MORAGA -- If you think the 150th anniversary party of Lamorinda's small, Catholic Saint Mary's College will be a relatively staid affair, get ready to change your mind on Nov. 3, under the stars next to Treasure Island's Building One.

There, the Dick Bright Orchestra will accompany Wine Valley Catering's fine cuisine, while Oakland A's stadium announcer Dick Callahan whips the crowd into a roaring, Gaelebrating frenzy and surprise performers liberally strut their artistic stuff.

After all, there's a lot to celebrate. If you find a Brother, ask him, "What's the deal with this itsy-bitsy college out in Moraga, the middle of nowhere?"

If the answer you hear is anything like what Ronald Isetti would tell you, you'll be enthralled, enraged and, ultimately, enriched. In other words, a lot has happened in a century and a half.

As a member of the Christian Brothers Order from 1960 to 1995 and a 37-year (retired) SMC history professor now living in Palm Springs, Isetti is the school's official historian -- when the always-colorful Brother Raphael Patton is on a storytelling sabbatical.

Isetti -- no slouch in his ability to spin a tale with dramatic flair and delicious details -- is the author of "Called to the Pacific," a history of the Christian Brothers in California.

"I decided three years ago to expand on that and write the history of Saint Mary's," he said in a recent phone interview.


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Isetti is about to pitch his 600-page manuscript in the direction of a publisher, and the raging fever of his enthusiasm carries through the phone line with all the energy of a California grass fire.

"I researched all the way to Rome -- we used to joke that you couldn't cough until you consulted with Rome," he began.

One of the major controversies shaping the college -- and there is no doubt, Isetti's profile of SMC is rife with squabbles on academic, ecumenical and supernatural levels -- was "The Latin Question."

The Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic male order dedicated exclusively to teaching, was charged with providing poor men with vocational skills at the college Archbishop Joseph Alemany began in San Francisco in 1863. Forbidden from teaching Latin or Greek, they were to use only the men's native language. But the maverick American order of Brothers believed all men (and starting in 1970, women), regardless of social class or race, deserved an education that liberated the heart and sensitized the mind: a liberal arts education. They went rogue and taught the Classics.

"Every leader in the American branch of the order was yanked by Rome in 1898 and sent into exile in Egypt and other countries," Isetti said.

The key to unlocking the mystery of SMC's history is in this ongoing skirmish between two camps -- one aspiring to be a small, residential, liberal arts college, the other, to be a comprehensive university with graduate programs, vocational education, athletic departments, and more.

"It's like an undulating wave pattern. Where is the school going? What is it's identity? Because of external pressures, it has changed over time." Isetti said.

Shaped by the early academic feud, the college endured further jostling as it moved to Oakland in 1889, then to Moraga, in 1927. In 1942, it was even taken over by the Navy and became a preflight training school for four years. Throughout, SMC has maintained a stabilizing internal symmetry as a devotedly ecumenical college.

"The first graduate in 1872 was not Catholic. Why? Because Catholic with a big "C" means a church, but with a small "c," it means universal, open to everyone," Isetti insisted. "Catholicism has never been a cult: it has been the sponsor of music, art, architecture and literature."

Vice President for Development Keith Brant can hardly be bothered with esoteric battles, nor can he contain his enthusiasm. With a prestigious listing in a national guidebook as one of 40 schools that "change the way you think about colleges," and a nationally-ranked basketball team, he said this is "our moment to get in front."

"We're not just that pretty college tucked away in the hills: we're more than a summer camp drop-off location. We are artistic, athletic, and scholarly excellence and we want the community and students to think of us as a destination," he said.

Happily, two weeks before the gala, 550 people do think the big bash is the place to be and be seen.

"We set out to gross $500,000," Brant said. "We knew it was aggressive. We're at about $475,000. But we've got plenty of room. If it keeps going up, we keep opening up."

The college's 151st year already includes a milestone moment. College President Brother Ronald Gallagher is returning to the classroom, and a national search for his successor is underway.

But don't ask Isetti whether the new president will be a lay leader or a Brother.

"When a historian looks into a crystal ball and tries to predict the future, a historian gets into trouble," he laughs. "I can't predict the future at all."

IF YOU GO INFORMATION:

Sesquicentennial Gala

Saturday, November 3, 2012

With the spectacular backdrop of San Francisco's city lights, the "Jewel of the Bay" on Treasure Island is Saint Mary's black tie event of the Sesquicentennial year. The evening begins with a reception in Building One, a historic remnant of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, followed by a tented dinner under the stars (with those aforementioned dramatic views).

6:30 - 7:30 p.m. Cocktails in historic Building One

7:30 - 11 p.m. Dinner with dramatic views of San Francisco

Dancing 'til 11:30 p.m. to the music of the Dick Bright Orchestra

$500 per plate | All funds benefit Saint Mary's student scholarships.

Black Tie

RSVP by October 19 | Seating is limited.

Sponsorship Opportunities and Benefits | Sponsor Form Agreement

Please contact Lisa M. Moore, Assistant Vice President, Development at (925) 631-4328 or lmoore@stmarys-ca.edu for additional information regarding sponsorship opportunities.

IF YOU GO
WHAT: Saint Mary's College Sesquicentennial Gala (black tie)
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 3
6:30 - 7:30 p.m. Cocktails in historic Building One
7:30 - 11 p.m. Dinner with dramatic views of San Francisco
Dancing until 11:30 p.m. to the music of the Dick Bright Orchestra
WHERE: Reception in Building One on Treasure Island, a historic remnant of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.
COST: $500 per plate (All funds benefit Saint Mary's student scholarships)
RSVP: http://yearofthegael.com/gala.html, then click on "Register Online"