At 31 years, Sister Thomas Welder, OSB, served the longest tenure as female president at any college or university in America at the time she retired in 2009. Days later, at age 34, Monsignor James Shea succeeded Welder and became the youngest serving college president in the United States, and still is today.

On Saturday, May 16, 2015, both Welder and Shea will receive honorary doctorate degrees – the highest honor bestowed by any college or university -from Belmont Abbey College (Charlotte, NC) and Thomas More College, (Merrimack, NH), respectively.

Sister Thomas WelderActive in community, state and national professional, civic and religious organizations, Welder has promoted and modeled the Benedictine values. Under her leadership, Mary College expanded to university status in 1986 and added undergraduate and graduate degree programs at locations throughout the state and region. During her presidency, enrollment grew from 925 students to nearly 3,000 in 2004.

As president emerita, Welder most recently earned the Caritas Award from Catholic Charities North Dakota. In 2004, she received the prestigious Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award – the highest state award presented to select individuals who have achieved national recognition, reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens. The award states, “Sister Thomas is recognized as a woman who lives, serves and leads by example. Envisioning the University of Mary as the nation’s premier institution for the preparation of servant leaders, Sister Thomas promotes competence in communication, commitment to values and service to community.”

Welder attended the College of St. Benedict, graduated from the College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, and earned a master’s degree in music from Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. She is a member of the Benedictine Sister of Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck.

Commencement will be held at 11 a.m. EDT, on the lawn in front of the Basilica of Mary Help of Christians.

Monsignor James Shea

Monsignor James Shea, President of the University of Mary

“We are thrilled – and ourselves honored – to bestow a doctorate upon Monsignor Shea,” commented Dr. William Fahey, president of Thomas More College. “Many people expect the defense and reform of Catholic education to occur at a large university or at least from one nestled in a great metropolis, but the ‘Spirit breatheth where he will,’ as St. John says. I think the Holy Spirit has been blowing mightily on the prairie and bluffs of North Dakota, and providing an example for us all.”

“Msgr. Shea is an interesting figure,” remarked Paul Jackson, director of Institutional Advancement at Thomas More College. “He was one of the youngest priests ever to be appointed a university president. His background is fascinating and his energy for educational renewal is incredible.”

During his current tenure as the sixth president of the University of Mary, Shea has spearheaded several groundbreaking higher education initiatives to include the new Year-Round Campus program that allows students to graduate in 2.6 years and earn their master’s degree in four years. In Oct. of 2014, Shea announced a partnership with Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) that will allow incoming freshmen nursing majors at Mary to receive their senior year free. He entered the University of Mary into an unprecedented collaborative agreement with the largest public research university in America – Arizona State University – that allows ASU students to take courses from Mary in theological studies and Catholic studies.

Shea’s other popular visionary programs include a new campus in Rome, Italy; the Catholic Scholars program that provides free room and board to eligible graduates of Catholic high schools offered to first-time, full-time freshmen; in 2010 he created the Bishop Paul A. Zipfel Catholic Studies Program that has quickly become the second largest in the United States.

Shea previously served as pastor to several parishes in the Bismarck diocese while teaching at the Catholic schools in the region. He began his undergraduate work at Jamestown College, majoring in English and history, and then entered the seminary for the Diocese of Bismarck, earning a bachelor’s degree and a pontifical master’s degree (licentiate) in philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He studied classical Greek at the University of Texas at Austin and continued at the Vatican’s North American College, studying theology at the Gregorian and Lateran universities in Rome. Monsignor is also an alumnus of the Institutes for Higher Education at the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University. Shea has worked with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the Gift of Peace AIDS Hospice while teaching religion at two inner-city elementary schools in Washington, D.C. In Rome, he served as chaplain for the Bambino Gesù Children’s Hospital and also at the Rome campus of the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas.

Most recently Shea served as chairman of internal affairs for the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the Governor’s Commission on Education in the State of North Dakota.

Shea will receive his honorary doctorate and deliver the commencement address during graduation ceremonies beginning at 2 p.m. EDT.