The monks of Saint Anselm College are suing the school’s Board of Trustees over a dispute that would limit their power and could increase secularization.

In 1889, the Bishop of the Archdiocese of Manchester invited monks from the first Benedictine Monastery in the United States to come to New Hampshire and found a school for French and Irish immigrants: known today as Saint Anselm College.

Now the monks of Saint Anselm College are suing the Board of Trustees to retain their power to govern the school as laid out in its founding charter 131 years ago. The lawsuit comes after the trustees initiated a move to take away the monk’s power to amend school bylaws.

The Board of Trustees is separate from the monks, the two working together to maintain harmony between the Church and the college. Until now the two have always settled their disputes, but Abbot Mark Cooper said the move to take away their “amending power” needed to protect the Catholic and Benedictine identity of the college carries “an unreasonable risk of the secularization of St. Anselm College.”

“We’ve always had it for 130 years. Our principal obligation in my mind was to be able to guarantee as much as possible that we are offering the best expression of the Catholic faith. It comes down to our best opportunity, our best standing to ensure the Catholic identity long into the future.”

The lawsuit seeks no monetary damages, but instead wants to resolve whether a 1992 state statute that requires bylaw amendment power to vested in the Board of Trustees applies to them. The Trustees say if they can’t amend bylaws, they risk losing accreditation, while the monk’s argue that the law doesn’t apply because of their religious affiliation and because the school’s charter gives them said power.

“The declaratory judgment action is going to ask the judge to look at the 1889 charter and look at the statute, and look at what the words in the charter mean, and look at what the words in the statute mean.”

When contacted on whether or not bylaw amendment power had to be vested in the Board of Trustees to be accredited, the New England Commission on Higher Education said there is “no formula” for a school’s bylaws – making the Board’s claims seem more of an excuse to bar the monk’s from governing as is their right.

On Monday, the first court hearing was held with attorney Michael Tierney representing the monks and attorney Ovide Lamontagne representing the Board of Trustees. Afterwards, Tierney said that

“I’m confident at the end of the day that the court will understand that the monk members maintain the amending power over the bylaws as they have since the legislative charter in 1889 and can maintain Saint Anselm College as the great Catholic and Benedictine institution it is and always will be.”

It’s unclear how the lawsuit will play out in court. The New Hampshire Director of Charitable Trusts Tom Donovan was granted a motion to intervene during the hearing, and said outside mediation could also make sense in addition to future court proceedings. Donovan has not taken a position however, on who has the power to control the future of the College’s Catholic identity.

“The dispute that’s in front of the court about the bylaws is the tip of a larger concern that the board of directors seems to be having with the members as to the control of the direction of the college.”

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