GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — This is a big moment for Saint Anselm College, which every four years finds itself at the center of the political universe, as presidential candidates make the pilgrimage to campus, hoping to win over the state’s first-in-the-nation primary voters. In February, the school recently announced, Saint Anselm will play host to a Democratic presidential debate.
But these days, the buzz at Saint Anselm has less to do with fighting among politicians than with a court battle launched by the college’s Benedictine monks.
Fearing that the 130-year-old college is at risk of becoming increasingly secular and that they will be sidelined, the monks of Saint Anselm Abbey and their leader, Abbot Mark Cooper, have filed a lawsuit against the college’s Board of Trustees.
The move propels a long-simmering internal power struggle into a public brawl at a delicate time for the Catholic college.
Last month, on the same day the college announced its New Hampshire Institute of Politics would hold the nationally televised debate, Saint Anselm’s president sent out a community letter backing the trustees in the dispute.
The trustees have “made it clear that in no way do they wish to impede the fundamental role of the Catholic, Benedictine mission and traditions of the college,” wrote Joseph A. Favazza. “I fully support the Board of Trustees in their efforts to act on behalf of the College to resolve this matter.”
Meanwhile, the regional college accrediting agency is in the midst of a 10-year review of Saint Anselm, inspecting its finances and governing structure to ensure they meet standards.
“It puts us at a crossroads in regards to the future of the college,” said Ann Catino, chairwoman of the trustees.
The lawsuit, filed on Thanksgiving eve in New Hampshire state court, came as a shock, said Catino, who accused the monks of trying to turn back the clock on Saint Anselm to a time when the religious order was in charge.
“We don’t want to retreat to the old, opaque world that existed,” she said.
The monastic order that founded Saint Anselm is also looking out for the college’s future, Cooper said. “It comes down to our best opportunity, our best standing to ensure the Catholic identity long into the future,” he said.
But some current and former Saint Anselm leaders fear the lawsuit will deepen divides at a time when small colleges throughout New England are struggling to hold their edge as enrollments decline.
Saint Anselm has kept enrollment steady with 2,015 undergraduates, but it relies heavily on student charges to cover expenses and offers a deep discount on tuition to attract freshmen.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s gone to litigation,” said the Rev. Jonathan P. DeFelice, a Benedictine monk who was a longtime president at Saint Anselm until 2013 and is now the judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Boston. DeFelice said he urged the monks to avoid a lawsuit. “There are so many great things going on. . . . There could have been an internal compromise.”
The lawsuit centers on who has the right to change the college’s bylaws — the monks or the trustees.
From its founding in 1889 until 2009, the monks were in charge as the only members of the college’s governing board. But to comply with the regional accreditor’s requirement for independent oversight, lay trustees were added a decade ago, and the abbey became a separate operation from the college.
Meanwhile, the ranks of the Benedictine monks have dwindled by half since the 1960s to about 30 members.
The Board of Trustees needs to be sufficiently independent to meet the accreditor’s guidelines, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education. But the religious order and the trustees disagree about what that means, and a judge may need to step in, she said.
“There isn’t anything at risk at this moment,” Brittingham said. “They are trying to work it out, and the commission wants to keep an eye on it. I am optimistic that they’ll be able to work it out.”
Conflicts between college governing boards and their founding religious groups occasionally flare up.
The United Methodist Church last month sued Southern Methodist University to prevent the school from severing governance ties with the religious denomination over its stand against homosexuality and gay rights.
At Saint Anselm, the fight has been brewing for several years.
For example, when the Board of Trustees agreed to start graduate-level programs to help increase enrollment and generate revenue, the monks wanted to study the issue separately, arguing they had final say over the college’s identity and mission. They eventually agreed with the plan, but the study has delayed the implementation, Catino, the board chairwoman, said.
In court documents, Cooper wrote that the monks should be able to fire the college president for violations of Catholic teachings and retain veto power over any changes to the campus health center, which currently does not provide any birth control.
Cooper and the college’s previous president, Steven DiSalvo, Saint Anselm’s first lay leader, also clashed. DiSalvo, currently president of Endicott College in Beverly, declined to comment.
But in 2016, before the US presidential election, Cooper and DiSalvo disagreed over a campaign rally held by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton on the campus, according to multiple sources.
Clinton supports abortion rights, and the monks were concerned that holding her rally at the heart of the campus, instead of at the Institute of Politics, would suggest that Saint Anselm was endorsing her views, according to sources and college officials. DiSalvo backed the location.
Clinton’s rally eventually took place on the main campus, which could accommodate the large crowd she drew, much as Mitt Romney did in 2012, when he was running as the Republican nominee for president.
Cooper said his concerns about Clinton were primarily logistical, and he was frustrated that the location changed several times, taxing the staff.
“I thought we should have protocols,” Cooper said.
On campus, the lawsuit had students conflicted and sparked discussions about how large a role the monks and Catholicism should play in their education.
Despite Saint Anselm’s role in national politics, the college is typically a peaceful place where students make dozens of gingerbread houses for an annual contest to turn tables in the cafeteria into cookie villages, and where Wiffle ball games with the monks are a beloved tradition.
A student Instagram account with memes about the conflict popped up and then was soon taken down for fear that it would be viewed as too partisan.
“I can see where the monks are coming from — this is their home,” said Katie Coombs, 18, a freshman studying biochemistry. “It’s a little tricky.”
Still, Coombs and her friends sitting in the campus coffee shop recently said the lawsuit has upended their traditional assumptions about the Benedictine monks who teach some of their classes, hold prayer services, and are visible in nooks throughout campus.
“You never imagine monks going to court,” Coombs said.