Rebuilding the Catholic Church

Former Chiara Center to become trade school focused on traditional Catholic education

Imagine a place where pupils study Aristotle and also learn how to plane boards.

San Damiano College for the Trades will do just that.

The future central Illinois school just hired its first president, Kent Lasnoski, who is moving to Springfield from Wyoming, where he led another Catholic college. He hopes to open the doors for San Damiano in the fall of 2025 on the campus of the former Chiara Center, located on the grounds of the Hospital Sisters of St. Francis in Springfield. The Franciscan Brothers of the Holy Cross operated the St. James Trade School there from 1928 to 1972.

The purpose of the school is to prepare young people to work in trades such as carpentry, plumbing and electrical contracting. But the philosophy of the school is to teach students to think critically using the "Great Books" curriculum.

"We ought to teach people things that everybody everywhere ought to know," Lasnoski said. "And the best way to do that is to learn from the greatest teachers of all time, and those are the ones who have expressed and thought the greatest things and said them in the most beautiful and thoughtful and profound ways."

He foresees the college, which will award associate degrees, will draw students from a national pool of applicants but it will focus on what the needs are for the building trades in central Illinois.

click to enlarge Rebuilding the Catholic Church
San Damiano College for the Trades is currently accepting applications for its inaugural class in the fall of 2025. The three-year trade school, geared toward young men, will be located on the former Springfield campus of the Chiara Center.

Greg Fleck, who has worked in the building trades for more than 50 years, says the local need for skilled tradesmen and women is great.

"Every vendor that I deal with is having employment shortages. ... They are, in fact, way behind because they don't have enough people for the demand that they have for their services."

Fleck is the director for property, buildings and cemeteries for the Diocese of Springfield and serves on the board overseeing the new college. He previously worked in the private sector.

The school is the brainchild of Bishop Thomas Paprocki, one of the most high-profile conservative Catholic prelates in the U.S.

"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," Paprocki said in a prepared statement. "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."

Paprocki has expressed his desire for a Catholic associate degree option in Springfield since the Ursuline Springfield College and Benedictine University closed. San Damiano College is applying for operating authority from the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Unlike many associate-degree programs, San Damiano's will require three years of schooling. In the final year, students would apprentice 40 hours per week in their chosen trade. The annual cost including tuition and room and board will be $25,000, Lasnoski said.

Lasnoski said the inaugural class will likely be 26 men. He said the school anticipates admitting women after it has been open five years or so.

While women will be free to join any program offered by the college, Lasnoski said potential curriculums that may have broader appeal among female students would include programs training individuals to become nursing assistants, art restorers and ecclesial seamstresses.

While there are existing trades training programs offered by community colleges and labor unions, what will set this program apart is the academics, Lasnoski said.

"Industrialization and the assembly line endeavored to alienate thought from work," Lasnoski said. "And so, when you hear people talking about the trades, we usually think of it as something you do with your hands, but your brain is not really involved. The fact of the matter is that if you're really engaged in something like auto mechanic work or carpentry, it's cognitively rich. It's thoughtful. It's problem-solving. It's the kind of thing that if you don't have an active mind, you won't be good at and you won't enjoy for that matter. (The trades are) perfectly matched for thinkers and philosophers."

Preserving tradition within Catholicism is a reason for the college.

"It is absolutely tradition-focused, as is any real trade program – or any kind of real education program – should be. Because to learn a trade is to undergo the profoundly challenging activity of receiving wisdom and skill from those who have possessed it before you," Lasnoski said.

The motto of the school is "Rebuild My Church."

Lasnoski said the purpose of the school is to rebuild the Catholic Church culturally, spiritually, liturgically and manually.

"It is absolutely a pushback against liberalism within the Catholic Church. But not in a sort of reactionary way. It's not like we're just reacting against bad. We're trying to do a good thing. We're trying to build ... restore and rebuild the goodness and beauty of the church in every sense," he said.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].