***This summer John Singleton, C’86, self-published a book on the history of the Mount, called The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s. The following are Mr. Singleton’s reflections on his book in response to questions from the Record. His book is currently available at the bookstore.***
What motivated you to write The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s?
Mount St. Mary’s is the Mother of Catholic Education in the United States. Period. End of story. No place else comes close. We talk a lot about being the second oldest Catholic college in the United States. But we’re the first named for the Mother of God. From the first schools founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to the parochial system launched and defended by Archbishop John Hughes of New York, Catholic schools in America are defined by their Emmitsburg roots. Higher education, too. The University of Notre Dame, the Catholic University of America, Spring Hill College, Seton Hall University, St. John’s University, Fordham University, and many others could not have happened without the Mount’s trailblazing priests. Mount St. Mary’s is the first Catholic college in the fifty states. Some people claim that title belongs to Georgetown, but that Jesuit institution on the Potomac was redistricted to a federal territory in 1791 when there were only 14 American states.
What was the most surprising thing you found in your research?
The Mount’s heroes are rebellious types. They challenge the status quo. They question authority. The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s profiles ten-plus of the Mount’s greatest heroes who weren’t afraid to cut against the grain. John Dubois was chased from France by hostile forces. The Mount’s greatest teachers are refugees from other places that became intolerant of Catholic views. Our most compelling graduates are reclamation projects looking for a second chance. There are chapters on Olympic champions, courageous educators, and talented artists who used their time at the Mount to learn to be a force for good in the world. From the 1950’s forward Msgr. Hugh Phillips turned this collection of unlikely heroes into a family reunion when he restored and reimagined the Grotto. After reading this book you might see the Mount differently. The National Shrine Grotto, with its constantly expanding collection of statues and monuments, is really a homecoming for outsiders and exiles that became heroes and saints. The Mount is a product of two revolutions: the French Revolution and the American Revolution. So, it makes sense our heroes are rebellious types. Demonstrating courage in the face of risk is a Mount tradition.
Who is your intended audience and what is it you hope they will get out of reading your book?
The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s is a coffee table book. The print is large. The stories are short. The art features a nineteenth-century Mount graduate and true American Master. Although John La Farge is little known to a twenty-first-century audience, you look at his art and you see the unmistakable imprint of Mount St. Mary’s and you understand why La Farge is considered an American artistic genius. It’s a physically beautiful book. In some ways The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s is a book of fables. The Mount’s heroes are larger than life. When I say the Mount’s mythology is unrivaled in higher education I’m not overstating. The story of the Grotto sets the Mount on a mythological course. Surviving a war against the Church in France, John Dubois started a school in the American wilderness after experiencing Marian inspiration in a cave on the side of a Maryland mountain. This opening act makes the Mount a successor to Homer, Plato, Native American legend and, of course, the Nativity account—all of which acknowledge the cave as a creative force. The creative journey of Mount St. Mary’s is connected to the greatest stories of all time.
What resources did you draw on to build such an anthology?
ChatGPT was not used in writing this book. I got the idea from reading Mount history and the biographies of the Mount’s heroes—The Story of the Mountain, John Dubois: Founding Father, the Mount archives, etc… The more I dug the more notes I made until I had collected pages and pages of material stitched with a golden thread. Mary is a hero-maker because she is a hero herself. Therefore, Mount St. Mary’s is fused to a hero-making legacy. It’s Mary’s job to redeem the confrontation between Eve and the serpent in the first book of the Old Testament by defeating a deadly dragon in the last book of the New Testament. The golden statute of Mary on the Emmitsburg mountain is an image of a warrior queen with her foot on the head of a snake. In classical mythology dragon slaying defines the heroic adventure. Like St. George, Perseus, Beowulf, and many others, Mary fights a reptilian predator in order to save innocent life. But, Mary is the fulfillment and perfection of these “hero myths” not an imitation. A contrast with “Mary by the manger” or “Mary at the foot of the Cross” this adversarial aspect of Marian imagery is an undeniable part of her Biblical identity. The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s respectfully celebrates Mary’s role as both hero-maker and hero.
Understanding the Mount is about connecting the dots to American history, religious tradition and classical mythology. To see the big picture from the small bits of personal stories I found on Mount heroes, I had to sit with this material a long time—thirty years plus. What I finally saw was that the heroes of the Mount share common struggles and successes with the heroes we read about in our classical stories. There’s a reason we’re a liberal arts school. Mythological themes are built into the mountain. When I started the book there were lots of things I didn’t understand. It took me more than three years just to put all my notes together, collected over decades, into something that resembled a coherent whole. Writing and rewriting. I wasted lots of time with multiple design teams and printing houses. No artificial intelligence was used in making this book. Only natural cluelessness.
You were a business major. Why are you a fan of the Liberal Arts?
Half of my courses in the 80’s were in the liberal arts. When you think of it that way it was more like a double major. We’ve just never called it a double major at the Mount. In an age of Mass Media and Artificial Intelligence the Liberal Arts are more important than ever. First of all, we’re creators. We understand content. Mount grads know how to tell stories. And he who tells the best story wins. Secondly, a Liberal Arts education is like a personal polygraph. It sharpens the mind-gut connection. When a story doesn’t ring true, we feel it. We’re not easily fooled. The Liberal Arts are a powerful counterprograming tool in a world that wants to make you a cog in a machine. Philosophy and Theology, in particular, sustain and bind all the other fields of study—architecture, business, biology, music, movies, medicine, etc.—because they’re one step removed from the techne of worldly systems. Philosophy and theology encourage question asking and caution against order taking. They’re not top-down commands. They’re bottom-up rebellions.
What was the Mount like in the 80’s?
I remember long-haired guys walking across campus with guitars slung over their backs, shirtless, barefoot, looking for a shade tree to sit under and sing a Grateful Dead tune. Great music has always been a Mount tradition. On the other side of campus there were students shouting opera at the top of their lungs as they wandered between classes. The Drama Department was a big deal back then. Getting outside and hiking the mountain was a favorite pastime. Swimming quarries was an adventure. I still love a cold plunge to this day. I remember guys walking across route 15 to go bird hunting in the corn fields across from campus. I tried my hand at cow tipping but wasn’t successful—lost my nerve. When you get up close that’s one big animal.
Back in the 80’s the mountain water was pumped to fountains on campus. It was the freshest, coldest water I’ve ever tasted. Between classes there would be lines of people queued up for a sip. Of course, that mountain water was rumored to have healing properties. Mountains, caves and water are historically linked to the presence of God. This is where you see the genius of John Dubois again. He gave us Mary and a mountain; a mysterious cave and a garden paradise with a river running through it. He wasn’t really a writer. He was more of a doer. But the story behind the founding of the Mount is brilliantly told, linked as it is, to the legends of old. Water is a purifying balm. A cave is a portal between worlds. Mountains are the spiritual dwelling place where man meets God. The glittering woman on the Emmitsburg mountain exudes abundance in the face of adversity. She’s pregnant with the Savior of the World and she’s made of gold as she confronts the Lizard King in an apocalyptic showdown. Mary doesn’t produce “Non-Player Characters.” She makes heroes. Christian mythology may seem to be in tatters at our feet. But all we have to do is pick it up. Then life becomes an adventure.
You’ve mentioned that when it comes to sharing our incredible history, the Mount has an “excess of humility.” Why do you think that we struggle to tell our story?
The Mount is named for Mary and is therefore blessed with a natural humility. Taking credit is not a Marian quality. Getting things born is what she does. She’s prolific. Look at the legacy of Catholic schools bred from tiny Emmitsburg. Unlike Notre Dame, however, we don’t have a religious order to chronicle and proclaim our achievements. We’re called an independent Catholic school and that has some advantages. Our independence makes us independent-minded and stubbornly individualistic. We’re a small school so most students show up in Emmitsburg as underdogs. Overcoming adversity comes next. But winning is in our DNA so comebacks are inevitable for graduates of the Mount. It’s a trait inherited from Our Lady of Victory who triumphs against overwhelming odds. How does an unarmed woman beat a cosmic serpent in the ultimate battle between good and evil? Graduate from Mount St. Mary’s and learn how to slay dragons courtesy of the Mother of God.