BY LORI HADACEK CHAPLIN
Going to college isn’t just for new high-school graduates or 20-somethings. Older adults are returning to college campuses, too, seeking a change in career or fulfilling a desire to better themselves.
In fall 2015, 62 percent of part-time graduate students at private nonprofit institutions were ages 30 and older, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In a survey of adults ages 23 to 55 conducted in November 2017 by Champlain College Online in Burlington, Vermont, with Full Circle Research, 60 percent said they have considered returning to school to finish a certificate, associate’s degree, or bachelor’s degree.
Catholic Digest talked to four women who sought advanced degrees later in life because they desired to delve deeper into Catholic teaching.
CECILIA STUDIED AT THE VATICAN
Cecilia Brennan of Olympia, Washington, became a canon lawyer at age 61. Ironically, her high school teachers told her that she wasn’t college material, so she delayed going until she was 30.
In 1988, at the age of 33, she received a theology degree and married her husband, Michael. Two years later, she earned a master’s in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame.
In 1990 Cecilia went on to work in parish ministry. “With parish ministry and my involvement as an advocate for marriage cases for the Archdiocese of Seattle, I needed to reference canon law,and I found it fascinating and beautiful,” she said. “I thought of it as a gift of mercy to heal people.”
Desiring to learn more about Church law, she took online courses for two years and three summers of six-week on-site classes to earn a graduate certificate in canon law from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, Minnesota.During this time, she fell more deeply in love with canon law, and her professors enthusiastically encouraged her to seek a canon law degree.
For about three years Cecilia and her husband, Michael, considered the idea of a canon law degree. “Michael is exceptionally supportive. He saw that God placed this on my heart, and he was very willing to give up everything so that I could do this,” said Cecilia, now 63.
In 2014 the Brennans sold their home in Olympia to fund the endeavor, and Michael shifted to working part-time — commuting to St. Peter’s Hospital in Olympia for his job as an emergency room crisis counselor.
“We see our material possessions as resources from God. If selling our home could enable us to serve God better, then it was our responsibility to respond to that and trust that he would provide,” she said.
Older than her professors
The Brennans and their youngest son, Joel, then 13, moved to Ottawa. Cecilia turned 59 at the beginning of the school year, and she was the second oldest in her class and older than some of the professors. “I never felt like I was too old. I just dove right in, and I was shocked that I was able to do as well.”
The other students accepted her and dubbed her “Mom” because if they needed something — such as an ointment or an aspirin — she had it in her backpack.
Studying canon law in depth was a conversion experience for Cecilia. “It was transformative,” she said. “My last class was in the Roman Curia. We were behind the scenes at the Vatican.” Her voice cracked with emotion as she continued, “This experience and my classes showed me the beauty of the Church: its structure, its purpose, its teachings.”
Since graduating in 2016, Cecilia worked for the Archdiocese of Seattle doing special projects, served as defender of the bond in several other tribunals, and volunteered with overseeing marriage cases for her parish. In June 2018, she accepted a position with the Diocese of Monterey (California) as the director of its tribunal.
KIT IGNORED NEGATIVE FEEDBACK
In 2015, when Kit Cummings was 55, she felt God was calling her to work in the Church. She entered the lay ecclesial ministers program (LEM) in her diocese in Utah, and about halfway through the program, her director of LEM suggested Cummings get a master’s degree in theology.
Two years later, while still pursuing the LEM, Kit started online coursework for the master’s at Saint Joseph’s College in Maine. She’s on course to finish the LEM in 2019 and the master’s in 2020.
Her husband and two sons are supportive of her getting an advanced degree, but her extended family is skeptical.
Kit, now 58, told Catholic Digest, “I feel like I am sailing against the wind, as most people my age aren’t looking to continue their education. They don’t get why I am putting myself through this.”
Not dwelling on negative opinions, she believes, “I have to trust God that he put this desire in me for a purpose.”
Not about age
Kit sees being older as both an advantage and a disadvantage. She has more free time because her sons are grown, but she has a shorter career shelf life. One needling question is: Will employers overlook her because of her age?
Kit thinks getting the degree shouldn’t be about her age. For her, the purpose of the degree is the exploration of Catholicism and acquiring the knowledge to spread the faith.
The time requirement for getting her studying done is overwhelming sometimes. “I am — just like a lot of people my age — slightly forgetful and a little scattered sometimes. I’ve had to trade the time I used to have for personal pursuits for studying and writing,” said Kit, who also has a job as a communications coordinator for her parish.
One thing that has made school possible is Kit’s husband, Kevin, who has picked up many of the household chores to open up time for her to study.
Growing in faith
“My faith has increased beyond measure with all the learning I have done,” she said. “It seems the more I learn, the more there is to learn, and each part builds on the last.”
On completion of her degrees, Kit aspires to work or volunteer as a teacher and explore the possibility of becoming a spiritual director. “There are very few spiritual directors available, especially in Utah.”
DEBBY WAS 63 WHEN SHE EARNED A MASTER’S DEGREE
Debby Velenovsky’s husband, George, and her family were supportive of her going back to school, but some people — similar to Kit Cummings’ story — bluntly let her know how crazy she was. “My friends were at times amazed, intrigued, fascinated, and perplexed,” she said.
Debby — who already had an undergraduate degree in mathematics — was 60 and completing her third year at Denver Catholic Biblical School when she realized that she wanted to learn even more about Scripture.
In 2014, at the age of 63, she began online classes at the Augustine Institute during the summer. “I knew of the Augustine Institute through several friends who had graduated from there, and I was sure that was where I wanted to continue my education.”
So many papers!
Getting a master of arts in theology was a different experience for Debby. Since she didn’t have to write any papers for math classes, she said, “The greatest difficulty for me was figuring out how to write a paper in the manner that was expected.”
Debby, now 65, said that she liked the entire atmosphere of the Augustine Institute; she enjoyed the classes — which were both online and on-site — and her professors were excellent. Because of her long white hair, her fellow students initially assumed she was the professor. “When they found out that I was a student, too, I was immediately accepted into the fold.”
Debby graduated from the Augustine Institute in 2018. She currently runs the RCIA program, an adult Scripture class, and assists with a family-centered catechesis program for her parish, Our Lady of the Pines, in Conifer, Colorado.
MARYLOU WANTED TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HER FAITH
In 2000, when MaryLou Molitor was 52, she earned a master’s of theological studies from Ave Maria University just for the sake of learning. It was her husband, Bill, who encouraged her to apply to the program because he knew it was her dream to study the Catholic faith.
“I chose to undertake graduate theology studies purely for the sheer joy of gaining a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for my faith,” said Mary Lou, a 68-year-old mother of four from Boise, Idaho.
MaryLou found the course studies intense, with the added stress of traveling once a month for three years — first to Portland, Oregon, for one year, and then to Minneapolis for two years — but this didn’t stop her from enjoying the program.
“Each weekend of classes was like being on a once-a-month retreat,” she recalled. “I was so motivated and interested in the subject matter, the extensive reading, the required papers, and even the tests were a source of pleasure because they deepened my faith and my appreciation for the truths of the Catholic faith.”
MaryLou recalls Janet Smith’s commencement address. She says the speech by the well-known expert on St. John Paul II’s theology of the body fit beautifully with her attitude and approach: “[The] whole point of her address was the idea of seeking knowledge just for the sake of knowledge, not for any return.”
MaryLou, who currently works as the executive assistant to the speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, says her degree has given her knowledge of the faith that she can share with others through adult education classes, presentations, the articles she writes, or even to explain the teachings of the Catholic Church in an informal setting.