Media Spotlight: Prayer Averted COVID Crisis

A government order that would have confined all students to their rooms for two weeks was averted at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

The National Catholic Register, Catholic World Report and Catholic News Agency all reported on the incident in which Atchison County authorities threatened to issue an order forcing the college’s students to isolate in their rooms — affecting a record enrollment of 1,980 students.

“We owe everything to Our Lady,” the college’s president, Stephen Minnis, told the Register. “She really helped us in this process. We believe Mary chose this place and each of our students to be here as well.”

In an Aug. 28 video, Minnis asked the college community to pray and fast until Sept. 8, the Nativity of Mary, to avoid the mass isolation. The college on that day had 66 active COVID-19 cases among students, a number the college believed did not warrant the harsh measure. On Sept. 8, when COVID cases were at 11, in a follow-up video, President Minnis thanked students and Mary fo averting the order.

Our Lady had helpers. Catholic World Report reported that attorney Mike Kuckelman took up the college’s cause saying the county action was unconstitutional and “one of the most overreaching orders issued in the entire country.” Kuckelman helped students learn the steps they would have to go through to fight back, promising to find help for each student’s $149 filing fee.

Vincent Schiffiano, 20, a junior and Gregorian Fellow from Charlotte, N.C., recruited hundreds of students to take up the cause. “The student body as a whole was really upset,” he told Susan Klemond at the Register. The group planned to line up for blocks outside the court house, wearing masks and socially distancing.

Andrew Reasor, 20, a sophomore and Gregorian Fellow from Overland Park, Kansas, told the Register that after a county commissioners’ meeting heightened the threat that all students would have to isolate, he organized a Rosary on the evening of Sept. 3, the feast of Gregory the Great.

As 700 people gathered around the statue of the Sacred Heart on campus to pray, the Catholic News Agency reported, President Minnis was told that there would be “no chance” the county would budge on their order. Minnis joined the Rosary and decided to fast and leave the matter in God’s hands.

The next morning when the negotiations started again, Minnis said he found “a completely different atmosphere.”

“There was an atmosphere of unity, not of division,” Minnis told CNA’s Christine Rousselle. Officials were now “trying to get this resolved, not trying to punish anyone.”

Montse Alvarado, executive director of Becket, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization protecting religious freedom, pointed out one flaw in the county order.

She told the Register “The fact that Benedictine and the county health department were able to work together shows that schools, religious groups and local governments are able to find ways to keep their communities safe while at the same time safely reopening.”

The Rosary caused a “complete turnaround,” President Minnis told CNA. “By the end of Friday, we had an agreement and, and this agreement allows us in-person classes. It allows our students to be out and still socialize, still exercise, still go to Mass,” he said, citing the Atchison and Benedictine: Stronger Together agreement.

“There’s no question about it,” Minnis said. “It was Our Lady that did that.”

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.