By Bill Skowronski
Director of Communication and Marketing
Central Province, USA
In 2010, Apple trademarked the phrase, “There’s an app for that” in marketing its iPhone 3g. The St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Newman Center at Purdue University may soon want to follow suit. Like sports? There’s a group for that. Interested in music? There’s a group for that. Want an opportunity to take and share great photos with great people? There’s a group for that.
In total, there are approximately 100 groups and activities available at St. Tom’s. Resident parishioners can go on a Mission Trip or a Canoe Trip. Student parishioners can join the Ministry Leadership Team or a volleyball team. And both groups are encouraged to attend Mass on the Grass or Theology on Tap. The list goes on…and on. The list, and the parishioners who embrace it, are creating a culture of people (young and old) who are highly involved in their faith as well as the West Lafayette community.
“People want to live out their faith in different ways,” said Fr. Patrick Baikauskas, O.P., Pastor at St. Tom’s. “We learned that people in college come in all different types. The trick is finding the resources, talent, and energy to respond to all those things. When you do that, you create an exciting environment where people want to be here and they see people like them as a part of this community.”
As a Dominican Friar, Fr. Baikauskas has served St. Tom’s for more than a decade along with a handful of other Dominicans and a dedicated lay staff. For the past three years, Fr. Joseph Minuth, O.P. has walked alongside Fr. Baikauskas, Purdue students, and resident parishioners as they explore their faith together.
“Everyone has their own story about the way they’ve grown,” Fr. Minuth said. “A lot of them have turned from Sunday Catholics into Catholics on fire with the faith. Part of the philosophy is supporting what the students want.”
On any college campus, identifying what students want can be a daunting and overwhelming task. Somehow, the Purdue BoilerCatholics have kept a finger on the pulse of the community, growing it as they go.
“It doesn’t matter where you are in your faith, we’re open to trying to find what best fits you,” said Andy Czarnecki, St. Tom’s Office Publicity and Technology Coordinator. “We can make the argument that there is something for everyone. If you can’t find it, we can probably make it happen.”
In itself, that approach is very strategic and big picture oriented towards Fr. Baikauskas’s long-term goals for the ministry.
“The students want, and would benefit from an intentional community,” he said. “We see this in a small way for a week or so on mission trips when students are able to pray together, worship together, live together, and build a bond.”
In the next several years, these bonds may be strengthened as Fr. Baikausas lays the groundwork for a capital project that would include faith-based housing for up to 300 students [Visit InsideHigherEd on-line to read more about faith-based housing in this article: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/08/28/new-religious-dorms-part-faith-based-housing-trend#.Uh4UyAYpg0k.email] The format would allow students to get involved in their faith from the first days on campus, and eventually take that experience forward for the rest of their lives.
“Father Patrick wants us to learn about all these different ministries and spread St. Tom’s all over the place to make our own St. Tom’s somewhere else,” said Purdue junior, Alisha Lewin. “At my church [in California, where Lewin is from], we didn’t really have ministries. When I came here, I saw all the ministries I could get involved in and everything the church offers.”
Lewin was an altar server and a lector, as well as a member of the choir. At Purdue, she exemplifies the commitment of BoilerCatholics, now Coordinator of the New Student Overnighter, President of the St. Tom’s Photography Club, and an intern for the Religious Education program. Her experience and leadership is less uncommon than it may sound.
“I’ve been taken by the energy from within the people here and the students and parishioners leading their own activities,” Br. James Peter Trares, O.P. said. “There’s so much leadership happening that the staff and Dominicans here are largely overseeing it and guiding it. It’s about empowering [parishioners].
“It’s been interesting to talk to students about how they got involved here,” Br. Trares continued. “Whether it was through a retreat or an activity, it’s changed their college experience from being isolated and floundering to being connected and growing in their faith.”
Trares is a Dominican Student Brother on pastoral year at Purdue-St. Tom’s, where he has already noticed the parish’s impact on students and resident parishioners.
“People can come here and move from casually coming to Mass to leading other students by the time they leave,” Br. Trares said. “This center is an anchor. We, the friars, can reach out, but ultimately it’s the students who are inviting their friends and their classmates. Their witness is so compelling.
“They ask me questions about the faith, and I may not know the answer, but I see my ministry as being the type of person who walks along with them,” Br. Trares continued. “The people coming to the ministry have their own life experiences that they bring with them and that can be very nurturing.”
Of those people, Purdue registers nearly 13,000 Catholic students, making it the largest such population among universities in the state of Indiana—larger even, than the famed University of Notre Dame. However, the resident population hardly separates itself from these students on fire with their faith—rather they seem to fan the flames.
“In other places, I’ve seen the parish and then the campus ministry as two separate things,” Br. Trares said. “Here, I see the resident parishioners as contributors to the campus ministry. They’re not just here because they like the parish, they’re here because this is an outreach to the Purdue community, and they take part in that too.”
Even the relationship between students and residents seems to follow a strategic design at Purdue.
“St. Tom’s is unique in that it’s not just a Newman Center, but a full blown parish,” said Czarnecki. “We love the resident parishioners, but staying student-focused is the long-term goal.”
“We have an extraordinary dynamic here. Not only do we have vibrant campus ministries, but we also have a large, resident parishioner population as well,” said Fr. Baikauskas. “We’re very blessed that we have families that recognize the importance of our primary mission, being campus ministry. They embrace it and support it.”
With small groups growing and a strong religious education program established, it’s difficult to predict what St. Tom’s will offer in the next decade. Still, it’s safe to say the ministry will continue to give the people what they want.
“We may not know what they are right now, but we’re always trying to come up with new ways to reach out to the students,” Czarnecki said.
And he’d know. Czarnecki is a Purdue grad who enjoyed the experience so much, he decided to stay and make a career out of it.