History and Vision of Gregory the Great Academy

After existing for nearly two decades under the sponsorship of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) as St. Gregory’s Academy, a group of teachers and alumni are in the process of re-founding the Academy in order to continue the good things it has provided its students. St. Gregory’s Academy, now to be called Gregory the Great Academy, has its roots in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas (KU). The philosophy of the IHP provided the overall form within which a variety of other influences flourished.

The Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas began in 1970 and ran until the University shut it down in 1979. There were at that time a number of attempts to reinvigorate the Liberal Arts in the face of the institution decadence of the 1960s, but the IHP’s tone and vision were exceptional. Staffed by three professors, each with strong, yet complementary, personalities—John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick—the program sought not so much to return students to the basics of a time past, as to reawaken them to the ever-present wonders of reality. The motto of the program sums this up well: Nascantur in admiratione, let them be born in wonder.

IHP students not only read the great books—Homer, Dante, Shakespeare—but also the good books—Mother Goose, Stevenson, and Dickens.  Not only did they spend time in the library, they also spent time gazing at the stars, learning ballroom dancing, and committing poetry to heart. This wholeness of approach reveals the uniqueness of the IHP: the professors realized that if the intellects of their students were truly to be born in wonder, it was not enough that they should read great books; first the depleted cultural soil of their lives had to be cultivated. Their approach was wildly successful judging by what is perennial in Western culture: about 400 of the students converted to the Catholic faith. Indeed, it was the large number of conversions that spelled the program’s doom.

Alan Hicks, the founding headmaster of St. Gregory’s Academy, was a graduate of the Integrated Humanities Program. As the dean of a small two-year college in St. Mary’s, Kansas, Mr. Hicks sought to implement the lessons he had learned at KU. It was at St. Mary’s that Mr. Hicks worked under Fr. Arnaud Devillers, a priest of the Society of Pius X, who would eventually join the newly formed Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. When in 1993, Fr. Devillers learned of an opportunity for the FSSP to open a boy’s boarding school near Scranton Pennsylvania, he chose Alan Hicks to be its first headmaster.

It was the genius of Alan Hicks to gather around him a faculty made up of strong but complementary personalities, much like the three professors of the IHP. To do this Mr. Hicks drew from the pool of IHP graduates, but he also cast his net into the currents of the small Liberal Arts colleges that had been founded around the time of the IHP: Thomas Aquinas College and Christendom College. After an initial honeymoon year, the personality of the Academy began to take definitive shape in 1994 with the arrival of Alan’s KU roommate, Howard Clark, and two graduates of Thomas Aquinas College, Luke Culley and Anthony Myers. Mr. Clark brought a strong teaching and Humanities background, while Mr. Culley and Mr. Myers greatly improved the extracurricular life of the school by the addition of a full sports program and the juggling troupe that would become something of a St. Gregory’s hallmark.

As the school grew, the vision of the IHP provided the keystone that creatively resolved the tensions of the many courses, personalities and extracurricular endeavors.  Yet with this growth also came a deepening of the IHP vision. While each of the three IHP professors was Catholic, the program itself, being under the jurisdiction of KU, was not. On the other hand, from its beginning St. Gregory’s Academy was a Catholic school with a daily Tridentine Latin mass and, for much of its life, the Divine Office as well. Thus, the sacramental life of the Church, or what Dom Jean Leclerq calls, “the poem of the liturgy,” became for the St. Gregory’s community an integrating and elevating principle which put new flesh on the poetic vision of the IHP, without, for all that, dissolving its bones.

Guided by this vision, Mr. Hicks and the faculty of St. Gregory’s Academy pursued an educational formation characterized by attention to the whole man; but above all, to the poetic praise of the Creator which is the perfection of all rational teaching and learning. St. Gregory’s sought to bring all the subjects of study within the compass of this vision. In teaching Science, for instance, emphasis was given to the method and approach of Natural History. This approach aims at an appreciation and admiration of the natural world rather than, as do most Science courses, its control.

In the same way, the Latin course at St. Gregory’s was taught according to the Direct or Nature Method. Here, as with the natural world, the object of study was approached with respect for what it truly is, rather than with an eye to its seeming mastery by confining it within the limits of a predatory rationality. Thus, since Latin is a language, and language is first a spoken and heard phenomenon that is assimilated as it unfolds within the dramatic story of our lives, Latin was presented to the students in that way. Contrasted to this is the standard, although not traditional, method of Latin instruction in which the language is reduced to the spatial world of a text, and the text presented for decoding with aid of a dictionary.

Leaving aside the celebration of the liturgy, St. Gregory’s Academy was never more fully itself than when all of its students, teachers, families and friends gathered together for a banquet. It was then that the school’s poetic vision was most fully incarnated. But truly, there is no need to leave the liturgy aside because the banquets were always the tributary and reflection of the liturgy. They were always held to commemorate some feast day, whether Christmas, the Immaculate Conception, or the feast of St. Gregory himself, and they inevitably followed the celebration of a sung high mass.

St. John Chrysostom says, “where charity rejoices, there is festivity.” For the average boy, charity is always something of a challenge. Yet when gathered at a banquet in their Sunday best, eyes shining with laughter in the candlelight, each remembering with advantages his exploits on the rugby pitch, and seconding his friend’s account of the same, even boys can rejoice in charity. And when they rise up as a group to sing, with voices straining, breaking, or even harmonizing, it can sometimes seem that they have reached something divine.

The life of an institution, like the lives of the men that make it up, is punctuated by crises. These crises mark the stages of the institutions growth and development, but they also signal something of a break with its prior life. At the age of nineteen St. Gregory’s Academy left its home in Elmhurst, and set out to make a new life for itself. But no life is completely new; and although St. Gregory’s has taken on a new name—Gregory the Great Academy—its patron and its vision remain the same. True development is known by this sign: that as a thing matures it becomes—in a wonderful way—more fully itself.