have been able to nurture it as well without the help of my friends at Elmbrook. While I never joined Opus Dei, I admire it, thanks to my experiences at Elmbrook. I cherish the friendships I made at Elmbrook, the things I learned there, and the help I received there to grow in the Roman Catholic faith.”

Among the motives for thanksgiving occasioned by this anniversary, one thinks of the saintly Fr. Sal Ferigle, who lived there the last twenty-five years of his life, from 1972 until 1997. He provided priceless spiritual guidance to untold souls throughout the area. People went from Elmbrook to start or support Opus Dei in countries like the Philippines, Australia, Canada, and Kenya. Well-known philosophers like Michael Pakaluk were Elmbrook regulars when they were students. Just last week, The New York Times reported on a major film based on episodes from the life of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei, and said that the adviser for the film is Fr. John Wauck, who happened to live at Elmbrook while he was a Harvard undergraduate.

There’s a Facebook group for Elmbrook alumni and friends. Dr. Carl Schmitt, a medieval historian who was the first director at Elmbrook in 1959, and again in the 1970s, will visit these days to talk about the early days of the center. On Sunday, Sept. 13, there will be a reunion cookout in Elmbrook’s backyard at 1 p.m.

While the first center of Opus Dei in the country, Woodlawn in Chicago, dates back to 1949, Elmbrook is the oldest center continuously in operation in the United States. The Prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarria, recently wrote John Almandoz, the director, to encourage us to prepare with many acts of thanksgiving, “because the Lord has wanted to call upon you to achieve wondrous things.” Please pray for us and our work here. The need is proportionate to the challenge we face.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.