College and university parishes around the country have found themselves in a dilemma. Priests, endeavoring to make the Catholic faith relevant to young people, have taken to folk masses replete with guitars, replacing Scripture with readings from Bob Dylan, and so forth. Unfortunately, these innovations have served only to transmogrify the Mass into something vaguely resembling a folk concert; not surprisingly, attendance of students at Mass has not only not increased, but declined.
Monsignor William Nolan, a New Hampshire priest, has succeeded where others have failed. The student center he founded and headed for 25 years, Aquinas House at Dartmouth College, has since its completion in 1961 turned out 45 priests, one bishop, and, since Dartmouth became coeducational in 1973, three nuns. “That’s a higher average than Boston College or Notre Dame,” he points out. Monsignor Nolan accomplished this feat by teaching Catholicism without guitars, without frills, without embellishments, and without abridgement.
Aquinas House does not owe its success entirely to the cultivation of clergy. It was and still is a flourishing student center that caters to the approximately 1,100 Catholic students, a majority of whom attend the Masses regularly held there. The colonial building houses leisure rooms where students can watch movies, study, or relax, and also a wonderful chapel with House is a unique mixture of the recreational and the reverent.
Who is this Monsignor Nolan? What kind of man is he? For the answers to these questions, I asked Father Gerry Murray, an alumnus of Dartmouth who now is a parish priest at Saint Elizabeth’s in New York: “When I enrolled at Dartmouth, I had no intention of becoming a priest. Largely, through his influence and, of course, the influence of others, I began to think about the priesthood, and I decided that that was what God was asking me to do.” Murray explains what he sees as the key to Monsignor Nolan’s effectiveness: “Number one, he’s a traditional priest. He wears a Roman collar, he’s very priestly in his manner, and teaches the way the Pope teaches—he doesn’t cut corners or shade meanings. He doesn’t try to be one of the students. He’s different. He is visibly and happily a Catholic priest. He is nothing else. He isn’t an academic, and he isn’t trying to be a secular sophisticate. He preaches very good sermons, often fairly long ones. But they are always engaging and full of good doctrine. Basically, he is a man of prayer.”
John Steel, a Dartmouth trustee and also a trustee of Aquinas House, concurs with Father Murray: “Monsignor Nolan is the most outstanding person I met in my lifetime. I also think he is the most influential person around the Dartmouth community. He is an outstanding individual with great principles, and he has devoted his life to those principles—to help others, to put oneself second. He has been able to articulate his and Christ’s message very, very well, possibly as well as Fulton Sheen. He is absolutely trustworthy, and he understands the intricacies of dealing with the Catholic faith and other religions, as well as dealing with the Dartmouth campus itself. He understands the politics of how things work—he’s a very practical fellow. He’s also a great friend, a warm person. He has not wavered, and he says it as it is, he doesn’t cover up anything. I’m a big fan of Monsignor Nolan, as is anyone who has come in contact with him.”
The swift and icy winds of winter buffeted me as I waited for Monsignor William Nolan to pick me up for our first meeting during the holiday season two years ago. Finally, the grey-haired, twinkling-eyed Monsignor drove up in an old but well-kept Mercedes, and we headed off to his house a couple of minutes away from the bustle of downtown Hanover.
Just like Father Murray said, Monsignor Nolan was wearing a Roman collar. He had a kind face, and a voice that conveyed solemnity and wisdom. Yet he was a very jovial man, quick with jokes and funny stories. My first impressions confirmed that this man was a man who honored God and honored the Blessed Sacrament more than anything, more than his own life; but along with this spiritual gravitas was an infectious joy that broke down any fears or misgivings one might have sitting beside him. From the first exchange of greetings I felt that closeness to God Father Nolan seems to have. There seemed to be a warmth about him; memories of nippy New Hampshire winters faded away while I was with him.
After attending Boston Latin School and Saint Mary’s College, Monsignor Nolan joined the priesthood and was sent up to New Hampshire. He has served over 40 years in the Dartmouth area. His original job was to assist the local parish, Saint Denis, and to work with the then-200 Catholic Dartmouth students, back in the 1950s, when there were no organized Catholic groups on the Dartmouth campus. He soon found that there would be problems juggling the interests of the parishioners and the interests of the students: “We found out in short order that that was not a satisfactory way of doing it, because you have a parish, there are townspeople in the parish, and sometimes the students want to have a meeting but it turns out that the regular parishioners would have planned something else that night.”
Father Nolan felt himself split between his duty to help the college’s local parish and his duty of being a shepherd to the Catholic students. Something had to be done. Assistance came in the person of Cardinal Cushing, then-Archbishop of Boston: “I got Cardinal Cushing to come up and talk to the students at a Communion breakfast. We had the breakfast in the dining hall, and it was quite a deal. No cardinal had come up to Dartmouth before. Oh, that’s his picture up there, incidentally, on the mantle,” he said, as he pointed to a picture of a young Father Nolan with Cardinal Cushing in full vestments.
“The Cardinal said to me, ‘What do you need up here?’ And I said, ‘Well, what we really need is a place for the kids to come and relax. If they want to talk about religion, there should be a priest assigned to that. The priest should be available to the kids and they should be free to come and stay there as long as they want.’ I felt that I would want a place on this campus where everybody was welcome, I didn’t care whether they were Catholics or not. Everybody would be welcome in this building, in the chapel, in the library.” Monsignor Nolan realized, especially from his experiences with helping to raise his widowed sister’s two sons, that what was needed was not only a Catholic center, but a place that would be welcoming to a young person. “I had learned from observing these two boys how to handle the young men at Dartmouth.”
Cardinal Cushing liked the idea, and, with permission from the Bishop of Manchester, New Hampshire, Father Nolan set out to build a student center. His dream was made manifest as Aquinas House, which from the outset became a social gathering place, a place to study, and a place of refuge. As an example, Monsignor Nolan recounts the story of a woman who got into a little trouble and sought his help: “This young lady came into Aquinas House and told me that she had gotten pregnant by a Dartmouth student. It happened while she was visiting Dartmouth a couple of weeks before. She didn’t know what to do.” So Father Nolan sent the woman to live with some nuns in Maine. Everything worked out for the better, as the woman had the baby and ended up marrying the Dartmouth student. “They live out on Long Island now, and every year at Christmas time I get a card, and almost every year in the Christmas card picture there’s a new kid!”
Aquinas House is just another symbol of Monsignor Nolan’s devotion to the teaching of young people. He seems to have been quite successful at making the Catholic faith palatable, pertinent, and real for many Dartmouth students—Catholic and non-Catholic. His achievements can be traced to one thing: “Every life has to have a love in it. It doesn’t matter who it is or who you are, one has to have a love. Now, the love of the priest is centered around the Blessed Sacrament. And it is the only love that totally satisfies. That doesn’t mean that human love isn’t beautiful or important—it sure is, no question about that. But the priest has to find divine love. And he does, if God wants him.” Youth yearns for love, and Father Nolan through his love of the Blessed Sacrament has taught the young to be amorous for higher things.
Monsignor Nolan retired in 1987, and Aquinas House is now run by Father John McHugh, OFM, Cap., who served as an assistant to Monsignor Nolan for two years. There now is a female lay minister, Susan Connery, who during some Masses takes part in some of the sacred parts of the liturgy dealing with the Eucharist. Further, some students have been distressed at occasional politicized rhetoric which has permeated some homilies given by Father McHugh and other visiting priests. Nevertheless, these changes have not affected the overall spirituality and wholesomeness of Aquinas House, which remains the most flourishing Catholic Center in the Ivy League.
Monsignor Nolan is now retired and living with his sister in the little house where I talked with him. Among the many photos that are hanging on the walls or placed on mantles are pictures of the countless Dartmouth students that the Monsignor has met, married, or otherwise helped. All, I’m sure, can testify to the fact that Monsignor Nolan alters lives with a touch. One is never the same after encountering this priest who, even in his seventies, is bright and energetic. I was sad that our conversation that brisk wintry day could not go on forever. But I was left with that sense of warmth he seems to exude, and the memory of that twinkle in his eyes. That warmth came from a greater Source of energy, that twinkle was a reflection of a greater Light, that Monsignor Nolan has led many to during his time in the Hanover Plain.