By Fr. Mark Mossa, SJ
It’s Ash Wednesday and it’s been snowing all day. The roads are terrible. It’s 8 p.m., and the Newman Lounge at the Jesuits’ St. Mary Student Parish at the University of Michigan is filled with the cacophony of students gathering for 9 p.m. Mass. It’s not just because it’s Ash Wednesday; this is a regular occurrence. They’re laughing, doing homework, playing euchre, and about 90 of them are thinking about what they need to pack for the weeklong alternative spring break (ASB) trips that they will be leaving for on Saturday—traveling as near as Detroit to as far as San Salvador, El Salvador, to spend a week of immersion and service with people on the margins.
Given the palpable sense of community among the students here, it’s easy to imagine that they’ve been here since day one, and some have been. But many take a more circuitous route. Go deeper with individual students, and you’ll learn that many struggled with loneliness their first semester or first year at the university, and, thanks to the invitation from another student, or the lure of a free meal, they found their way to church, and so much more. Joey Imperial, a sophomore, first attended another Catholic parish in town, but didn’t find “his people” there, as many said he would in college. Feeling somewhat lost, he learned about the St. Mary Men’s Retreat and decided to go. It was an inspiring weekend that did indeed lead him to find his people. “St. Mary’s,” he says, “has undoubtedly become my second family. Genuine friendship seems to just pour out of this parish.” He adds, “St. Mary has taught me what love in action looks like.”
Such love in action is what inspired Rose-Carmel Goddard to get involved at St. Mary her sophomore year. Goddard was so inspired by her alternative spring break trip that she reconsidered a suggestion made by her ASB leader that she apply to become an intern. She didn’t waste any time—she couldn’t. The applications were due just two days after her return. She writes of her experience: “I now realize how such a simple, albeit very resistant, response to God’s pull in my life worked in subtle ways to completely upend and transform the life of what was then the sophomore year of ‘College Rose-Carmel.’” This year she has served as the stewardship intern and as an ASB site leader, co-leading the group visiting Dolores Mission in Los Angeles. Lately she’s also been busy organizing a three-on-three basketball tournament to raise money for the parish.
Invited by his roommate freshman year to attend St. Mary’s weekly community dinner and speaker series called “Ig.Nite,” Evan Swinehart found himself face to face with two fellow undergraduate “Dreamers”— undocumented immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S. through the DACA program. They were the featured speakers that night. “This invigorated me,” he says, “I realized that our Catholic faith calls us to stand for those marginalized by society.” Swinehart, energized by such experiences, has served this year as the Faith Doing Justice intern, leading advocacy efforts on behalf of immigrants on Capitol Hill while attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington. These experiences, along with his studies in public policy, led him recently to accept a two-year assignment with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps working at Xavier Jesuit High School in Chuuk, Micronesia. Hope Thayer found a friend in another freshman named Hope at St. Mary’s Welcome Week events at the beginning of the school year. The two Hopes, along with many of their classmates, quickly integrated themselves into the student community, attending retreats and taking on leadership roles. And they keep coming back because of the community that they have found. “We laugh and live together, we pray together, and we talk about the Lord regularly, which is something I especially treasure in friendships,” Thayer explains. “The vibrant community and Jesuit mission of St. Mary teach me how to live for Christ in everything.”
Emily Furtado, who joined Evan at the Ignatian Family Teach-In, will also be moving on this spring. Having grown up in the Middle East, she shares that often she was the only Catholic in the schools she attended. When she first came to St. Mary, she wasn’t sure where she stood in regard to her faith. “I had to make the active choice and decision to be Catholic,” she reflects. “St. Mary has challenged my faith in ways I don’t think would have been challenged anywhere else.” Like many others, she appreciates that St. Mary is not only a place of action, but a place of prayer. As quick as they are to stand up against injustice, the students here are also quick to pray for those in need. Recently, when a student from the university’s Jewish community died, student leaders were already inviting other students to pray for the students and staff of the Hillel campus ministry, even before the St. Mary campus ministry staff had received the news. Furtado represents the sentiments of many students, staff members, and parishioners here at St. Mary when she says, “I am blessed and eternally grateful for St. Mary because I can now confidently say that I am a Catholic because I want to be and not because I was born into it.”