Due to the extraordinary contributions of volunteers to our website, print publications, and many other tasks, Chesterton House often appeared to be a larger organization than it was. In reality, Karl remained the only employee until Fall 2008, at which time a kind benefactor initiated an effort to provide Chesterton House with a second staff person. In August 2008, Justin McGeary became Director of Undergraduate Programs. Justin’s hiring was also a partnership effort, this time with the Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO) in Pittsburgh. Justin was with us for three short years before heading off to southern California for divinity studies. In addition to being a great part of our community and a mentor to students, Justin helped initiate two enduring projects. During his first year, he recruited an entire busload of students to attend the terrific CCO Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh, an annual habit we have maintained. Even more significantly, he successfully recruited the inaugural group of 18 men to kick off our men’s residential living-learning facility in the fall of 2010.
Since the very beginning, the Chesterton House website had stated, “One of our goals is that Chesterton House will soon be a house–a residential living learning center where students can eat, sleep, study, converse, and work out their salvation with one another. Our aim is to secure a fraternity or sorority-type of ‘group home’ with generous common area, large kitchen, and several bedrooms. Having a facility with space for programming and our growing library in the same space that students are living will allow us to better serve larger number of students.” It only took about ten years, but in August 2010 we inhabited a big, historic Tudor Mansion at 115 The Knoll (formerly Delta Phi Epsilon), just a few blocks from campus.
The inaugural group of residents consisted of 18 men, including undergraduate and graduate students, Americans and internationals, Protestants and Catholics. The house functions much like a coop with an optional meal plan on weeknights and a required house dinner on Sundays. Residents do their own meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, and cleaning. They also open the house to other students for hospitality on holidays such as Thanksgiving and Easter (and Super Bowl Sunday), when as many as 70 students come for dinner. Residents also participate each semester in a service project, yard workday, and a retreat. For the first fall retreat, the men read and discussed Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. For the Winter retreat, we read and discussed Neal Plantinga’s Engaging God’s World. When Plantinga came to deliver the Institute of Biblical Studies in February 2011, residents hosted him for dinner and continued the discussion of his book. The image of a visiting scholar discussing the ideas of a book recently read by the students who prepared dinner perfectly captures the ideal of integrating living and learning that we are after with the residential initiative, and which is in keeping with Cornell’s recent move toward residential living-learning centers.
Plans to start a companion women’s residential facility received a boost from Danielle Lertola ’13. Even before Chesterton House hired a woman on staff, Danielle and her friends rented a house on Thurston Ave. for the 2011-2012 academic year. When Justin departed in summer 2011, resources were reallocated to hire Barb Westin as Director of Undergraduate Ministries, including oversight of the women’s residence (previously called Sophia House). In addition to functioning much like the men’s house with respect to meals and retreats, the two houses now get together for a number of social occasions each year, including a fall bonfire, Christmas party, and an excursion to the Cornell ropes course at the end of the spring semester. Interestingly, just as our original public lecture series coincided with a national movement and interest in Christian scholarship, we embarked on this journey of residential community living amidst a broader turn toward spiritual formation.
In addition to adding the women’s residence, the 2011-2012 year was significant for other reasons as well. In Fall 2011, Chesterton House held the inaugural Alan T. and Linda M. Beimfohr Lecture. A gift of Carl ’76 and Elaine Neuss in honor of their friends Al ’66 and Linda Beimfohr, the lectureship is designed to address issues of faith in a pluralistic society. Beimfohr lecturers have included historian C. John Sommerville, sociologist Felicia Wu Song, World Vision President Richard Stearns ’73, and author/ entrepreneur Joe Holland ’78, MA ’79. Expressing his appreciation for Holland’s lecture on racial justice and revival, Walter LaFeber, the Andrew Tisch and James Tisch Distinguished University Professor Emeritus, said that “The Beimfohr Lectures are among Cornell’s most distinguished campus presentations.”
Also in Spring 2012, Chesterton House co-sponsored the first ever Veritas Forum at Cornell. Featuring Cornell Professor Emeritus and Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann in dialogue with MIT’s Ian Hutchinson, the event was entitled “The Finite and the Infinite: An Atheist and a Christian discuss Nature, Knowledge, and Faith.” All 750 seats in Statler Auditorium filled quickly, many more sat on the floor, and we turned away hundreds at the door! Beginning with the Beimfohr Lectures and the Veritas Forum, we also began video recording lectures, which we hope will help find an even wider audience than ever for these great events. Cornell archives video recordings of the Beimfohr Lectures.
Finally, 2011-2012 brought some additional publicity. The Cornell Chronicle provided a nice feature on the inaugural Beimfohr Lecture. An orthodox Jewish student wrote a very complimentary column about his visit to Chesterton House for dinner. And in his book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind, Mark Noll wrote, “Other signs of hope at the pluralistic universities are modest but significant. Local churches and individual denominations maintain Christian study centers at many universities, and some of them are effective. Self-standing centers at Cornell, Illinois, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Virginia and elsewhere offer encouragement by moving closer to the British and Canadian pattern where identifiably Christian units are embedded in the broader university.” Noll’s book was based upon the lectures he gave as a guest of Chesterton House in 2009.
The Spring 2012 semester concluded with a magnificent piano concert during study week by Deanna Witkowski. Entitled “Crossing Musical Worlds: An Evening of Jazz, Brazilian, and Classical Music,” the event as co-sponsored by a diverse group of local churches including the Cornell Catholic Community, New Life Presbyterian Church, Protestant Cooperative Ministries, St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, and Trinity Lutheran Church.
As founding board members came to the end of their terms, the board diversified beyond local pastors and professors to include alumni such as Jim Keller ’84 and Kelly O’Neal ’85. Linda Fuchs assumed the role of chair in 2011, and the board promptly crafted the most ambitious strategic plan to date. The planning process, skillfully led by former Cornell Vice President Rich McDaniel, MPA ’74, MBA ’78, identified three goals for the following three years: Redesign the website and all print materials (2012); Begin offering courses for credit (2013); and Purchase one residential facility (2014).
The plan, which required raising $1,350,000, was completed on time and under budget! The Lilly Endowment provided a $100,000 grant for the courses initiative, which was just one of five grants that Lilly awarded in 2012 for its Campus Ministry Theological Exploration of Vocation program. Combined with support from alumni, these funds enabled the hiring of biblical studies scholar Ryan O’Dowd, who has since developed and taught four courses for students. These courses are also made possibly through a partnership with Gordon College, a premier Christian liberal arts college on Boston’s north shore. “Gordon College is thrilled to partner with Chesterton House in providing coursework that advances Christian thought on all human endeavor,” said Gordon president Michael Lindsay. “I have always been impressed with the ministry of Chesterton House, and all of us at Gordon are thrilled with this opportunity to partner in the Gospel.” Provost Janel Curry adds the following: “Gordon College is delighted to partner with Chesterton House. Like Chesterton House, Gordon strives to awaken and inspire the life of the Christian mind. Because of this shared purpose, we are eager to work collaboratively to deepen the faith and maturity of Chesterton House students. We hope that this will be but the first step in a longer term and multi-faceted relation that goes both directions and involves both faculty and students.”
In 2014, Susan ’81 and Greg Gianforte provided a $1,000,000 gift to enable the purchase of 115 The Knoll! We immediately hired longtime Cornell and Ithaca personality Louie Rudin to serve as Property Manager in Residence and began addressing deferred maintenance issues, beginning with the first paint job the house had received in 30 years. A dedication ceremony with students, staff, parents, alumni, and board members was held in November 2014. Needless to say, these gifts and grants represent a new level of commitment to Chesterton House by alumni, parents, and foundations. The Gianfortes’ visionary gift to Chesterton House was featured not only in the Cornell Chronicle, but also in Philanthropy Magazine.