Campus Ministry Life During a Pandemic

Stephen Mangione Around the Province

Providing spiritual, emotional, and social support to students at Holy Name Province-sponsored institutions of higher education in two upstate New York towns during the pandemic – which is now spanning three academic semesters – has come with unparalleled challenges for those in campus ministry. But chaplains Lawrence Anderson, OFM, and Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM – and other friars and laypeople serving on the campus ministry teams at Siena College in Loudonville and St. Bonaventure University in Allegany – have not been deterred from carrying out their missions. As one friar observed, campus ministry doesn’t stop during a pandemic; you just have to persevere and find creative ways of doing things differently. Students, says another friar, have been equally resilient.

A St. Bonaventure University student distributes food at the Warming House. (Photo courtesy of Alice Miller Nation)

With dining halls and student lounges on the St. Bonaventure campus mere shells of the bustling social hubs they used to be – and with most large spaces, like the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, converted into classrooms to meet safe-distance protocols – creativity and thinking beyond the norm, for Greg, has meant striking up on-the-go-conversations with students walking along campus pathways. And for students who volunteer at the Warming House in downtown Olean – one of the nation’s longest-operating student-run, sit-down soup kitchens – perseverance has meant converting to takeout meals without missing a day since the pandemic started.

Across the state at Siena College, near Albany, some campus ministries were forced to suspend activities – such as the Mentoring Program between students and inner-city youth in the Capital Region that is supervised by Sean O’Brien, OFM – while the start of a new ministry last fall – which would have had student-Eucharistic ministers bringing Communion to patients at local hospitals – was put on hold. Creativity and pivoting, for Larry, has meant filling these voids with greater emphasis on such ministries as weekly men’s spirituality sessions, one for each undergraduate year, which meet in small groups to delve deep into faith and timely social justice issues. A group of sophomores shared their thoughts about the attack on the United States Capitol two days after the disturbing event occurred.

Creativity also meant SBU and Siena continuing the annual Franciscan tradition of the blessing of the brains prior to final exam week. But to avoid hundreds of students gathering in one place on their campuses, friars at St. Bonaventure and Siena administered the blessing virtually by live-streaming the ritual on their Facebook pages. The good news is that it reached students who were home because their classes were online or remote.

Mark Reamer at a pre-pandemic Blessing of the Brains at Siena Collge. (Photo courtesy of Andy Murphy)

Ministry of Presence
Despite the success in reimagining campus ministry, virtual contact and government and health dictates, like mask-wearing and social distancing, is contrary to the benchmarks of community-building, relationships, and fraternity that define SBU and Siena campus life, as well as the Franciscan charism.

“Ministry of presence is foundational to campus and Franciscan ministry. Engaging with students is the most important part of our work,” said Larry, campus chaplain at Siena College since 2014. “One of Siena’s strengths is its tight-knit community. Bringing people together is the hallmark of our campus ministry. Although the pandemic separates us, we find hope in the creative and different ways that keep campus ministries connected with students.”

Greg, the campus chaplain at SBU, says one of the strengths of Franciscan ministry is developing relationships.

“It’s our calling card as friars – being shoulder-to-shoulder with the people we serve, whether it’s parish work, outreach to the poor, or higher education,” said Greg, who arrived at the St. Bonaventure campus last summer and, like most friars starting ministerial assignments in the midst of the pandemic, contended with multiple challenges of introducing himself and providing ministry through face coverings to a new population while navigating a minefield of COVID-19 restrictions.

“The challenge has been to maintain our Franciscan presence when the pandemic continues to tell us just the opposite – to stay apart for the safety and health of ourselves and others,” added Greg, who graduated from SBU in 1987.

“Siena is an in-person environment where students thrive on what happens in the classroom. The pandemic has challenged our strengths. It has made us rethink how we provide person-centered Franciscan ministry,” said Mark Reamer, OFM, vice president for mission at Siena College since 2019. “Things are happening, but they’re happening differently. Life is now on video platforms like Zoom. That sense of energy you feel when you’re in a classroom, or in a room full of people chit-chatting before a meeting, is missing. With a video conference, there’s no lingering afterward. Click a button, meeting over.

“It has been important to maintain our Franciscan core values. Even during a pandemic, we have to continue meeting the challenge of reaching out and ministering and being attentive to students in need,” added Mark, a Siena graduate and a New Jersey native who has served as guardian of St. Bernardine of Siena Friary since 2014. Before that, he was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Raleigh, North Carolina.

‘Drive-and-Drop’ Bona Buddies
Most campus ministries whose activities have either been suspended or significantly altered aren’t expected to fully return to normal until the pandemic subsides. But the resourcefulness and determination of the ministry teams and students at St. Bonaventure and Siena have maintained continuity in outreach to the broader community, connection and communication, and participation in faith-nourishing activities – even when it has meant six or eight feet of separation, communal prayer on a zoom conference rather than inside a chapel, spiritual counsel in a phone conversation or text thread instead of over coffee in the dining hall, or – as in Greg’s case – walking alongside students hurrying to class.

Greg Jakubowicz distributes ashes. (Photo courtesy of Greg)

Although SBU’s Bona Buddies mentoring program, which pairs students with young people between the ages of 5 and 15, ceased all in-person activity, the student leadership team and volunteer mentors reimagined the program so that they could provide uninterrupted support, guidance, and encouragement to local area youth.

Every month, a “drive-and-drop” themed bag, customized by mentors for their buddies, is delivered to the front door of the youngsters’ homes. The initiative was launched last September, whose bag was themed with the slogan, “Welcome to Bona’s” – and was filled with SBU coloring pages, crayons, a face covering with the Bona Buddies logo, a calendar, stickers, and other items. Each month’s themed bags contain trivia challenges, puzzles, and other fun and educational materials.

In addition to also writing letters to their buddies, mentors are stepping up in a big way, according to Alice Miller Nation, director of SBU’s Franciscan Center for Social Concern, which is part of university ministries.

“Families have the opportunity to opt-in for one hour a week of homework help and tutoring for their children, either through a video platform like Zoom, Skype, and Facetime or through a regular phone call. More than 70 percent of families have taken advantage of this opportunity for their children,” said Miller Nation, who has served as director of the Franciscan Center since July 2018.

“Once they started thinking about the stress that parents and children were facing with working and learning from home, our students realized that pausing Bona Buddies was not an option – particularly at a time when families needed this program more than ever. Our students found a way to make it work. They have responded above and beyond what is expected,” added Miller Nation, who noted that there are 64 student-buddy matches this semester, one of the highest in recent memory.

Full Schedule of Ministry Opportunities
At Siena, students are provided with a full schedule of ministries including virtual prayer group meetings, live-streaming Masses on the Siena Friars Facebook page – which often get upwards of 1,000 views – and other faith-based services. Monday nights offer a Lectio Divina meeting when students read and reflect on scripture – a wonderful opportunity, says Larry, to let the Gospel speak to them and relate the readings to their own lives.

Tuesday nights are Adoration in the Chapel, where students pray and reflect quietly before the Blessed Sacrament – the only weeknight ministry that has remained as in-person attendance throughout the pandemic. The others were moved to remote-only platforms, according to Larry, who was associate pastor at St. Mary’s Church in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, for five years before taking the campus chaplain assignment at Siena.

Wednesday nights’ “praise and worship” ministry is joined by students who joyfully celebrate God’s love through an array of contemporary music, scripture, and intentional prayer. Thursday is rosary night and Fridays offer “stations five,” a service that taps into the prayers from Stations of the Cross. All ministries are student-run.

Outside the campus chapel of St. Mary of the Angels, the ministry team set up a Mission Tent as a way of continuing ministries and offering as many in-person activities – and accommodating as many students as possible in an open-air outdoor setting – to maintain a sense of community on the campus, according to Mark.

“But even being outdoors is a struggle because of social distancing guidelines that we have to follow,” said Mark, who quarantined as a precaution to the friar fraternity at the St. Bernardine Friary after returning last December from Arizona, where he attended the ordination of Roberto Tito Serrano, OFM, who is now part of the chaplain office team. As an associate chaplain, he has roles in sacramental ministry, interfaith outreach, student-athlete academic and spiritual counsel, and programming and mentoring at the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center.

Two Masses have been celebrated under the tent every Sunday since last spring, providing access to a greater number of students. An additional two Sunday Masses are held in the chapel – a morning Mass open to alumni who live in the area, and the popular evening Mass for students-only. Both require reservations, capacity restrictions, social distancing, wearing facemasks, and other safety protocols.

You’re Not Alone
At the conclusion of the 2019-20 academic session, the Mission team rolled out “You’re Not Alone” – an initiative that attempted to contact every Siena student to see how they fared on exams and how they were coping overall as racial injustice, political strife, and the COVID-19 pandemic were dominating the news cycle.

“We’d much rather be present in-person for students, but to make up for some of the lack of in-person contact, we attempted to call or Zoom conference with every student to see how they were holding up, and what impact national events – among them the murder of George Floyd – may have been having on them,” explained Mark, who has made it a personal priority to focus outreach to students who are struggling academically to make sure they receive the resources necessary for their academic, emotional and social well-being.

“In my conversations, particularly with students of color, their responses were educational, enlightening, and sad. I was stunned to hear one student tell me that he wears his Siena sweatshirt whenever he ventures off campus to show that he belongs. I must have been wearing blinders because, at that point, I realized there is so much more that we have to do to make students of color feel safe and comfortable,” said Mark, noting that Franciscan efforts in strengthening the bonds of racial justice come straight from St. Francis of Assisi, who abandoned the privileged life into which he was born to instead live among the people he served.

The conversations on racism and injustice were so emotional and painstaking that it led Christopher Gibson, president of Siena College, to organize a virtual town hall-style meeting in response to students and faculty asking the administration to address these issues in ways that haven’t been done in the past.

The chapel at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

Students Inspire Franciscan Journey
Although COVID-19 has muted the campus ministry experience, being around college students who are enthusiastic about faith and service to others, despite the difficult circumstances, has been inspirational for Steven Kuehn, OFM, who is serving in campus ministry at St. Bonaventure University since last June as part of his one-year internship in preparation for his solemn profession.

“It’s always a challenge walking into something new, but especially a ministry where you’re trying to build relationships and getting to know students in an environment that requires distancing and wearing masks that are barriers to faces and smiles. But thanks be to God, it still happens – and that gives me hope and encourages my own journey of Franciscan vocation,” said Steve, a native of Annapolis, Maryland. He holds a bachelor’s degree in systems engineering from the United States Naval Academy and served in the Navy for 12 years as an aviator, analyst, and catapult officer before joining the Province in 2015.

Larry Anderson addresses students at Siena College. (Photo courtesy of Andy Murphy)

“Academics can be demanding without a pandemic. These students didn’t sign up for this. But they have remained enthusiastic and energetic – and that has helped me to be another outlet of support and encouragement in their academic and spiritual journey,” added Steve, a former college lacrosse player who has been present at virtual and small-group in-person student club meetings. His work with SBU’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes Club has enabled Steve to share Franciscan values with student-athletes and work with the men’s lacrosse team, which is hopeful of playing an eight-game schedule this spring.

Steve is also volunteering at the Warming House, which served 12,200 meals in 2020, more than double the amount in the previous year, even though the program switched to full take-out on March 13.

“It’s an opportunity to interact with students, but I have also appreciated the servant role – whether it’s dicing onions or washing dishes,” said Steve, who leaves the cooking up to those more skilled in the culinary arts.

Besides the sheer numbers, packaging take-out meals is a more labor-intensive task that requires more volunteers, according to Miller Nation, who said that the extra help from friars, staff, faculty, and community partners has been welcome.

“This has become so important to our student volunteers that they are planning their class schedules to accommodate their commitment to the Warming House,” said Miller Nation, noting that for the first time in the program’s 47-year history, meals are now being delivered to homes at the rate of close to 20 locations a day.

Birthday Parade
Most student clubs at SBU have been meeting virtually, including the Search Retreat Team, a faith-sharing and enrichment program – although a major component of this ministry, in which students organize retreats for confirmation candidates at local parishes, has been suspended. Ladies in Faith Together has remained active, and there are plans for a virtual Lenten retreat that will be presented by the Rochester-based Sisters of St. Joseph.

Although visits to local assisted living and nursing home facilities through the Silver Wolves program have been suspended, SBU students are communicating with the elderly and infirm residents by writing letters, texting, and checking in with phone calls. Students recently surprised one of the residents at an assisted living facility with a drive-by parade for her 90th birthday. Miller Nation said the students, who decorated university vans with Bona banners and flags, were more than eager to oblige when the woman’s family contacted them.

SBU students normally take advantage of nearby Mt. Irenaeus for weekend events, but with restrictions on off-campus travel and in-person guests at Mt. Irenaeus, Kevin Kriso, OFM, and other friars at the Mountain were offering virtual prayer and reflection opportunities. The “break the bubble” program – in which students leave the campus for cultural, transformational and service experiences at places like St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Philadelphia – was also suspended.

The Siena retreat for freshmen, which usually involves an overnight off-campus event, was held on campus for the incoming class of 2024, while all domestic and international retreats, pilgrimages, and other opportunities available to Siena students – including service trips involving St. Francis Inn and Habitat for Humanity, were canceled.

As someone who is accustomed to planning retreats, spiritual programs, and liturgies, for young people – and who is a fixture among the student population at sporting events, the dining hall, and the residence hall where he lives – Larry says the pandemic has made it difficult, but not impossible, to stay attentive to students and be able to meet them, figuratively speaking, wherever they are.

“I am just so humbled to walk alongside students on their faith journey and help them see how God works in their lives,” Larry said.

Other members of the SBU campus ministry team are Russel Murray, OFM, vice president of Mission Integration, Marcia Wymer, music and liturgy coordinator, Amanda Naujoks, who works in faith formation and evangelization, and executive assistant Yvonne Peace. The Siena team also includes assistant campus minister Nick Ascioti, a musician by profession and permanent deacon in charge of the RCIA program, Gabrielle Tegiacchi, a Siena graduate and music minister who helps coordinate the music at Masses and other in-person and virtual events, and administrative assistant Colleen Sheedy.

Make Friends, But Stay Away from Each Other
Campus ministers speak of the anxiety being felt by students, especially among first-year arrivals. Students from the other classes – sophomores, juniors, and seniors – knew what to expect upon their return in the fall. But those arriving for the first time were faced with new surroundings, the academic demands of higher education, a host of unprecedented daily life parameters, and the challenge of finding ways to connect with classmates and forge new friendships when they were being told to stay away from each other.

“Socialization is an important part of the college experience – hanging out in the dorm lounge or dining hall, going to a basketball game. Even if it’s inviting students into a quick conversation – ‘hey, how’s it going, if you ever need to talk’ – that becomes an important interaction because you’re telling them that they are not alone in this time of anxiety, loneliness, and isolation,” said Greg, who admits that the COVID era hasn’t been easy for someone like himself, as he considers the campus his office.

“Students miss being in class with their friends. They miss socializing, and like everyone, they are anxious about the future and frustrated with having to live life masked up. Academics have been more difficult. Students feel there have been more assignments and they feel busier even with fewer distractions and less social contact. But throughout all of this, most students have been willing to do what it takes to get through this,” said Larry, a native of Western New York, who prior to joining Holy Name Province in 2003 worked as a disc jockey at a radio station in Nome, Alaska, and served in youth and campus ministry in Rochester and Ogdensburg.

“I find that students are sometimes just looking for someone to talk to about their anxiety over the pandemic. They are zooming endlessly; they’re holed up in their rooms. Sometimes their struggles may have nothing to do with the pandemic. It could be time-management issues, or someone needs to improve their study skills. Whatever it is, we are here to encourage, listen, provide counsel, and direct them to appropriate resources,” said Mark, who served as a Navy chaplain for 13 years and saw active duty in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Mark Reamer with Siena College students at the Coliseum in Rome. (Photo courtesy of Andy Murphy)

A Hopeful Future
All of those in campus ministry agree that there is hope for the future.

“With the vaccines that are now available, and knowing the resiliency of our students, I have hope that we will come out of this stronger. Personally, I have a greater appreciation for the things that I took for granted,” said Larry, who noted that he has navigated the challenges with more reading and spiritual self-reflection, a greater connection to the fraternity, and “by focusing on what has been gained, rather than what has been lost.”

“I keep reminding myself that the Holy Spirit is in charge. Although ministry is being done differently, the Holy Spirit is still working through me,” said Greg, who has spent the majority of his ministerial life serving in higher education as a professor at SBU and Hilbert College, and as an administrator and campus minister – including chaplain of the University of Buffalo South Campus and Medical School before coming to St. Bonaventure.

“We can’t lose track that people are having a tough time and that we have to be sensitive to the loss experienced by students and staff. But we are surrounded by much goodness. Despite the gloom and darkness of the pandemic, I see God’s hand at work,” added Greg, noting that his hope and strength come from the support and encouragement of his brother friars.

Mark’s hope for the future comes from what he calls “the strange sort of way” the pandemic has brought people together – and that includes fraternal life as a friar. “Not traveling has kept us together more than usual – which can be challenging but is also very enriching because of our great group of friars. We are hopeful as a community and living as brothers-in-fraternity. We have something to offer the college community by our witness,” he said.

– Stephen Mangione is a frequent contributor to HNP Today.