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Footsteps of the founders: Journey to France explores the Mount’s Dominican heritage

December 12, 2013

Newburgh, NY -

CDI Group

In the gardens of the Bishop’s residence in Albi, now part of the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum: sojourners Charles Zola, assistant professor of philosophy and director of the Mount’s Catholic and Dominican Institute; Beth Roeper, former Mount health services director; Asma Neblett of Port Jefferson Station, NY; Sarah Favata of Northvale, NJ; and Douglas Robinson, assistant professor of biology

Some 800 years ago, St. Dominic de Guzman made innumerable contributions to Christianity while living a simple, joyful life.

A group of students and administrators from Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, NY, recently made a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the 13th century saint.

Following Dominic’s missionary trail in France were Asma Neblett of Port Jefferson Station, NY, a media studies – journalism major who is president of the Black Student Union; and Sarah Favata of Northvale, NJ, history major on the childhood education track who is president of C.I.R.C.L.E., a children’s literature club for prospective teachers; along with Charles Zola, assistant professor of philosophy and director of the Mount’s Catholic and Dominican Institute; Douglas Robinson, assistant professor of biology; and Beth Roeper, former director of the college’s health services.

In France, the five academics focused on where Dominic’s movement began. They studied the roots of the Order of Preachers in the very places Dominic had lived and preached.

“The experience was very powerful, but very humbling too – it was faith in a very raw form,” said Neblett. For more than a week, “We got to live it, to act it out. The experience brought longevity and authenticity to the message of being a Dominican at the Mount.”

At Mount Saint Mary College, education attempts to illuminate the human spirit: always open to relationship with God and one’s fellow human beings. The tradition of St. Dominic’s order includes respectful dialogue and the search for “veritas” (truth) in all facets of study and life.

By learning about literature, art, architecture and more, Neblett and Favata earned credits in a course on France in the Middle Ages.

RobinsonIn Fanjeaux, the group visited the home where Dominic briefly lived while he debated the Albigensian Cathars – a radical sect of his time the held that matter was evil and only spirit was good – as well as the nearby basilica and monastery of Sainte Marie de Prouilhe, where Dominic established his first community of nuns in 1206.

Right: Douglas Robinson examines a skull on top of a sarcophagus, in a museum in Albi.

They also explored Toulouse, where Dominic founded the Order of Preachers in 1215, and where early follower Thomas Aquinas is buried in the Church of the Jacobins. Thomas is one of the intellectual giants in Catholic Church history. The Mount holds an annual conference which explores Thomistic philosophy.

“Being in the sites that were sacred to Dominic and the Dominicans was incredible,” said Zola. “It’s one thing to talk about it as a philosopher, but to actually walk where Dominic walked and live where Dominic lived brought it all to life. This is ground zero of our Dominican faith.”

The Order of Preachers was a response to a call for informed preaching. Dominic educated a community which would serve the Church in its affirmation of the world as the place where Christ is discovered.

Favata said that the sojourn strengthened her Catholic roots.

“I was pulled in by the religious component,” said Favata. “By studying the religion and history, I feel more connected to my college. As a Mount ambassador giving tours, it made me more knowledgeable and I can share that with other people.”

Zola echoed the impact.

“No matter where we came from in terms of our faith journey, we found the spirit in individual and group conversations,” said Zola. “We shared our journeys and had a common experience in the Dominican tradition.”

Robinson viewed the journey in a scientific light.

“In evolutionary biology, we don’t know what traits organisms had and what allowed them to survive though time, but we can get some insight by examining them,” he explained. “I wanted to learn what facets of this branch of Catholicism led to its long-term survival.”

The Dominican Order is “a survivor of time,” he said, in part, because “Dominic was very good at meeting challenges. He instilled those principles in his early followers.”

Robinson also enjoyed the historical aspect of the journey.

“The college is steeped in the Dominican Order’s traditions, and to get a better understanding of how the Mount operates at its roots is very important to me,” Robinson explained, noting that anyone can embrace Dominican ideals such as commitment to study and community.

Zola pointed out that although the Dominican pilgrimage shines a spotlight on the historic sites where St. Dominic lived and traveled, the saint lived a humble life. Much can be learned from his example and from the pillars of the Order of Preachers: community, study, ministry, and prayer.

“Looking at the house he lived in for about a decade, it was very ordinary,” Zola said. “That was inspiring: Sometimes you think you’re not being effective or you’re doing very ordinary things, but you never know what the future holds. After 800 years, look at what a difference Dominic has made.”

Funding for the pilgrimage was provided by the Dominican Sisters of Hope in Ossining, NY.

CDI Pilgrims

Back on campus at the Mount, the pilgrims share their reflections in front of the Dominic Center.