A turbulent 50-year history: Inside the rise and fall of a tiny Catholic college in Warner

Hocker – a combination of hockey, basketball and football – is played on a Magdalen field in 2023. The sport, invented by a Magdalen parent, became a hit over the years.

Hocker – a combination of hockey, basketball and football – is played on a Magdalen field in 2023. The sport, invented by a Magdalen parent, became a hit over the years. Magdalen College

Dr. Ryan Messmore, the fifth President of Magdalen College, reflects on the school closing on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

Dr. Ryan Messmore, the fifth President of Magdalen College, reflects on the school closing on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

A statue of Mary outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of Magdalen College in Warner.

A statue of Mary outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of Magdalen College in Warner. GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff

A sign celebrating the 50 years of Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

A sign celebrating the 50 years of Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A wooden cross lays on a rock outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of   Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

A wooden cross lays on a rock outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

A statue of Mary outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of   Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024.

A statue of Mary outside the Our Lady of Queen of Apostles Chapel on the campus of Magdalen College in Warner on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

By JEREMY MARGOLIS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-04-2024 9:38 AM

Modified: 05-05-2024 10:38 AM


At the foot of Mount Kearsarge in Warner, a campus designed to mimic a quintessential New England town is home to the smallest higher education institution in New Hampshire.

Founded in 1973, Magdalen College – with a current enrollment of 65 – has never surpassed 100 students.

At the end of this month, the tiny Catholic college will close, but that it lasted even this long is, by some accounts, a miracle.

Over five decades, two towns, and three different names, the institution never truly escaped existential questions of viability.

Ultimately, the beginning of the end came in 2020 when divisions on Magdalen’s Board of Trustees caused its longtime president and 12 of 15 board members to resign. The resignations caused about one-third of the tiny student body to leave and the college to fall out of compliance with laws that govern the minimum size of nonprofit organizations’ boards. Later, Magdalen was placed on probation by its accrediting body.

As at other periods in Magdalen’s history, it would have been an understandable time to shut down, but those who stayed were united in attempting a path forward.

“Based on the fact that even with all this maelstrom, the faculty and the staff remained unmoved, we decided to give it a go,” said Victor Prieto, one of the board members who stayed on.

Although Magdalen persevered for four more years and even showed signs of resurgence, the college ultimately failed to recover from the mass departures during the spring and summer of 2020.

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That moment – both the extinction-level event and the push toward resuscitation in the face of seemingly insurmountable financial obstacles – epitomized Magdalen’s turbulent 50-year history. Though the college is one of a host of higher education institutions to shut down in recent years, its history and culture is both more singular and its downfall more complex than that of many of its peers.

A motel in Bedford

When Mark Gillis’s parents pushed him to enroll at Magdalen in 1986, he expected it to be small and boring.

A city boy from Somerville, Mass., Gillis arrived at a campus in Bedford that hardly looked like a campus at all. The dormitories were rooms in a former motel and the classrooms were a collection of unheated mobile homes.

“It was Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in the hot months and the North Pole in the winter months,” Gillis recalled.

Despite the lack of frills, the education and sense of community were top-notch, Gillis and other alumni said.

The three lay members of the Catholic church who founded the college in 1973 were deeply committed to two things: imparting core Catholic values and teaching an exceedingly rigorous liberal arts education.

Professors – called tutors – employed the Socratic method and taught the Great Books curriculum, which includes Aristotle, Plato, and Neitzsche.

Students took the same courses their first two years, before selecting from one of four majors: theology, philosophy, history or literature.

For Gillis – who went on to work and teach at Magdalen for two decades and now serves as the head of school for the Holy Family Academy, a Catholic high school in Manchester – the style of teaching spurred an academic awakening.

“I slept through high school academically,” he said. “And then I tried to sleep through these classes too, but they were just so interesting. . . . I had never experienced class being that exciting, being a real contact sport.”

Outside of the classroom, students attended daily Mass, completed campus service jobs, sang in a mandatory choir, and sometimes played a wacky sport called Hocker, a combination of hockey, soccer, and football invented by a Magdalen parent.

The student body was incredibly tight-knit.

“It was a real warmth of friendship,” Gillis said. “It was a beehive of activity.”

But the college was also known for its rigidity. At various points in its history, rules some felt were cult-like governed students’ relationships and schedules.

“I went there, it wasn’t a cult,” said Mike McGrath, a 1991 graduate and former chair of the board.

But, McGrath acknowledged, a “no steady company keeping” policy that prohibited exclusive relationships among students “would be one of the things that was probably too extreme.”

Over the years following his graduation, McGrath encouraged the president to loosen some restrictions. According to a 2011 interview with a Magdalen administrator, the college at a certain point stopped discouraging dating, controlling students’ study times, and mandating participation in Mass.

“[I]f students can’t learn to date in a healthy, chaste way, in line with the Catholic Faith in an environment like Magdalen, where are they going to learn to do so?” the college’s vice president of advancement and admissions said at the time.

Taking roots in Warner

In 1991, Magdalen finally got a real college campus.

Through a gift from a wealthy donor, the college relocated 45 minutes north to 135 picturesque acres of land in Warner.

The hub of campus is St. Paul’s Multipurpose Building, which houses classrooms, offices, the gym and student lounge. Students and faculty co-mingle around tables in the building’s cafeteria during daily meals.

Through the Warner years, student enrollment fluctuated between 53 and 90 students, according to the Department of Education.

The financial puzzle of running a college of that size has always been hard – if not impossible – to crack.

“I don’t think Magdalen ever was financially viable,” Messmore said in an interview last week in his mostly cleared-out office.

The college’s financial precarity caused it to shift in and out of accreditation over the years, which further affected federal funding and the institution’s ability to market itself. In various rebranding efforts, it changed names too, starting as the College of St. Mary Magdalen, transitioning to the Northeast Catholic College in the mid-2010s, and landing on Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in 2018, when it regained accreditation for the first time in about a decade.

The Warner campus was built for 125 students, according to longtime board member and former State Sen. David Currier. The college tried hard to increase enrollment, but failed to get over the hump of 90 students, reached in 2016. 

Magdalen stayed above water due to large individual donations over the years, according to Messmore and members of the board.

“There was always just a big donor bailing out the college time and time again,” Messmore said.

But, Currier said, “You can only go to the well so many times.”

The end of Magdalen

Accounts diverge on exactly what caused the board’s rift in 2020. Prieto, the current chair of the board, said a faction of members had lost confidence in longtime president George Harne.

McGrath, the chair at the time, said that account wasn’t entirely accurate.

“There was a culmination of events,” McGrath said.

In 2019, according to McGrath, Harne had expressed a desire to step down from his post, which he had held since 2011. In the process of trying to formulate a transition plan, a disagreement emerged that fractured the board.

“There were certain people that were quite divisive,” McGrath said. “It ended up consuming vast amounts of cycles for a nonprofit board, significantly more than it should have. . . . And then at a certain point, people just said, ‘Okay, look, if this is going to be the way it is, then I’m out.’”

Harne did not respond to requests for comment. Earlier this year, he was named the next president of Christendom College, a Catholic liberal arts school in Virginia.

In July 2021, Prieto and his few remaining fellow board members hired Messmore – an Oxford-educated veteran of Catholic school leadership – to succeed Harne. Over the ensuing two years, Messmore completed a $2 million fundraising campaign, improved tuition revenue, and slightly increased the college’s enrollment.

The college was finally on a path toward financial viability, Messmore said. But ultimately, Magdalen ran out of time.

Last November, Messmore and the board announced the college would close this year, done in by a $3.1 million loan taken out from a Catholic insurance company in 2014 that came due last month, according to Messmore and an audit report.

Administrators have supported students who wish to transfer to other institutions, working particularly closely with about a dozen Catholic colleges across the country.

During a recent visit to campus, Messmore requested that the Monitor not interview current students, citing the emotional nature of this period of time. 

The college will hold its final commencement ceremony on May 11 and officially close at the end of the month. It is the first New Hampshire higher education institution to close since Daniel Webster College in Nashua shut down in 2017, according to the state’s department of education.

The campus’s buildings and land will be possessed by the Catholic Order of the Foresters, the insurance company to which Magdalen’s loan is due. It is not yet clear how the campus property will be used, Messmore said.

Post-mortem

For those who loved Magdalen, the college’s closure has felt like a tragedy but also somewhat of an inevitability.

“In 2020, it was like the history of the college caught up with it,” McGrath said. “Magdalen closed in effect because of the financial issues, but the financial issues were really a symptom of the lack of loyalty, adherence.”

The college, according to McGrath, always struggled more than many of its peer institutions to generate financial support from its alumni – in part because of the rigidity of its social policies.

“There are other small Catholic colleges out there – not as small as Magdalen, but less than 1,000, maybe even less than 500 students – who have very, very large endowments because the graduates saw their time [there] as positive,” McGrath said. “They believed in what they got, and so they made investments.”

McGrath and other Magdalen graduates made a last-ditch effort to save the college after its closure was announced last fall, but they simply couldn’t rally enough alumni around the cause.

For those who treasured Magdalen’s role in their lives, the loss of the institution stings.

When a former classmate called Gillis, a member of the final class at the original Bedford campus, to let him know Magdalen was closing, “it was like a friend dying,” Gillis said.

“It changed the path of my life,” the career Catholic educator said.

“The heart of the mission is to learn the truth about yourself, the truth about the world, the truth about God, and I think that’s what touched so many people,” Gillis said. “The institution died, but I think that spirit lives.”