As the Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Bloomsburg University, Father Andrew St. Hilaire is frequently met with the question, “So besides having pizza and celebrating Mass, what do you do?”
It’s a common misconception that outreach to college students is narrow in scope and an easy recipe of comfort food and Sunday Mass. But that’s not enough to create intentional disciples these days, and so the CCM at Bloomsburg is focusing on a different modality.
The Newman House, rising high above 2nd Street and just below the familiar belltower of Carver Hall, is the center of outreach. The newly-renovated house is the place Catholic students literally refer to as their home away from home, a place to feel seen, heard and authentic as they explore and deepen their faith.
“The objective is to build a culture of hospitality, so that when any student comes in the door, even if they’re not Catholic, they feel welcomed and loved,” said Father St. Hilaire. “We’re not checking for people’s baptism certificates as they come to the door; we make it clear to the students that this is a place for them and we are here for them.”
There’s a living room with oversized couches and beanbags and a flatscreen TV, a traditional dining room, a large back porch with picnic tables, and a kitchen filled with food. There’s also quiet space for study or for meeting with Father St. Hilaire and the ministry’s associate director, Cynthia Robarge. And Jesus is there too in the midst of it all; students can visit Him in the Adoration in the house’s quaint and bright second-floor chapel. Bishop Timothy Senior celebrated Mass there for the CCM students on September 13, and joined them in fellowship during the weekly Wednesday “Open Bite Nite” homemade meal – which is free and open to all students on campus.
The Newman House is also the place for social events and group activities that focus on hospitality, human formation, and exploring the Catholic faith. There’s the Sunday Mass and Mingle, a weekly “Seeds for the Soul” faith-sharing, a women’s group and a men’s group, and opportunities for Confession, service and evangelization. Or, students can just come and hang out and enjoy the camaraderie and familiarity of home.
“I enjoy the dynamics of the house, and seeing how the students engage with one another. There is such respect and a desire to discover their faith,” Robarge said. “The maturity, growth and trajectory of them is just breathtaking. You can see their growth, their compassion, the joy they have for each other’s victories. I just have to hold that space if they want to go into exploring faith, and they certainly want to go…. It’s like living as the apostles; Jesus is among us, showing us how it’s done, and then we build our skills and live the faith.”
Sophomore Dylan Smith, who converted to the Catholic Church last year, sought out the Catholic Campus Ministry as soon as he arrived at Bloomsburg.
“I feel I have entered my faith more deeply here, and I really encountered more experiences. When you don’t have a community, it’s hard to prosper and grow in your faith. What Father Andrew and my peers have done is create a culture and community with which to cultivate my faith,” he said.
“Having the experience of meeting people where they’re at for the purpose of developing a relationship is very important. There’s always someone here, always something going on at the house,” he said.
Second-year student Sarah Williams, a cradle Catholic, wasn’t as eager as Smith to join CCM. Happily, she’s now a regular face at the Newman House.
“My mom had been pestering me to connect with the CCM here, but I shied away from it. Then I kind of fell into the college lifestyle and eventually things fell apart,” Williams shared. “But then I had what I call a ‘God Moment;’ I met someone from CCM who encouraged me to come to the house. Initially, when I walked in, I was hesitant. I assumed they’d all be super Catholic students who went to church every day, went to Confession all the time. Walking in, I was thinking, ‘I don’t know if I want to be here.’ But I stayed, and by the end of the first night, I didn’t want to leave. Every person was welcoming and wanted to have their own conversation with me.”
The Newman House “is quite literally a home away from home. Yes, your dorm is your home, but this place is different” Williams added. “Here, we are a family and this is our house. We treat everyone with respect, we don’t put up masks. We live life the way it is supposed to be lived.”
Outreach and building disciples through Catholic Campus Ministry is effective if it focuses on prayer life and community, Father St. Hilaire pointed out. That’s exactly what’s happening from the Newman House at Bloomsburg University.
“In this kind of setting, there is an intensive and focused form of accompaniment,” he said. “One by one with each of the students, we journey with them through this transition in their life. With that comes human formation – which involves helping them sort out relationships and figuring out how to manage time – and faith formation – which includes deepening their faith life, encouraging them to encounter Christ and receive his presence more deeply. Being able to accompany them in that regard is unique in that it’s intentional and focused and based on the individuality of each student.”
As the Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at Bloomsburg, Father St. Hilaire is also frequently met with another question: “How do we get young people into the Church, and keep them involved?”
The answer is found in the Newman House.
“With this generation of emerging adults, the dynamics of Catholic Campus Ministry has drastically changed. There was a time in which we could have done pizza and Mass and been satisfied. But the needs today are very different and it requires a different model and approach,” Father St. Hilaire said. “The incredible value of CCM and the Newman House is that it gives spaces that students have not been given to this point in their lives – a place to grow in their humanity, their relationship with Christ, their relationship with each other, a sense of communal dynamics…. It creates a space where they can flourish while being formed as intentional disciples so that they then go back to their parishes and communities to help build up the Kingdom.”
“That’s our mission, to help cultivate and form intentional disciples that can then be engaged in the life of the parish.”
Click here to learn more about Catholic Campus Ministry at Bloomsburg University. For information on Catholic Campus Ministry at colleges and universities within the Diocese of Harrisburg, click this link.
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness