Origin stories explain first things. Superpowers are sprung from unlikely sources. Freighting a pile-of-rocks or a hole-in-the-ground with extravagant properties can be a temptation for a founder consumed with launching an ambitious venture. Over time, however, the collected stories of a place can confirm a unifying theme – a mythology – and reveal a higher truth. What begins as myth can end in revelation.
In 1805, the founder of Mount St. Mary’s discovered an arboreal grotto on the side of a mountain. Reminding him of Catholic shrines in his native France, Fr. John Dubois vowed to name a school for the Mother of God on that very spot. More than two centuries later, his university, born from a mysterious cave, continues to bear fruit.
An underexplored detail of Dubois’ creation story is that in the beginning there was light. Looking for lodging at the end of a long day, the weary priest glimpsed at what he thought was a candle in a window. Making the climb up the mountain on horseback, he found nothing and collapsed in exhaustion. The next morning, he awoke in an enchanted garden. In front of him was the vista of St. Joseph’s Valley, behind him a mysterious grotto-cave. Reaching into the darkness, Dubois affixed a cross to acknowledge the glimmer that had guided him to that providential height.
The origin of Mount St. Mary’s is unrivaled in its mythological content. Its survival over two centuries can be attributed to its immersion in stories and symbols of archetypal design. Invoking supernatural events, e.g., ‘the discovery of a cave,’ and beings, e.g., ‘the Mother of God,’ Dubois inclined his institution toward an inherited narrative that can only be described as epic. By aligning his school with mythological themes that communicate to the mind and heart, he invited into his fledgling project a pattern producing reality of enduring consequence.
Like the womb of the mother, the cave is a birthplace. From the wisdom of Plato, to the heroism of Homer, to the nativity of Christ, the mythology of a ‘grotto’ is gripped with getting things born. At Mount St. Mary’s, fecundity is an undeniable attribute. Not just the birthplace of a university, the Grotto invites personal conversion. Fr. Dubois, educated in the classics, was alert to these subtleties when he founded his mountain school. Wedded to legends-ofold, matriculation from the Mount is structured like a heroic crucible, where virtue is tested and heroism hangs in the balance. But like childbirth, spiritual trial is stubbornly inefficient, producing successors painstakingly and one-at-a-time.
At Mount St. Mary’s, historical account, personal observation, and moral intuition converge in a familial way. The golden woman on the side of the mountain does not stand alone. Clothed with the sun and full with child, Our Lady is pregnant with possibility. Domestic bliss, that heroic endeavor, is at the moral center of Mary’s Mountain, exemplified in the presence of the Blessed Mother and the proximity of the Father-Son-and-Holy Spirit.
American Catholic education, which traces its roots to Emmitsburg, is preparation for the family unit. The superpowers of Mount St. Mary’s are felt not in the achievement of a credential or in the accomplishment of high office, but in the formation of a happy home.
True-myth might be the only way to explain the birth of a university from a grotto-cave on the side of a mountain. What is the mythology of Mount St. Mary’s? The presence of a towering height is an assertion of value. Its majesty submits a proposition and evokes a response. Built into the Mount’s elevation is a story that speaks of a proper relationship between that which is above and that which is below. Before the construction of the golden Mary, there was a primordial symbol of celestial places embodied in nature herself.
A mountain connotes ascent, a spiritual rising. It turns out a pile-of-rocks is ripe with meaning. A holein-the-ground conjures a cave where a holy child was born and where the chains of death were conquered. Shrouded in ancient myth, the cave discovered by John Dubois became the birthplace of a historic Catholic university that reconciles an abundance of mythological themes, many of which God created even before the Church.
At Mount St. Mary’s, there is a mountain and there is Mary, a garden and a golden woman. These archetypes mirror the Book of Genesis and the Book of Revelation, the first and last chapters of the Bible. In Genesis, Eden is located on God’s holy mountain with a river running through it. In Revelation 12, the golden Woman of the Apocalypse confronts a serpent at the end of time. On Mary’s Mountain, the Queen of Saints stands triumphant with her foot on the head of a snake.
Mythology with its synthesizing language can garner glimpses of a grand design, but paradox, with its jarring reversals, can lead to unexpected insight. Until 1973, Mount St. Mary’s was an all-male institution. Yet, the central figure upon which the university spins is a woman, a hero who makes men into their best selves by having given birth to the best man that ever was. Hierarchical by nature, this Catholic school sits on the side of a mountain. With pinnacles and peaks pointing skyward, the patriarchy is topped by a fiercely feminine protagonist whose aspect is maternal but whose aura is oppositional. Counter-cultural figures have hailed disproportionately from tiny Emmitsburg – heroes, saints and martyrs. This recurring theme is as sure as the surging and ebbing of the tide.
Charting patterns over the course of centuries without a religious order to chronicle its achievements, the meaning of the Mount is hidden in plain sight. An independent Catholic school, the character of the place has been maintained not by a charism but by a spirit of independence and a litany of saving personalities. Notre Dame has the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Villanova has the Augustinians. Mount St. Mary’s is a menagerie of outsiders herded from far and near, starting with John Dubois, who was not a representative of a religious order, but a solitary priest pitted against insurmountable odds.
To plumb the meaning of Mount St. Mary’s is to discover a golden thread in the lives of its improbable advocates and graduates. Defined by false starts and second chances, certain defeat has been reversed for more than 200 years through an exercise in maternal vigilance. Whether discerning for the priesthood or the professions, the Mount declares the family unit as the source and summit of personal identity.
This pattern producing reality presides over Mary’s mountain, implying a body which is being moved and a force which is moving it, at a pace that can only be described as cyclical. Emmitsburg has not born its last saint. When the dye was cast with the discovery of a Grotto cave, the Mount fell into a fecund pattern, a biology that cannot be easily overturned.
Declared dead many times, Mount St. Mary’s knows its way out of the grave. This habit of unexpected comebacks is an attraction and an inheritance. From its unwanted birth in 1808 to its bankruptcy in 1881 to the near-death experiences of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Mount follows a familiar figure out of the grotto-cave. Mount St. Mary’s was not founded by a wealthy industrialist, but by a refugee priest on the run from a war on the Church.
Ancestral voices beckon on Mary’s Mountain. It’s an invitation to a family reunion. Trading childish ways for parental discretion is its high command. Creative types matriculate from Mount St. Mary’s, clerical, professional and familial, who reflect the image of the divine family by the sincerest form of thanksgiving: imitation. To be a graduate of the Mount is to have learned from the Immaculate Conception herself how to get things born. The Father and the Son, heroes of the family unit, are there too, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. At the Mount, the ubiquity of the Holy Family declares that no worldly authority – social, educational, or governmental – may obfuscate the family unit. Graduates of Mount St. Mary’s change the world not by atomizing the human footprint but by multiplying the People of God.
The family unit is storytelling at its most reliable. Its parts are based on a higher form. Despite its academic setting, the meaning of Mount St. Mary’s is not a thought experiment or a statistical analysis. It’s a participatory act that requires courage. It’s the recapitulation of a family drama. It’s the story of Christ and his Saints.