by Marc and Julie Anderson
MANHATTAN — St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote: “There is nothing on earth to be prized more than friendship.”
If that is true, then eight young Catholics from the Leavenworth/Lansing area have won the jackpot. They each have not one, not two, but seven best friends.
Jared Baker, Carson Schroeder, Shane Sachse, Quinn O’Donnell, Andrew Schwinn, Jake Heim and Erick Sanford are all juniors at Kansas State University in Manhattan. They all attended Xavier Catholic School in Leavenworth.
They’ve all been the best of friends since preschool, if not before.
“I don’t remember meeting a single person at this table,” Schwinn said, as the others nodded in agreement.
Many of them have older siblings who knew each other but didn’t form as tight a bond.
Their friendship seems to fit not only Aquinas’ definition, but one found in the Book of Proverbs, Chapter 6, Verses 14-17: They are friends who fear God and who help guide each other on the path to holiness. All are actively involved at St. Isidore’s Catholic Campus Center at K-State.
If the group has a leader, it might be Adam Schwinn. A recent K-State graduate, he is a few years older than the other men and often speaks on the group’s behalf.
“We all grew up in Catholic schools, going from preschool all the way until graduating from high school, and [the faith] was integrated into our everyday learning,” he said.
Sachse agreed, saying nearly all of their shared memories revolve around their common Catholic faith.
“We all received the sacraments together,” he said. “It was a binding experience for us, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. . . . That’s efficacious grace in our life that definitely came up at some point in our lives, especially in college.”
Fast forward to their high school years. Many became altar servers, helped out with music ministry or attended the March for Life. Most, if not all, participated in a men’s group, gathering on Thursdays to discuss approaching real-world challenges from a faith perspective.
Then, there were sports. All eight played at least one, if not two or three sports, like basketball, soccer, baseball and football. Representing a Catholic school meant they prayed together as teammates and attended Mass together on game days. They also prayed after a football or basketball game, often inviting other teams to pray with them.
Looking back on their grade school and high school years, the eight said it never entered their minds they wouldn’t always be friends — although adults tried to warn them that childhood friendships don’t always last.
During their high school years, the Mass played an integral part of their friendship. Due to the closure of Immaculata High School in Leavenworth, the group rode a bus to Maur Hill-Mount Academy in Atchison. Most days, the bus arrived in time for everyone to go to Mass before school.
“What better to do with yourself [than go to Mass]?” Adam Schwinn said.
Now that they’re all in college or have graduated, the men said they’re not surprised they’ve stayed friends or that their circle of friends has grown.
“Not many people can say they have 20 people that they could have close, real conversations with on a regular basis,” Adam Schwinn said.
But it all comes back to their deep love of the Catholic faith.
As the oldest, Adam Schwinn was the first to attend K-State.
During the first week of his freshman year, someone handed him a flier about a party sponsored by the campus center.
“At the end, everybody was like, ‘We’re going to walk to Mass now.’ It’s 9 p.m. It’s a Monday night, and I went to Mass with them,” he said. “As soon as Mass ended and the lights dimmed, everyone was singing the “Salve Regina” in Latin. I just remember a feeling washing over me and feeling, ‘This is home.’
“In some ways, it was what I had known and loved in its truest form.”
Having discovered his home away from home, Adam Schwinn said he couldn’t wait to share it with his seven friends. So, when they visited him on the weekends, he took them to St. Isidore’s for Mass and/or activities.
“We were all excited to see what that was like — young people excited about the faith,” Sachse said, adding the number of students who are part of the campus center “willingly, by their own choice” is amazing.
“I actually got to meet some people when I was visiting,” said Andrew Schwinn. “So it was nice when I got to school here to know some faces.
“But, honestly, the community was one of the biggest things — the genuine nature of the community and how they interact with one another and the subject matter that they’re talking about revolved around good things and not bad or inappropriate things.”
Heim started at K-State’s Salina campus. On most weekends, however, he drove to Manhattan to see his friends. One weekend, he recalled attending a dance at the campus center.
“That was the first time I experienced the community and how many people came to those events,” he said. “I didn’t think this many people from college would show up to a church event, and that was pretty cool.
“So, that was my first experience, and I was kind of taken aback by it. I came up several more times and went to Sunday Mass with these guys. I got to thinking that when I did move up here, I was kind of looking forward to being a part of this community.”
Like Heim, Sanford said he, too, found himself drawn in by the center’s numerous activities, including bonfires, guitar jam sessions, game nights and card nights, all of which he first experienced on those weekend visits.
“It just felt so wholesome. It was so good. It was so much fun,” he said.
Once he got on campus, he dove right into the community, starting with daily Mass, going to ‘every single event Izzy’s was putting on.’”
Just going to Mass, he said, was incredible.
“It was absolutely packed. There was not an open seat for the first two weeks of school. There’d be people standing, kneeling on the floor or standing the whole Mass, and everyone was so in it,” Sanford said.
Sachse agreed, saying the community aspect is amazing, but so is the students’ incredible faith.
“The reverence for the Eucharist that the priests have and the students have is very noticeable,” he noted.
“At first, when I got here,” Baker said, “it was all so new. I would just go to Sunday Mass, and then I’d go on with the rest of my week. That went on for the first two or three months of college.”
His friends wanted more for him, though, and often invited him to daily Mass.
“I thought I’d just go and check it out. I was curious as to why everyone was going to daily Mass at 9 o’clock at night,” he said. “I just remember getting there, and it’s not something you can really describe. It just felt right being there.”
With hundreds of students attending Mass, participating in the sacrament of reconciliation regularly and coming together for social activities, the campus center has a leadership staff of at least 70 students alone, not counting priests, paid staff and others. The eight friends have chaired or served on committees, led or assisted with retreats, served in various liturgical roles, organized and publicized social events, and participated in regular adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
And if the Book of Proverbs is right about faithful friendship, these eight men fit the definition.
“We hold each other accountable,” Sanford said. “We invite each other to go to daily Mass, to go and receive the sacraments. Our house has a Bible study, but we’re incorporating the faith into our everyday lives and making sure it’s a prominent aspect of all of our lives.”
“From preschool, we’ve all grown up with the same foundation. It’s easy for us to be encouraging and to keep us accountable,” he said. “None of us is forcing each other. It’s really just a friendship that’s just good for each other.”
Andrew Schwinn said the example he sees in his friends is one he strives to imitate.
There’s been so many nights, he said, that he’s almost skipped Mass, but his friends’ example has encouraged him to reconsider. So, off he goes.
“We might have quarrels or disagreements, but in the end, if someone’s trying to get you to do something, he’s usually trying to hold you to a higher standard,” he said. “It’s him loving you. We all love each other on a very deep level, so we’re all trying to hold each other to that higher standard.”
And that’s something they wish for all of those coming up behind him, especially those who will soon be in college.
“Be bold. . . . Invite people to go with you,” said Heim. “Don’t just go to the norm and be too influenced by the typical college environment.
“Every college, state school has a [Catholic] student center, right? They’re there. Go try it.”