A Brother Reflects on 27 Years
at St. Mary's College

By Lawrence Biemiller

Moraga, Cal. -- Brother Mel Anderson may not be remembered as long as Abbot Suger, known still for his 1140 rebuilding of the Church of St. Denis, in Paris. He may not have quite the architectural impact of Pope Julius II, who hired Bramante to design St. Peter's in 1506. But it's easy to see Brother Mel, seated this morning at a big table spread with plans for the renovation of the St. Mary's College chapel, as a particularly amiable inheritor of the Roman Catholic tradition of learned and inspired builders. Dormitories, classroom buildings, computer labs, offices -- he's built them all. He's averaged one project a year since 1969, when he was appointed as the college's president.

This is his second renovation of the chapel, in fact, which may be why he seems to know more about it than anyone else in the room. He knows why the roof of the ambulatory leaks and where the walls contain asbestos that would be expensive to remove. "You can't touch this room -- that's the Centrex," he is saying now, pointing at a telephone- equipment room in the plan. The men gathered around the table are debating where to put a lift that would give wheelchair users access to the chapel's Byzantine altar. Someone asks whether the altar really has to be made accessible, since worshipers don't usually approach it. "What if someone in a wheelchair wants to get married?" Brother Mel replies.

That seems to settle the matter. Next comes the thorny theological question of pew cushions, which some traditionalists disapprove of. One cannot envision Abbot Suger worrying about pew cushions, but nothing is as simple now as it used to be. The St. Mary's chapel serves as the local parish church, and the college even shares it with an Episcopal congregation. It is also used for concerts that, Brother Mel says, can last two hours or longer. "Of course, the Episcopalians like pew cushions," he jokes.

"Because they have such long homilies," says Brother William Woeger, a renovation consultant whom the college has called in from the Archdiocese of Omaha. "Thirty, thirty-five minutes."

"Next question?" says Brother Mel, smiling.

After the meeting, he leads an impromptu tour of the chapel, built when the college left Oakland in 1928 for this Italianate valley of eucalyptus trees and upthrust hills. He points out worn carpet that will be removed, a bust of John the Baptist that had to be replaced after the 1989 earthquake. Soon he is striding along colonnades and up stairs to show off other parts of this 4,000-student campus -- a boxwood maze outside the dining hall; a high-tech classroom building; dormitories built on the hillside; hallways lined with prints to "surround students with art."

Brother Mel is tall, with a deep voice and a ruddy complexion. He greets almost everyone he passes, at the same time keeping up the thread of a conversation about the college's great-books requirement: All St. Mary's undergraduates take four seminars on the most important texts of Western literature, from the Greeks to the moderns. He also explains the "integral program," a four-year great-books curriculum that is the college's pride and joy, attracting 40 to 50 students a year. Brother Mel, who graduated from St. Mary's in 1951, will retire as its president next spring, and what he wants to do then is go back to teaching the great-books seminars, starting with the Greeks and working his way down through history all over again.

Somewhere in the middle of that history, he will pass quietly by both Jean Baptiste de la Salle, who founded the Christian Brothers in France in 1680 to teach the children of the poor, and Joseph Alemany, the Archbishop of San Francisco who established what is now St. Mary's in 1863. In 1867, dissatisfied with the institution's progress, the Archbishop sought help from the Christian Brothers, and the next year nine brothers arrived and added college-level courses to what had been largely a high-school curriculum. Twenty years later, both the college and the high school moved to Oakland. Although the college later left for Moraga, the high school remained in Oakland, says Brother Mel, who grew up there and attended the school. It was while he was a student there that he decided to become a Christian Brother himself.

There are now about 30 brothers at the college, in all kinds of capacities. Because theirs is a lay order, the college also has a small complement of Dominican priests to say masses. About half the brothers live in the dormitories, as Brother Mel has for 20 years. He is known around campus for doing his own wash in the college laundry rooms, and for his home cooking. He likes inviting students and other members of the St. Mary's community to dinner. "We had a big discussion last time about what is fine art and about intuition versus cognition. I enjoy that kind of stuff."

Not everything about being president has been enjoyable. "The biggest problem was when I first got here," Brother Mel says. "It was the height of the Vietnam conflict, and because we're so close to Berkeley there was a certain amount of spillover. I was able to keep it somewhat under control until I decided not to renew the contract of a dean who was black. There was some protest, and then black members of the basketball team walked off the court. That got national attention, and it led to a semester's worth of trouble and disruption. Enrollment took a real downturn next semester, and that caused us financial problems that took us a number of years to get out of."

In 1971, the college began to admit women, expanding the applicant pool and helping to attract far more than the 850 students St. Mary's had when Brother Mel became president. It has since added graduate and continuing-education programs. Now its students explore more interests than Archbishop Alemany could have dreamt of: Biology majors are planning a January trip to explore coral reefs off Fiji; football players just finished a 7-and-3 season; theater majors recently staged a production of Euripides' The Trojan Women set in contemporary Bosnia. There's even an organization for gay students, although Brother Mel says it's not sponsored by St. Mary's. The college's responsibility is to explain the Catholic position on hot-button issues to students, he says. "It's up to them whether to accept it."

"There are a lot of issues that a person trained in the liberal arts should have the ability to think about," says Brother Mel. "We've now been financially stable for 20 years," which has permitted the college to build up not just its campus but also its faculty and its curriculum. "When people begin to say the college has become nationally known because of its faculty, because of its great-books program, I'm delighted." Even so, he acknowledges that the $35-million endowment is far smaller than he would like it to be.

He is also concerned about the future of the liberal arts and of Catholic higher education. "We need to discuss what we really mean by being a Catholic institution," he says. "What should we be doing about the moral training of students? Do we have an obligation to talk about social justice? What are the links between faith and reason?"

In The Trojan Women, gods and goddesses make no secret of what sides they've taken, what mischief they've made, but the God in the St. Mary's chapel has always been a little harder to pin down. Tony Kushner, the playwright, says He abandoned us in 1906, on the day of the San Francisco earthquake. Deborah Greger, the poet, imagines Him retired in Florida. Still, Brother Mel and people like him devote their lives and their enthusiasm to building colleges and teaching the rest of us how to pursue whatever truths we're searching for. If that's not evidence of a divine plan, it's hard to imagine what would be.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published 13 December 1996.