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The “Mappa Mundi”: the Unique Latin Immersion Program at Wyoming Catholic

A map of the world dominates the entire wall of a room in a little western Catholic college. Is it a history classroom? Or Geography? Or a study center for world cultures? No—it’s Wyoming Catholic College’s Latin classroom, and to students and professors alike it is not a “map of the world”—it is the “mappa mundi.”

Used as a prop in the immersion style Latin courses Wyoming Catholic offers, this mappa mundi also calls to mind the fact that the Church calls this language “her own,” a universal tongue. Of course, while Latin is Catholic in an overarching sense, it has been especially the language of the Roman Rite since at least the fourth century. Today, many who attend the Traditional Latin Mass say that the use of the Latin language helps them to experience the sacrality and mystery of the Holy Sacrifice.

Yet since Latin is no longer a regular part of schooling as it was even a hundred years ago, and many discover the Traditional Liturgy of the Roman Rite later in life, study of its beautiful language is often impossible. From busy working lives to children to take care of and homeschool, most everyone’s life conspires to make the understanding picked up from using a Latin-English hand-missal the best option.

Nevertheless, study of this language is important, especially for those in the formative years of High School and college. As with other liberal arts colleges such as Thomas Aquinas or Christendom College, Wyoming Catholic College (WCC) offers Latin as part of its core curriculum, but with this difference: the focus is on learning Latin as a living language, one which you can converse, joke, or even dream in.

Latin classes at WCC are actually taught in Latin, using the “immersion method,” so pupils learn to interact and communicate in Latin, as they would in learning any modern foreign language. Demonstrations, cartoons, and lots of slapstick routines teach vocabulary and grammar. Latin opens up a special integration with the rest of the liturgical and intellectual life, so much of which was formed and nourished by the Romans or their cultural successors.

“Welcome to the most interesting place to do theology in North America! Only at WCC can you learn from scripture and years of St. Thomas Aquinas while simultaneously experiencing a full Byzantine liturgical life,” Oliva Jones (‘22) says.

I thought Latin was code for English because I though Latin was dead. But just as no one can learn courage from a book, so too no one really learns a language from a book. You learn it from speaking and listening to the word which is primarily a sign of sound before it is every a sign on paper. Dice linguam Latinum!

Professors and graduates of WCC both take a lead continuing to promote a renaissance of the language beyond the small town of Lander. As the college’s website says,

Latin’s preeminence as the language of the Church makes its presence as the only foreign language taught at Wyoming Catholic College both unsurprising and fitting given the College’s vision of forming the next generation of Catholic leaders.

Some of our graduates recently shared with me what they are doing with this regard.

Emma Roberts (‘20) now teaches Latin to K-6 students at Lourdes Classical academy in Denver. Emma said that Latin classes at WCC taught her “that classical education does not pick apart a discipline and then have its students analyze one piece at a time.” The immersion method, she said, will allow the language to “draw you in by its beauty” because you are “hearing, speaking, reading, and acting out the words, phrases, and inflections within the language itself” instead of grammatical memorization which can “quickly cause burnout and disinterest in a student.”

Emma had studied Latin “from the outside,” grammatically dissecting it as a dead language: “I could translate and analyze a sentence from Latin prose or poetry backwards and forwards, but I found myself panicking when I faced a classmate speaking to me in Latin and I had to respond—in Latin!” She recounts how her experience of Latin meshed with her first exposure to the Traditional Mass. “It was frustrating, and even more frustrating was going to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for the first time in college and not understanding what was going on,” she said.

If I had a missal, I was good to go. Training my ear to patiently listen to the language, however, proved more difficult. Until finally one day, I heard something for the first time. At the end of my freshman year, I attended Latin Mass and suddenly heard a few words in the epistle. I heard the words, the flow of the language, and the inflection, and all these morphed into a sentence in my mind and I understood what was being said. That moment brought me so much joy. I had sacrificed for something I loved, and I earned a tiny glimpse of the reward.

Not just the ideas, but the very words themselves were the same as generations of saints and sinners had heard. Emma enthused:

I had heard the very same words that St. Jerome had spoken and written; I understood words that Cicero spoke, and St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas! Even my best friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, had heard these very words while attending the Latin Mass. These realizations gave me chills. What a gift to hear and understand the same words heard and used by ancient orators and saints! Immersion had given me this gift, and it was humbling to realize that years of analysation and study had not given me chills in quite the same way.

Like Emma, several other WCC grads teach Latin at grade and high schools. Margaret Johnson (‘22), is also a Latin teacher at a Classical school, this time in Arizona. Several graduates also serve as instructors for the Veterum Sapientiae Institute (VSI), an organization that provides both remote and in-person classes and workshops in Ecclesiastical Latin. After receiving his bachelor’s from WCC, Jacob Terneus (‘16) pursued higher studies in Latin and Philosophy. Although he works in tech during the day, Mr Terneus also teaches introductory Latin at VSI. Similarly, Nathaniel Heithoff (‘19) also teaches introductory Latin at the VSI. He learned to speak Latin at WCC before earning an M.A. in Classics from the University of Kentucky. Zachary Thomas (‘15) has extensively used his language skills in locations across the middle east, Europe, and America. He has taught Latin courses to high school, elementary students, and seminarians: at the VSI, he specializes in giving guidance in classical Latin to students.

Chair of the WCC Latin faculty, Magister Eugene Hamilton first learned to speak Latin with WCC founding Latin department professor, Nancy Llewellyn. Now both he and Magistra Llewellyn are also involved in teaching for the VSI.

Over at the Aquinas Institute—dedicated to publishing the opera omnia of the angelic doctor in new Latin-English editions—Wyoming Catholic alumni and professors are also significantly involved. Four of their eleven professors are or were Wyoming Catholic professors, one is a graduate, and another is their Publication Director. Multiple Wyoming Catholic alumni have also served as translators or editors for the Latin-English editions the Institute produces.

Anthony Jones (‘21) and his wife Olivia (‘22), whom I already quoted above, both loved the immersion method of teaching Latin at Wyoming Catholic. Despite having graduated, married, and moved, Olivia continues to study Latin via the Veterum Sapientiae Institute while Anthony pursues a PhD in political philosophy from Baylor University in Texas. This past year Olivia taught Latin at a local parochial school, and she will do the same this fall; she and Anthony also keep up their conversational Latin skills with each other. “Veterum Sapientia Institute is a community of lovers of the Latin language because of love for the Church, and this passion is what draws the community of students and teachers together,” Olivia said. “Teachers have years, if not decades, of experience with teaching immersion Latin… I would highly recommend this institute to both experts and beginners as a means to sharpen their linguistic aptitude.”

While Latin at Wyoming Catholic can lead to grand intellectual insights, profound liturgical experiences, or exciting careers after graduation, for many students it is also simply one of the funnest classes, both in and out of the classroom. The Wyoming Catholic Latin program hasn’t only given rise to editors and professors: it’s also given rise to “Official Music Videos,” as well as hilarious dramatizations of chapters from the Latin textbook series Lingua Latina. For example, Colloquium Primum.

Latin can also feature on outdoor trips: after speaking only Latin on a backpacking trip for a week, I know students who’ve started sleep talking and dreaming in Latin! Dr Scott Olsson, an assistant professor of Math and Science who is also a Latin instructor, often participates in Latin outdoor trips: in this video he speaks about one such experience from the early days of the college.

As my friend Sophia Michael (‘20) quipped, “Beware: many of your future friends will be jealous! Not many of them ever got to study Latin immersion-style!” The fall semester at Wyoming Catholic has just begun and the Rota Fortunae (wheel of fate) continues to circle as our new freshmen begin to navigate the mappa mundi for the first time. At WCC, learning Latin may be difficult, but it is also fun: it is an institution which equips its graduates to further promote the riches of that tradition… and compose Latin MTV ballads.


Photos in this article of the Wyoming Catholic College Latin classroom and students, courtesy of Wyoming Catholic College.

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