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Ox Day: In Preparation of Our Hearts

Nicole Patterson

Ox Day

Photos by Trevor Kern, C'22, MBA'24

This is a story recorded in Mary Meline and Edward McSweeny’s The Story of the Mountain. Se non vero, è ben trovato.

ox-day_10-1-1-in-text.jpg“Man’s history is an ineluctable part of his identity. If he forgets—or never learns—his past, he de facto chooses for himself what his identity is and will be. To do so is to live an unreality, and an arrogant one at that,” writes Aaron Weisel, C’20, MAPS’22, in the foreword to The Meaning of Mount St. Mary’s by John Singleton, C’86, MBA’87. “Those who are blessed with a concise, lucid history of their predecessors hold an inheritance of legacy—a bequest of existential value. The stories within an overarching historical narrative provide us today with a sort of key that may help us—if we have the eyes to so see—discover who we are meant to become.”

Here the story begins: A holy priest on a journey is called to this mountain to build a church. On November 19, 1805, a diverse group of 50 to 60 men, women, children and enslaved persons, including Catholics and Protestants, gathered at that special place. They clear the land, cut trees, remove brush and carry away stones to prepare the soil—and ensure a strong foundation. “A good old-fashioned barbecue with an ox roasted whole closed the happy day’s proceedings and the Catholic Church on the Hill was assured, Meline wrote” That Church on the Hill was erected where the statue of the Blessed Mother at the National Shrine Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes stands today. It was there “each generation of pupils worshiped. Differing in country, characteristics and temperament, if not always united in one faith, they have ever been one in love for the old mountain, Meline continued.

ox-day_9-1-in-text.jpgOn November 19, 2023, nearly 50 students, faculty, administrators, staff, and their families joined to celebrate Ox Day—a new Mount St. Mary’s tradition honoring founder the Rev. John Dubois and the history of the collaborative community on Mary’s Mountain. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, volunteers met for a brief welcome and prayer before paying homage by working together to clear the land behind the Makers House to prepare it for its intended use in due season: a community garden.

“We hope to commemorate this day by inviting our community to pray and work together, to feast with one another when the day is over, and to dream and discern together about our common future,” prayed Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Mission Initiatives Layton Field, Ph.D. He began with a prayer of repentance. “We also call to mind that Black Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, have done so very much to build up the church, this country and the Mount. We repent and mourn that these acts of discipleship and service have long gone unnoticed, unaffirmed and unsupported…. May this day of common work and celebration help us to listen ever more deeply to what God is doing on this Mountain, especially when it goes beyond our plans and expectations. And as we hear that new future, may we be filled with love for one another as we run after it together.”

Director of Cross Country, Track and Field Jay Phillips, C’05, S’08, provided a meditation from the Gospel of Luke, chapter four. For context, John the Baptist is “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” referencing the prophet Isaiah:

              “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,

              ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

               make straight paths for him.

               Every valley shall be filled in,

               every mountain and hill made low.

               The crooked roads shall become straight,

               the rough ways smooth.

               And all people will see God’s salvation.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Jesus was baptized and “led by the spirit into the wilderness” where he fasted for 40 days. There he was tempted by the devil three times. “One of the things I’ve taken out of Jesus being tempted in the desert is he’s called there before he starts his public ministry,” Phillips explained. “What kind of king are you going to be? Are you going to hoard material wealth—like commanding the stones to become bread? Are you going to abuse your power—like collecting kingdoms at your feet? Are you going to save yourself?” he asked the crowd. “The Mount is your wilderness, and after being formed here for four years, you’re going to be sent into the world. What kind of person are you going to be?  Will you pursue your vocation and live a life of significance in service to God and others?”

ox-day_2-in-text.jpgThen the group got to work. In the spirit of partnership, everyone began to clear the land behind the Makers House. Some removed briars and thorns that had taken deep root—allowed to grow unconstrained while broken prickles pierced the hardened soil. Armed with gloves and hand tools, bramble was ripped from the earth and rocks were overturned. Others removed branches fallen by the wayside and cut the grass. Even children helped to till the soil. After a few hours, the group began making a way through the wilderness, creating tiers and stone paths. Volunteers from Physical Plant helped haul away the former and brought a new thing: topsoil and mulch. The old was gone. The new had come.

The day commenced with an ecumenical prayer that Pope Francis included in Fratelli Tutti, followed by a large dinner. “By beginning with a liturgical act of penance over the Mount’s history with slavery and racism, Ox Day can help us to reckon seriously and honestly with that history. It creates the space for a recommitment to the promise of what the Mount can be,” said Department Chair and Associate Professor of Theology Luis Vera, Ph.D., who originally had the idea. “It was a really happy accident that Nick [Hutchings] had that project ready to go behind the Makers House—but that project speaks directly to the work that needs to be done to prepare our hearts. If we’re not doing the work that needs to be done in us, how can we be fruitful for any communal good?”

In the spring, the Makers House plans to build raised beds to grow flowers, vegetables and hopefully some fruits to be shared with the Mount community. “I truly believe in what Mount St. Mary’s University is doing in young men and women’s lives that are unique to any other university,” said Phillips, whose parents and children all attended.

The Mount’s story is filled with those who were called to this special place and through their obedience, humility and sacrifice were formed for a special time before being sent from here to share that bold vision for what would become our mission. “We are all successors of Fr. Dubois’ legacy. We follow in the steps of Bruté, Seton, Walsh and Blessed Stanley Rother,” said Field. The path hasn’t always been easy, but the author and finisher of our faith has always been here on Mary’s Mountain—if we only have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to understand.

“The epic narrative of Mount St. Mary’s is one that will help direct us today. Like every other foundational narrative, the Mount’s is one involving contradiction: as a human institution, it is full of failures and shortcomings,” writes Weisel. “But like the entirety of the cosmos caught up in the archetypal story of salvation history, where sin has abounded (…), grace has abounded all the more.”


Nicole Patterson