Fr. Bill Stang, C.PP.S., priest, Missionary, medical doctor, soldier, biologist and professor, was spending a quiet Thursday morning in his biology lab at Saint Joseph’s College methodically scrubbing a raccoon skull.
The raccoon, with too many kin to mix safely with a human student population, had been humanely dispatched earlier by Br. Tim Hemm, C.PP.S., the college’s resident wildlife expert and campus minister. Fr. Stang prepares such skeletons for his students to study, storing their bones in plastic boxes that the manufacturers intend for fishing tackle. In this way, the college turns a problem into a learning opportunity, which is one of its strengths.
Saint Joseph’s College is bordered on the north by Rensselaer, Ind., population 5,859, and on the south by cornfields. Its well-ordered campus offers students a chance both to yell their lungs out at Saturday afternoon football games and to read and dream in the midst of nature. Established in 1891 by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, the priests and brothers who minister there see it as mission territory.
“As young adults, our students are questioning the values they were raised with,” said Fr. Tim McFarland, C.PP.S., a professor of religion at the college who also serves as associate vice president for academic affairs. “Inside class, outside class, they have the opportunity here to talk about the things that are most important to them, to sort out their beliefs as they ask the big questions.”
Many Missionaries of the Precious Blood are involved in education ministry, helping young people—and not-so- young people—turn to Christ as they seek the wisdom that will help them achieve an undergraduate or graduate degree. Faith and knowledge are not separate things, these Missionaries believe, but both are lamps that can shed light on the proper path.
The Big Questions
The big questions are not incidental to life at Saint Joseph’s College; they are part of the curriculum. The college requires all of its students to participate in its innovative Core program, an integrated curriculum that introduces students to philosophy, religion, culture and current events—and along the way teaches them to think clearly and independently.
Missionaries who are on the SJC faculty all teach courses as part of the college’s Core program. Because all SJC students take these courses during their time at the college, it also helps create a sense of community that sets the college apart, Fr. McFarland said.
“Over the years I’ve tried to identify what makes us unique, and I think I’ve got it: it’s a sense of community,” he said. “With the Core program, all our students have a common educational opportunity.”
But it’s more than the curriculum. From the day they arrive on campus, students are encouraged to think of themselves as part of the college family—a family that is nurtured and cherished by a loving and watchful God.
The Missionaries who live and minister at SJC try to live that message, day and night. Several C.PP.S. members live among the students in the dorms, where they sometimes find themselves called on to talk over issues large and small with students who can’t sleep.
Seeking the Truth
During the day, C.PP.S. members who are instructors have open-door policies. Fr. Stang fields questions about science as well as religion, two powerful poles that coexist peacefully in his mind. In the class that he teaches as part of the Core program, “we constantly stress that both science and religion seek the truth,” Fr. Stang said. “They use different methods and come at questions from different points. But both can help you live your life successfully. Science can help you get rid of superstition. Religion can provide meaning to science.”
Life at the college suits Fr. Stang, who has a restless, questing mind and a lively curiosity. Self-diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, he said he loves his life in the SJC biology lab, where he can read and write in his office, which is crammed with books, papers, globes, flags, photos, samples of his African mask collection and other memorabilia, then wander out to the lab to work on a raccoon skeleton.
“To be productive, I need a variety of things to do,” said Fr. Stang, who has several advanced degrees and is a retired colonel with the Indiana National Guard. “I’m happiest when I have four or five projects going at one time. When I get tired of one thing, I can go scrub raccoon bones, or work on a chapter for an hour or so, then repair a microscope, then go see how Fr. Len is doing.” (Fr. Leonard Kostka, C.PP.S., who at age 98 is the oldest Missionary in the Society worldwide, is the unofficial dean of life at the college.)
Fr. Stang sees himself as a Missionary who trains missionaries. He teaches many young people who will become doctors and nurses, and he wants to send them out into the world with a missionary’s outlook. “I get to prepare future doctors and nurses. We’ve sent out over 100 people who are doctors and over 1,000 people who are nurses. We help them look at the patient as a human being with a soul, not just a disease.”
The Saint Joseph College Bus
Br. Tim Hemm, C.PP.S., a human being with a soul who is up before dawn every day, had to set a firm rule about meetings with his many college-age campus ministry volunteers: no meetings that start after 9 p.m. Other than that, he is open nearly fulltime to working with students, faculty and staff to enrich the spiritual life of the campus.
One thing that people might not realize about the life of a youth or campus minister, he said, is how much of the working day is tied up in earthly concerns: setting dates, reserving meeting rooms, lining up transportation, making sure people will be fed.
Yet spiritual needs still come first. When an SJC employee died suddenly in September, Br. Tim put aside other tasks to help organize a contingent of college folks to attend the funeral together. “I think it will mean something to the family to see that Saint Joseph’s College bus pulling up,” he said.
Another priority of his is to train student leaders who can claim responsibility for their own events. This is an ongoing task; a campus minister leads a group that changes with each commencement ceremony. “We work really, really hard to get a lot of people involved,” he said. “We want the students to understand that campus ministry isn’t just for a few people.”
He coordinates programs on campus, and helps students get away through camping retreats and activities in Rensselaer and surrounding communities. As with the students, it’s the variety that brings richness to his life, he said. “It’s not a perfect life, but I’d be hard- pressed to find anything that suits me better,” he said.
Missionaries in the Cafeteria
It’s the variety of college life that also attracted Fr. Jeff Kirch, C.PP.S., to ministry at Saint Joseph’s College, where he entered as a freshman in 1994.
“As a missionary I get to work with everybody from an 18-year-old student from Valpariaso, Ind., to a 45-year- old veteran who is here on the GI bill. I work with the faculty and the staff, department chairman and the janitorial staff,” he said.
Fr. Kirch, an assistant professor of religion at SJC, teaches religion courses on campus, and, once a week, drives 90 minutes on two-lane highways to Kokomo, Ind., to teach a lay pastoral ministry course sponsored by the Diocese of Lafayette in Indiana.
“On a college campus, we can be missionaries in a variety of ways: in the classroom or the dorm, on the baseball field, in the cafeteria,” he said.
The good work done on campus doesn’t necessarily blossom there. Often, years go by before a college professor hears that his or her words had an impact, Fr. Kirch said. “A lot of times it’s when they come back for a visit to campus years later when you hear that something you said made a difference in their lives,” he said. “It is very humbling; you never know how you’re going to affect someone.”
It’s About People
That sense of instilling values and viewpoints into the new generation is an important part of the members’ ministry at Calumet College of St. Joseph (CCSJ), which is also sponsored by the Missionaries of the Precious Blood. CCSJ is in Whiting, Ind., one of a string of cities just east of Chicago, Ill. The college was founded by the Missionaries in 1951 to serve the working-class neighborhoods of Northwest Indiana.
Many CCSJ students are the first in their family to attend college; CCSJ has been recognized as one of the most diverse colleges of its size in the Midwest. Faculty and staff at CCSJ, including C.PP.S. members, understand the special mission of the college.
“Our biggest issue, when serving at-risk, under-served students, is to retain them, get them to graduation and prove that they learned something along the way. Part of the reason the C.PP.S. put us here is to serve that part of the population,” said Dr. Daniel Lowery, who became CCSJ’s second lay president earlier this year. “We have some great students here who might be considered more traditional college students—but we’re really here to serve those other students.
“Serving them is not easy. Our data shows if we can get them through their first and second year, it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll be successful. We probably do a lot of things no other college does. We assign professors as their mentors. We track freshmen year attendance so we can intervene very, very quickly if a problem develops. Our faculty go name-by-name through the freshman class: ‘is John having an issue, did Theresa show up for class?’”
Some of the people who are so willing to help are C.PP.S. members at the college. Br. Jerry Schwieterman, C.PP.S., sees his role as campus minister in part as reaching out to students who are at risk of falling back out of the college they worked hard to enter.
“We have students who are dealing with issues beyond the classroom,” he said. “Some of them don’t have enough money for rent or food. We’ve had students who are living out of their cars. We try to help with that.”
The college provides mentors who help individual students find their way through higher education. It carefully tracks its freshmen, making sure that no one is falling through the cracks. Br. Juan Acuña, C.PP.S., holds a new job as a learning specialist at the college. He coordinates the college’s efforts to place students within a smaller community of fellow learners, to give them a sense of belonging.
“As Catholics we value inclusivity, or at least that’s an important part of being Catholic to me,” said Br. Juan, who was professed as a brother in his native Santiago, Chile, in August. “At this college, that sense of inclusivity is very strong. We’re dealing with traditional college students, but also single moms, young parents, and we try to work with all of them. Here, it’s about people, not about numbers.”
Feeling the Pain
Br. Jim Ballmann, C.PP.S., who is the database administrator at CCSJ, deals with people and numbers at the college. He has been a part of the college family for 28 years and has seen it change and grow, while keeping its original sense of mission.
He maintains the college’s database (he holds a degree in computer information systems from CCSJ, so he’s also an alumnus) and teaches a computer course every spring. Always, he sees himself as a sort of ambassador of Christ on campus, calling out to students in the common areas, offering words of encouragement here and there.
Br. Jim is an athlete who bikes and swims, so he feels the pain of CCSJ athletes when he sees them on crutches. “I’ve been injured, so when I see someone on crutches, I can empathize,” he said. “I always ask them how they’re doing and take an interest in their recovery. I know how they feel.”
Searching in Earnest
Missionaries also minister at Catholic Theological Union (CTU) in Chicago, where the C.PP.S. is one of more than two dozen religious congregations to co-sponsor the institution.
CTU students are from around the world, as a world map in the student commons area points out. Yet members of the faculty quickly teach them that they are one.
“What is really happening here is formational. Our students are interacting with people who are on the same journey that they are on,” said Br. Antonio (Ton) Sison, C.PP.S., who is an assistant professor of systemic theology at CTU. “Whether they are or are going to be priests, brothers, sisters or lay ministers, they draw courage from each other.”
As a school whose classes lead to advanced degrees, CTU sees students of all ages, many of whom are working toward a second or third career in ministry in the Church. Along with many different cultural backgrounds, the difference in ages adds a richness to the lively discussions that go on in CTU’s classrooms.
“A classroom at CTU is often like a miniature United Nations. Often, there is no dominant group,” he said. “Our students see that the truth is not black and white, but that truth comes in many marvelous colors, and that’s a beautiful thing. You can’t come into a classroom completely convinced that you are right.”
Part of Br. Ton’s work at CTU is as director of the MA in theology academic program; he plays a key role in deciding who will be admitted to the school’s program. As such, he has a stake in their later success as students, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than seeing them learn and thrive in CTU’s academically challenging programs.
“Most of our students are here because they’re searching for meaning. It’s not just about work for them. They’re taking stock of their lives and coming up with adult answers to the questions they’ve always had. They are serious believers who are also earnest searchers. Their questions have become deeper, and this is the best environment for them.
“When you read their papers, you can see the Holy Spirit at work. There is movement in people’s lives when they are searching in earnest. It’s so humbling and rewarding to be a part of that in some small way.”