Guest post by Berntsen Library Archivist Greg Rosauer
Where do I belong? Where’s my place in this world? When we ask such questions, we’re usually not talking about a physical location. The “where” is really a metaphor for a sense of acceptance and purpose. “Where” that happens isn’t really the point. But it has to happen somewhere. Technology has reinforced the illusion that it can happen in virtual spaces just as effectively as in real physical spaces. But after countless Zoom meetings with technical difficulties and miscommunications, after canceled trips and stay-at-home orders, perhaps the illusion is wearing off. The disembodied space of screens has allowed us to carry on, but none of it feels right because we know that our bedrooms aren’t meant for this. Our living rooms are not offices. The kitchen isn’t a restaurant. YouTube can’t give us church. And pixelated faces are no substitute for sitting in a real classroom. Places have purposes. A library, a hospital, a church—we know what these spaces are meant for. But perhaps it would be helpful in our current situation to be reminded of the specific purpose that animates one of our own cherished spaces, Nazareth Hall, and by extension the entire UNW campus.
One hundred years ago, on October 23, 1920, a group of influential Roman Catholics in Minnesota established an educational fund “to receive, accumulate and expend money and property to be used for the erection and maintenance of schools, colleges and seminaries of learning.” The express purpose of the fund was “to give and promote religious, moral, literary, scientific, business and patriotic instruction.” The first major use of the fund went to the construction of Nazareth Hall, a preparatory seminary intended to raise up native Minnesota clergy. The goal of Nazareth Hall, its purpose, was intimately tied to the building itself. Its architecture seamlessly joined school and church, classroom and chapel. Many students and clergy found purpose and meaning in the corridors of Nazareth Hall as a place dedicated to learning and worship.
Fifty years ago, in 1970, the preparatory seminary at Nazareth Hall closed. The seminary’s final yearbook concluded with the hope that a new dream would “make the most of [Nazareth Hall’s] beauty, and continue the best of its traditions.” The same year, on November 23, 1970, Northwestern College purchased Nazareth Hall from the Catholic Archdiocese of Saint Paul. Part of the purchase agreement required Northwestern to retain the name Nazareth Hall. Yet more importantly, Northwestern retained the spiritual and educational purpose specified by those who funded the building back in 1920. And I think the best of their traditions still animate the campus today, making UNW a place where many have found belonging and purpose. For many, that belonging was found in the tangible locale of a special seat in Naz Chapel, in an office filled with books, or in a favorite chair in a hall once lush with ‘70s décor.
It’s hard to imagine that meaningful communities can be forged in virtual spaces as potently and vitally as in a space like Nazareth Hall, where office conversations feel like discoveries, chapel worship like sacred space, chance meetings in hallways like providence, and classrooms like fountains of wisdom. Well, at least that’s what it ought to be like. That kind of purpose needs a real place. After all, the Christian university isn’t about content delivery so much as it is about the formation of whole persons. It’s a place dedicated to helping us find our place in Christ and in the world. A place where the question, “Where do I belong?” finds an answer.