Dr. Ryan Hanning interacts with one of his daughters following a June 1 going away part at the University of Mary in Tempe. (Catholic Sun photo)

TEMPE — Stories of daring pioneers who headed west to brave the frontier are myriad, but similar feats in 2018 are not so common.

Enter Ryan Hanning, his wife Rebecca, and the couple’s nine children. The highly regarded and much-beloved University of Mary professor and his family will soon be headed for Whites Creek, Tennessee, to fulfill a long-held dream: owning a working farm.

“It’s more of a homestead, a little plot of land just north of Nashville,” Hanning said. With three-and-a-half acres that includes a creek, the family farm will be 12 minutes away from the mother house for the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, the same order of religious sisters who will lead the forthcoming St. John Paul II Catholic High School in Avondale.

Hanning spent the last six years working for the University of Mary’s Tempe campus where he was assistant vice president and director of cultural advancement and taught Church history and Catholic studies. Prior to his stint at the university, he was director of parish leadership support for the Diocese of Phoenix. The Tennessee adventure, he said, is the fulfillment of the family’s goal to get back to the land.

“We’re doing something similar to our home in Mesa: We’ll have vegetables and stuff growing in our garden beds to feed our family and hopefully use the surplus for the farmer’s market,” Hanning said. “We’ll have goats and chickens and cows and bees.”

The move out east is not for economic reasons, Hanning said, and he doesn’t have a new job lined up.

“We are going there to rediscover the joy of family life,” Hanning said. Homeschooling the couple’s children will continue to be an integral part of that. He will continue to teach courses online for U-Mary and maintain his faculty status as well as work with Franciscan University of Steubenville vis-a-vi projects for a catechetical institute.

“We felt very strongly called by the Lord to go there and not look for a job and just enter into the experience of being dependent on Him,” Hanning said. “The last time I did this was when I met Rebecca. That worked out well.” The couple has been married for 18 years and their nine children range in age from 5 months to 16 years.

The trek east for the Hanning family will commence soon. “On July 1 first, I’ll wake up, pack up five of the kids and a 6-by-12 trailer,” Hanning said. “Whatever does not fit in the trailer is not coming.” Also being hauled: the family’s goats. Rebecca and the other four children will drive to Tennessee a few days later.

“Dr. Ryan Hanning is a great scholar and teacher; more importantly, he is a faithful disciple of Jesus who dearly loves his wife Rebecca and their nine children,” said Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted in a message to the Sun. “As a result, we shall keenly miss not only Ryan but the entire Hanning family; they are an excellent example of ‘the domestic Church.’”

Dr. Jo Markette, director of curriculum and academic programming at U-Mary – Tempe, described Hanning as a man who “walks in holiness” and is a servant leader.

“He’s really a model to everyone who knows him — not only the staff here but the student body and the instructors who all really love him for who he is and for the example of Christ that he exudes,” Markette said.

Haley York, a recent graduate of U-Mary – Tempe, was a student in Hanning’s Church history course. She said he held community nights every other month at his Mesa home. Students and faculty members attended.

“It was such a good time for fellowship and community — he definitely built that up with the school,” York said. “He’s a great father and a father figure for all the students.”

Ryan Hanning, left, poses with his nine children, wife, Rebecca and Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted following a June 1 going away party at the University of Mary in Tempe. (Catholic Sun photo)

One thing she’ll carry with her is Hanning’s modeling of the importance of family life. “No matter how knowledgeable you are about your faith or the Church or anything, or how many connections you have or how big you are in this little Catholic world that we have, your family always comes first. Always. That was something huge to me.”

Current student Matthew Borlongan said Hanning is “the first person people think of whenever they have some question in theology or history” and that he’s inspired by his example of faith.

“He’s a very passionate teacher who really listens to and cares for his students. He’s a devout man who loves his family,” Borlongan said.

Senior Megan Morano said her interactions with Hanning have been the highlight of her college experience.

“Dr. Hanning reflects the Holy Spirit. You can tell when you look into his eyes or when he looks at you that he’s looking at you with the eyes of the Lord, with tenderness and love. He looks at you as if you’re the only person in the room.”