Just like family

Haskell Catholics celebrate 25th anniversary


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

LAWRENCE — Sunday afternoon lunch with the family is a great Catholic tradition that many enjoy.

But seldom is the family as extended as one in Lawrence, which has drawn together its members from all over the nation for Sunday lunches for 25 years. Never mind that they’re not all linked by blood or marriage.

Instead, they’re united by faith, love and culture — the family of the Catholic Campus Center at Haskell Indian Nations University.

“Yes, we call each other family,” said Kathy Redbird, a White Mountain Apache, married to a Haskell employee. “That’s exactly what it feels like.”

On April 9, the Haskell Center family reunited again for Sunday Mass, a lunch, and a commemoration of a very important event — the 25th anniversary of the founding of the center at 23rd and Haskell Avenue, on April 23, 1986.

The main celebrant and homilist was Father Charles Polifka, OFM Cap., provincial of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of Mid-America. The concelebrant was Father Duane Reinert, OFM Cap., center director.

“So, today is a day to look back and be grateful,” said Father Charles, “for God’s presence and challenges, for Archbishop [Ignatius J.] Strecker’s encouragement and love for the Native American community, for the many volunteers over the years who have labored so hard — even in the midst of frustrations — because they believed in this place and this community.”

Roots of the ministry

Catholics at Haskell were under the care of Jesuit priests from the theologate at St. Marys, remembered Jerry Tuckwin, a Prairie Band Potawatomi, and retired Haskell faculty member and alumnus. They would come to Haskell on a Wednesday night and stay until Sunday, interacting with the students.

But after the Jesuits left St. Marys, pastoral care of Haskell Catholics was taken up by priests at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. The ministry faced a number of challenges, one of which was difficulty in finding a place to celebrate Mass.

“[Archbishop Strecker] had a soft spot in his heart for Native Americans and he wanted a ministry built around Native American ministry at Haskell. And his vision would reach out to Topeka and [the Potawatomi] reservation as well,” said Father Duane. “Archbishop Strecker’s vision was for a comprehensive Native American ministry, and Haskell was the logical place to do that.”

To be truly effective, however, the Catholic ministry at Haskell needed a home. Archbishop Strecker realized this, said Father Al Rockers, thenpastor of St. John the Evangelist, and now of Holy Angels Parish in Basehor.

“Archbishop Strecker approached me one day and said, ‘Why not look for a site for a campus ministry?’” said Father Rockers.

Father Rockers and the Tuckwins, who were involved in Catholic ministry to Haskell students at the time, helped explore locations. One day Archbishop Strecker came along for a ride.

“Archbishop Strecker sat next to me and we pulled into the driveway of the current location,” said Terry Tuckwin, Jerry’s wife.

“I said I thought it was a good location,” she continued. “He asked, ‘What are they asking?’ I said it was not for sale. ‘Why are we looking?’ he said. And I told him, ‘Everyone has their price.’ After an interminable moment, he said, ‘Let’s make them an offer.’”

Growing a family

The ministry began to attract students, faculty, and Native Americans who lived in Lawrence but were unaffiliated with Haskell. Many people’s work made a lasting impact on the development of the ministry, including that of Lisa and Don Krug.

“[The Krugs] were a tremendous help with the supervision of the center, tutoring, student services, and in countless other ways,” said Father John Cousins, OFM Cap., in a July 10, 1987, Leaven article. “Having a married couple as campus ministers was, in itself, a service that contributed greatly to making the students comfortable in their contacts with the center.”

Pastoral care of the center passed from St. John the Evangelist Parish to the Capuchin Franciscans soon after the center opened.

Archbishop Strecker had been talking with Father Charles Chaput, thenprovincial of the Capuchin Franciscans (before he became archbishop of Denver) about staffing the Haskell ministry before the center opened. The Capuchins agreed and have been there since 1986.

What helps build the family feeling of a center primarily dedicated to college-age students is the presence of many active families in the community. Some Haskell students have children. Jean Finch, a member of the permanent community, has taught the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd for about 12 years to all ages.

“Everybody relates to everybody,” she said. “We take care of each other. It doesn’t matter what the age is. We all work together. The older children take care of the younger children. The adults surround them.”

Jeff Mahan, a Kansas Kickapoo originally from East Moline, Ill., said the center can be a refuge for students who feel pangs of homesickness and struggle to adapt. Mahan and his wife now help with the Sunday lunches.

“[I like] the closeness, the tightness, the sense of almost being family,” said Mahan, a 2008 Haskell graduate and now a teacher at St. Matthew School in Topeka.

“I think the center is a place, from my experience, where you can try to be a practicing Catholic,” he continued. “A college student can sometimes get into conflict, so the Catholic center is a refuge and a way to get away from what happens on every college campus you find. . . . [It’s] a place to pray, play cards, watch TV, [and] talk about religion.”

The center provides that sense of home and security that worried parents want for their students.

“When students first arrive at Haskell, their parents always seek out the Catholic church,” said Redbird. “We tell the students to come back for a home-made meal. They’re so far away from home and some want a homecooked meal, and a quiet place to study.

“I have relatives from Arizona who send their kids to Haskell, and they get scared because they’re so far away. [My relatives] say, ‘Kathy will take care of you.’ I search them out and make sure they go to church. I’m their surrogate Mom.”

Growing in faith and life

The center sends a message through its ministries and its highly visible location across the street from the Haskell campus.

“Our main mission is a mission of presence to our Native American community,” said Monica Olivera, the center director.

The center exists primarily to spiritually feed Haskell students, by offering the sacraments and building a community of faith, she said.

“The main importance is that we, as church, are present for the Native American young people,” she said.

But it does more than that. Olivera is trying to promote personal enrichment by establishing a center garden and offering classes.

“What we’re trying to do is provide different classes, like Spanish,” she said. “One reason I did this was because the students requested it. The university does not provide Spanish classes. My future goals are to provide classes in parenting, art and music.”

The center’s programs seem to be effective.

“I am thankful that the Catholic center provides a place to go [for] Mass and . . . to come and participate in other activities, such as the Spanish classes, retreats, trips and special celebrations,” said Brenda Garcia, from the Tohono O’odham Nation, and a senior in the American Indian Studies program.

Twenty-five years has seen a lot of change at the center, and the future will bring more. But through it all, Haskell students know that, as long as the center is there, they’ve got a family that cares.

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