Holy Cross 'Crusaders' Fight for Catholic Identity


College of the Holy Cross alumnus Victor Melfa has spent most of his time since January fighting for the Catholic identity of his alma mater.

He protested the Ash Wednesday campus presentation of the play "The Vagina Monologues", organized a successful Catholic Identity Seminar during reunion weekend, condemned the college's decision to award an honorary degree to former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and sent thousands of letters and e-mails to fellow alumni enlisting their support.

Because of all his work, the Cardinal Newman Society selected Melfa to receive its Ex Corde Ecclesiae Award for significant contributions to the renewal of Catholic higher education. The award was presented at the society's annual meeting Nov. 9-10 in Washington, D.C.

"Vic is a model for other alumni of Catholic colleges who are concerned that changes during the past 40 years have produced dissenting faculties, declining academic standards and student behavior that is far removed from Christian living," said Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

The college itself supplied the initial facts that led to Melfa's crusade. At a recent alumni weekend it distributed a profile of students with the following information: Holy Cross students do not attend Mass regularly, do not go to confession, see very little relationship between sex and religion, do not have any devotion to the saints and do not know much of what the Church teaches.

At the reunion, Edward (Ned) Kirby ('49) happened to ask a seminar facilitator, "Are you still teaching St. Thomas Aquinas?"

He didn't like the answer.

Kirby and three other alumni took action. He and William Cousins ('45), Edgar Kelley ('49) and Guy Bosetti ('49) sent a letter to 10,000 alums who graduated before 1972 alerting them to the state of the college.

Areas of Concern

In the letter they identified more areas of concern: At least half of the faculty at Holy Cross is non-Catholic. Homosexual and bisexual groups are funded by the college, but the Knights of Columbus is not.

The letter included a reply card that alumni were asked to sign and return stating their support for the re-establishment of a core curriculum of studies in philosophy and religion and "appropriate measures" to correct the secularization of Holy Cross.

Of the 10,000 sent, more than 1,500 were returned. All but 30 were positive.

Melfa, who graduated in 1957, didn't receive the original letter because his address on file was not current. But after reading in the local paper about the alumni's efforts, he called Kirby and soon sent his own letter to pre-1972 alums. In May, Melfa formed the Holy Cross Cardinal Newman Society to address concerns among alumni that the college has "drifted from its strong Catholic moorings."

The men selected only pre-1972 graduates for reasons fiscal and practical. That was when the Jesuits ceded control of the school to a board of trustees and when, according to Melfa, Holy Cross began to lose its Catholic identity.

That was also the last year of required Catholic studies.

During Melfa's time, students were required to take 16 courses in Catholic theology and philosophy courses. Today, students must fulfill just one requirement in each, and classes in Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism satisfy the religion requirement.

"You can be a double major in religion and philosophy and get out of there without taking a single 'Catholic' class," said 2002 graduate Matt Smith, a philosophy major.

Extracurricular activities also mirror the trend away from Catholicism. Although AbiGale (the Association of Bisexuals, Gays and Lesbians) enjoyed school support, for several years the Catholic group Compass, which inspires and equips students to take the initiative in evangelizing college life, did not. Holy Cross would not allow them to use classrooms for meeting purposes.

"We had to stuff 15 kids in a dorm room just to study the catechism," Smith recalled.

He does point out the positives of his alma mater: There is a strong campus ministry group, and "being pro-life is still fine," he said.

No Holy Cross faculty members would agree to speak to the media about Melfa's work or about the college in general.

However, the current president of Holy Cross did.

"Mr. Melfa has not done anything positive for Holy Cross and never has been particularly involved as an alumnus in the life of the college," said Jesuit Father Michael McFarland in a prepared statement.

Melfa says his goal is not to alienate Holy Cross . "Our goal is to re-Catholicize it," he said. "We really feel it's a secular school with a Catholic presence."

The first step is communication, which is enhanced by the group's Web site at www.holycrosscardinalnewmansociety.org. "We have to get the word out, get the truth out," Melfa said. The alumni have also put together a database of 2,000 supporters and plan to add post-1971 graduates later this year.

On campus the group is working with the Knights of Columbus and Compass to reach students and effect change, but it's an uphill battle with the administration and faculty.

No Faculty Support

In response to Melfa receiving the Ex Corde Ecclesiae Award, Holy Cross President Father McFarland wrote: "The Cardinal Newman Society is a fringe group and they don't represent the mainstream of Catholic education. That said, it's an entirely appropriate award for Vic Melfa to receive because the group, like Mr. Melfa, works to cynically manipulate the truth and to impose a narrow, right-wing agenda on Catholic higher education."

But 2002 graduate Smith, who is familiar with Melfa's work but not involved with the Cardinal Newman Society, sees it differently. "All these alumni are doing this because they care about Holy Cross and want to change things in the future for the better."

The group's presence is being felt.

The women's studies department recently invited Frances Kissling, president of the dissenting pro-abortion group Catholics for a Free Choice, to speak on campus and expressed surprise when Father McFarland wrote them a strongly worded letter denouncing the decision.

An anonymous professor who spoke to the Boston Globe blamed Father McFarland's decision on the influence of "a small group of extraordinarily conservative Catholic alums … that challenge anything and everything that is contemporary."

But Melfa doesn't take the bait.

"I am doing this because I love my faith and loved my Catholic Jesuit education at the Cross, and because I have been upset over the years with the changes I noticed," he said. "I believe that if we, as Holy Cross alumni, let this continue without exposing and attempting to correct it, we are just as guilty as the college is."


Dana Wind. "Holy Cross 'Crusaders' Fight for Catholic Identity." National Catholic Register. (November, 2002).

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Dana Wind writes from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Copyright © 2002 National Catholic Register

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