by Joe Bollig
LEAVENWORTH — Campus ministry at the University of Saint Mary here is about the feet.
In other words, faith isn’t faith unless it’s taking you somewhere.
“Basically, what campus ministry tries to do is put feet on the theologies, the philosophies, and the understanding of what it means to be Catholic and Christian in the world today,” said Sister Julie Marsh, of the Sisters of the Presen- tation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Sister Julie began work as director of campus ministry at the university on Aug. 15. Previously, she was director of formation for her religious community and had also served as campus minister at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls from 2000 to 2005.
“I see my role, as director, as providing opportunities for students to grow spiritually,” she said, “to give them a wide variety of experiences and ways to pray, to get to know God, and to put some of the theology they learn in class into practice through service.”
Looking to the spiritual needs of the university’s diverse student body is a big job. Sister Julie serves about 600 under- graduate and more than 100 postgraduate students, of whom about 340 live on campus in residence halls. The university, sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, was founded in 1859.
Fortunately, she doesn’t have to do it alone. Her three-person ministry also includes Abbot Owen Purcell, OSB, assistant campus minister, and chaplain Father Bill McEvoy, who is also pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish in Lansing.
“We try to incarnate the abstract” is how Abbot Owen explains the ministry.
“What they learn in the classroom, we try to give them a way of articulating that into concrete form,” he said.
Although Sister Julie is a seasoned veteran of campus ministry, in some ways she arrived at the university like the average freshman: She had a steep learning curve.
A big part of that curve has been get- ting to know the students. Sister Julie, Abbot Owen and Father McEvoy do this in a variety of ways.
“My door is open,” said Sister Julie. “Between Abbot Owen and occasionally Father Bill, the office is open from 8:30 a.m. to 11 at night. Students can stop in and build trust and rapport with each other.”
“We have discussions about what they are learning in the classrooms, and sometimes what’s happening in their daily life in their dorm or on their team,” she continued. “[Sometimes the discus- sions are about] how to understand and live the things they’re learning; how to act — and not react; how to explore things bigger than themselves and not be fearful of making mistakes; dreaming of who we can become in light of who we are.”
If need be, a student can get in touch with a member of the campus team any time of the day or night.
“Although I’m a full-time pastor . . . the students know that I am easily available if they need to talk,” said Father McEvoy. “I have an office, which makes it convenient to meet. I also hope my homilies might spark in folks an idea or a seed to contemplate.”
Sister Julie and her team have also gotten to know the students according to their interests.
“At the beginning of this year, I had sign-up cards for freshmen and those who come to our services,” said Sister Julie. “These are things they can get involved in — everything from liturgical ministries, to events, to service trips to places like New Orleans and Kentucky.”
Both Father McEvoy and Abbot Owen celebrate Masses on campus. Abbot Owen celebrates four Masses a week, and Father McEvoy offers two. Additionally, Abbot Owen is chaplain of the university’s men’s basketball team, the Spires.
“[The players and coaches] drop in to see me all the time,” said Abbot Owen. “I lead them in prayer in the locker room before each game. We have a wonderful relationship. It’s especially bearing fruit this year. I know the guys by their first name.”
Putting “feet” on what the students learn in class sometimes takes them out of the area as well. This school year, the January mission trip will be to New Orleans, where students will help rebuild the city, and then to Kentucky in the spring to work with the Christian Appalachian Project.
“We’re trying to get our feet involved in local service [in Leavenworth and Lansing], too,” said Sister Julie. “We’re looking at the Adopt-A-Family [pro- gram] and do some environmental cleanup. We’re looking at some of the nonprofits in the area, too. We have some interest in prison ministry.”
Sometimes campus ministry intersects with parish life. Two students work in youth ministry at St. Francis de Sales Parish and a few are in the parish’s RCIA program, said Father McEvoy.
But students don’t even have to leave campus to enjoy a wide range of activities. There’s Bible study and prayer groups in the dorms, busy-persons retreats, spiritual direction, the Little Spire program (in which students mentor youngsters), and help for those with addictions. An important part of making these activities and ministries work is the student-run Christian Life Council, which meets once a month.
One of the challenges of campus ministry is diversity, said Sister Julie.
Although the university is Catholic- founded and sponsored, perhaps only one-third of the students are Catholic.
“This is a real challenge for me,” said Sister Julie. “At the University of Northern Iowa Catholic Student Center, most of the people who went there were Catholic. Here, I believe we have to cater to the needs of the whole student body.”
Recently, the campus had a non- Catholic, student-led prayer service.
“It was very simple, and the students really take charge of all that,” said Sister Julie.
One thing the campus ministry team has noticed is that a lot of the students are eager to get involved and have wide- ranging interests. That is very encouraging, said Sister Julie. In addition to building stable programs, she would like the students to become stronger leaders.
“I believe that part of your college education is academics, but another part is leadership training,” she said.
“Leadership — being able to stand in front of a group and lead something that you’re passionate about [is important],” she continued. “I really feel students are trying to get ahold of how to do that. I want to give them the tools and skills to be leaders.”
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