SHAWNEE — Although Oklahoma's Roman Catholic community and its leaders have championed St. Gregory's University in a variety of ways over its more than 130-year history, Catholic leaders officially pledged their support on Friday during a special ceremony at St. Gregory's Abbey.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City; the Most Rev. Edward Slattery, bishop of the Diocese of Tulsa; the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Stasyszen, abbot of St. Gregory's Abbey; and the Rev. Don Wolf, St. Gregory's University chairman of the board signed a memorandum of agreement and declaration of intent formally establishing the Catholic Church in Oklahoma as a major sponsor of St. Gregory's, 1900 W MacArthur.
Friday's event included a short prayer service inside the abbey and a signing ceremony held in one of the church's outdoor plaza areas. After the ceremony, Coakley and Slattery conferred blessings on those gathered for the event.
Stasyszen said over the years, many people have understood the relationship between St. Gregory's University and the Catholic Church in Oklahoma to be much like that of colleges affiliated with religious denominations — such as Oklahoma Baptist University, affiliated with Oklahoma Southern Baptists, and Oklahoma City University, affiliated with the Oklahoma United Methodist Conference.
However, the abbot said the university always has been a mission and ministry of the Benedictine monks at St. Gregory's Abbey since they established the school that eventually became the university in 1875.
The Catholic bishops in Oklahoma had no cosponsorship of the educational institution. Stasyszen said 25 monks are part of the St. Gregory's monastic community, and nine of them directly work with the university.
Stasyszen said the collaborative effort begun with the memorandum signed on Friday represents a new model of structure for the state's only Catholic university and will fully integrate the university within the Oklahoma Catholic Church.
He said he, along with Coakley and Slattery, will serve as members of a new Board of Trustees as the church begins to play an active role in the university's governance.
The abbot said the new collaborative effort was recommended by a group of prominent lay leaders who outlined the proposal in a report called “The Way Forward.” Stasyszen said the monks discussed the matter and voted on it in principle before Friday's ceremony.
“It is a significant change in how the university is perceived in terms of its connection to the church,” he said.
Stasyszen said the agreement was not created because of any special set of financial circumstances; however, the new partnership is expected to enhance the school's ability to attract additional resources.
“It is an affirmation and a relief that this responsibility rests no longer solely on our shoulders, but it is shared,” he said.
“I think the level of support will be enhanced. It does help to broaden the ownership and strength of the university.”
Oklahoma City Archbishop Coakley said the university represents the time and talents of many people throughout its long history.
“The Benedictines came here many years ago to this place that is truly the cradle of Catholicism in Oklahoma,” Coakley said.
He said the agreement signed Friday signaled a “renewed commitment and continuity with this rich history which is ours, this rich legacy which has been handed on to us.”
Stasyszen said the university is set to begin a major project to establish a Catholic nursing program being developed with Oklahoma's four Catholic hospitals. He said through the new agreement, the university will establish a flagship theology program and provide services supporting diocesan and parish operations. Leaders on Friday said special efforts will be made to reach out to low income and minority students and potential first-generation college students who are members of Oklahoma Catholic parishes.
“It is time to work together,” Stasyszen said of the new partnership.
“This is a way for the university to be preserved and promoted.”