Magister Theologie/STM, International Theological Institute, 2009; Ph.D., Ave Maria University, 2013; Instructor in Theology, Ave Maria University, 2012-2013; Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College, 2013-.
Among the nine children of Michele and Arthur Gardner, four have attended Thomas Aquinas College — but Dr. Katherine M. Gardner (’06) was the first. So when she left the family’s home in Wisconsin as a “pioneer” headed for California in 2002, it was with some trepidation. “I was scared,” she admits.
Those fears soon subsided, as Dr. Gardner immediately felt at home in the College’s community of faith and learning. “I was overwhelmed by the authenticity of the school, by the liveliness of the spirituality, and most of all by the way every part of the academic program was ordered in a wise way,” she reflects. Her studies brought her to a newfound sense of awe and wonder.
“The integrated approach of the curriculum made me alive with love for the Creator,” Dr. Gardner observes — so much so that she left the College midway through sophomore year to pursue a vocation with the Dominican Sisters of the Congregation of Saint Cecilia. Life in the convent, she thought, could not wait until graduation: “What I experienced here gave me a sense of urgency in praising God, because it was so beautiful.”
Despite treasuring her time with the Nashville Dominicans, after 19 months Dr. Gardner discovered that the religious life was not her vocation. She longed to continue studying theology, and she sensed that her gifts were best suited for teaching at the collegiate level. She considered a return to Thomas Aquinas College, but the timing was not right. “I still thought that I might go back to the monastery,” she explains. “And I did not want to come to the College only to risk leaving it again. Nor did I want my discernment to distract me from giving this program the full attention it deserves.”
Instead, Dr. Gardner entered the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, where she went on to earn a master’s degree. She then enrolled in the doctoral program at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., studying theology alongside fellow tutor Dr. Paul K. Shields (’07) under the direction of another Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, Dr. Michael Waldstein (’77).
While at Ave Maria, Dr. Gardner often joked that, upon earning her Ph.D., she wanted to resume her undergraduate studies at Thomas Aquinas College. “But I knew that was unrealistic,” she says. “God had given me the gift of an advanced education so that I could share it as a teacher.” Rather than apply for readmission, she applied for, and received, a position as a tutor in 2013.
To arrive at the College in time for the academic year, however, Dr. Gardner would need to leave AMU only four years into a five-year scholarship. Thus she accelerated the completion of her dissertation — an investigation into the Mariology of the late philosopher Charles De Koninck. Eight days after successfully defending her dissertation, she served as the maid of honor in her sister’s wedding in Wisconsin, and three days after that she arrived in California to prepare for her first semester as a tutor at the College.
This time, coming to the College was not a lonely “pioneer” experience. Dr. Gardner’s elder brother, Patrick, is a fellow member of the teaching faculty, and two of their younger siblings were students. “Including my nephews, a little over half my family is out here,” she notes. In more ways than one, she is at home.