Plans announced for San Damiano College for the Trades in Springfield

Student experience will not be like traditional college

San Damiano College for the Trades will be located on the grounds of the St. Francis of Assisi Campus on Springfield’s northeast side (4875 LaVerna Road).

By ANDREW HANSEN
     Editor

A team of lay, clerical, and religious Catholics in Springfield, Ill., announced plans for San Damiano College for the Trades on June 19. The school is applying for operating authority from the Illinois Board of Higher Education and plans to recruit the inaugural class of up to 26 students as soon as operating authority has been granted. The college will be located on the grounds of the St. Francis of Assisi Campus on Springfield’s northeast side (4875 LaVerna Road).

The College is designing a three-year program from which graduates would have one year of foundational training in a variety of trades, along with two years of apprenticeship in one trade. Further, they would receive an associate’s degree in the liberal arts (classical great-books approach), along with three years of spiritual direction, pilgrimages, retreats, and training in community life. In addition, San Damiano College’s pay-as-you-earn tuition structure means students will graduate with no debt.

The foundations-year trades training will be offered in on-site shops. Focus in one apprenticeship over the remaining two years is offsite through on-the-job training and technical instruction by union or non-union apprenticeship programs. Students will live on campus. San Damiano College will offer intellectual formation for credit but not academic classes in the sense of a typical college.

“This is certainly not a standard classroom experience,” said Kent Lasnoski, founding President of the college. “It’s more active. We’re trying to recover the ability to think, learn, and communicate clearly and convincingly on our feet. We model something more like the ancient disputational mode of learning where students argue various positions spontaneously and with preparation. Students are free to move around, stand, walk. Humans aren’t sedentary. We can learn on our feet.

Supporters of San Damiano College for the Trades get a tour of what will become the new college. Here, they check out what will become one of the shops. Photo by Debbie Benz

“Given the rising cost of college, the heavy burden of debt, and many concerns with the experience and perceived value of a traditional four-year college, many young people — and particularly young men — are choosing to forgo college altogether,” said Lasnoski, who has been teaching in Catholic higher education for 13 years (first at Quincy University and for the past nine years at Wyoming Catholic College). “San Damiano is intended to offer an alternative that provides both practical skills training along with the fullness of Catholic intellectual, spiritual, and moral formation.” 

The college’s mission is “to form men to recover the dignity of work, integrating it into the whole of a life ordered toward the kingdom of God and the sanctification of the world.”

The subject matter of the academic curriculum follows the great books models such as Wyoming Catholic College, Thomas More College, and Thomas Aquinas College, with theology and humanities throughout the entire three years.

“We add, however, schola and liturgy learning throughout as well, along with a study of discernment, lives of the saints, and integrated classes on Euclid and architecture, rhetoric and business practices, the art of narrative, and restoration,” Lasnoski said. “Especially in our post-industrial, information age, the world of work has flipped upside down. People are working farther and farther from the earth, from the tangible, the durable, the concrete things of God’s creation. Not only is this model economically unstable, it has also made us forget the dignity of physical labor and the beauty of working with our hands. Humanity comes from the word ‘humus,’ dirt. If we lose touch with that dirt, we forget who we are. As Pope Pius XI says in Quadragesimo anno, ‘Man was made for work as the birds were to fly.’ By our labor we take flight; we elevate and glorify God through what He Himself has made. In his encyclical Laborem Exercens,Pope St. John Paul II, who heroically supported Poland’s solidarity workers’ movement against communism in the ˊ80s, reminds us that we share in God’s own creativity when we pick up a hammer or lay down some shingles.”

Why Springfield was chosen

Springfield was chosen for San Damiano College for several reasons, Lasnoski said. First, there is the beautiful, expansive St. Francis of Assisi Campus, home to both the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis and the Norbertines of Corpus Christi Priory and their Evermode Institute. The site has enough residential, classroom, and shop space for the college to open its doors — not to mention the stunning St. Francis of Assisi Church at its center.

“We are very excited about the San Damiano College project,” said Father Augustine Puchner, O.Praem, Prior of Corpus Christi Priory. “Our Norbertine community looks forward to collaborating with the college through apostolic work to provide spiritual instruction, direction, and sacramental ministry.”

Secondly, San Damiano College will renew the educational mission of two institutions formerly active in Springfield (St. James Trade School and Springfield Junior College). From 1928 until 1972, the Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross ran the St. James Trade School adjacent to the St. Francis Campus. Its shops and the Church of St. Joseph built by the students themselves remain on the campus, and the college will look to collaborate with the Franciscans to expand its operations into those spaces over the years.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois has expressed his desire for a Catholic associate’s degree option in Springfield since the Ursuline Sisters’ original Springfield College and later the branch campus of Benedictine University (of Lisle, Ill.) closed. The founding of San Damiano College accomplishes that goal. Bishop Paprocki has taken an active role in the founding as the college’s board of directors operates under his leadership.

Bishop Thomas John Paprocki and Kent Lasnoski, founding President of the college, made the announcement of San Damiano College for the Trades together on June 19 on the St. Francis of Assisi campus in Springfield. Present at the announcement were board members of the college, Norbertine Fathers of Corpus Christi Priory, clergy from the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, representatives from a variety of trades, among other supporters. Photo by Debbie Benz

“The San Damiano College for the Trades offers a truly unique opportunity for full formation of the human person — morally, spiritually, intellectually, and practically — in trades that are facing a demographic crisis,” Bishop Paprocki said. “Praise God that young people are expressing renewed interest in these essential and dignified lines of work, and San Damiano ensures that, in addition to technical and skills training, students will also be well formed to serve customers and the community while also leading families and businesses.”

Local contractors share the bishop’s enthusiasm.

“There is a great need for the attraction of new prospective trades people,” said Jerry Judd, owner of Prairie State Plumbing and Heating. Schools like San Damiano he says will “give them a different avenue to come through.”  

“As a business owner I find tremendous hope and promise in the mission of San Damiano College for the Trades and the opportunity to partner with them,” offered Carlos Tejeda, owner of Gilded Cedar Tree Care.

Sir Michael Berlinger (KC, HS), President and CEO of Heritage Restoration and Design Studio adds that “proper education provides a clearer understanding and spiritual awareness visible in historical ecclesiastical arts through taught and practiced skills.”

The Bigger Picture

San Damiano College is among a small but rapidly expanding number of Catholic trade schools nationally, including Harmel Academy (Grand Rapids, Mich.), College of St. Joseph the Worker (Steubenville, Ohio), Santiago Trade School (Silverado, Calif.), and Kateri College (Gallup, N.M.).

“We need to get rid of the misconceptions and stereotypes about people who are naturally interested in the trades,” Lasnoski said. “We need to show that the life of the mind and skilled labor go hand-in-hand. In fact, manual labor itself ends up being highly satisfying for the mind, especially when it involves problem-solving. What’s more, there’s no embarrassment in talking theology or literature while running wire or installing pex. A carpenter might just enjoy going home and reading poetry, Shakespeare, or a spiritual classic with his family in the evening. That shouldn’t sound odd. Our Lord spent most of his life sweeping up sawdust in the shop. What do you think he and St. Joseph talked about? Right or wrong, the trades have been known as a rough place, culturally. Our graduates will bring the light of Christ and his Church, along with integrity, industriousness, and the joy of serious Christian discipleship with them to the worksite and even into the founding of their own businesses, re-evangelizing culture from the ground up.”

The college is in the midst of its foundational fundraising push, looking to raise $3 million dollars by 2027. Among the unique elements of the school is its design to cover operating expenses on tuition alone.

“This is uncommon within higher education,” says Lasnoski. “Many colleges need to fundraise up to 40 percent of operating budget. It’s just not sustainable. Hopefully, after this initial drive, we will be able to focus fundraising on capital campaigns and endowments to make tuition even more affordable. Now is the time to support the College, get the institution framed out and weathered in to be a self-sustaining operation. I hope people check out our website, sandamianotrades.org and make a gift to support God’s work and our efforts at this College.”