Rebuilding God’s House: SBU Plans New Ministry Center

Francis Di Spigno, OFM Around the Province

A rendering of the new ministry center at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

A rendering of the new ministry center at St. Bonaventure University. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

This article was originally published in the Summer-Fall 2015 issue of Bonaventure magazine. It has been reprinted with permission and has been edited for style.

ALLEGANY, N.Y. — “Go and rebuild my house, which you see is falling into ruin.”

The experience must have been incredible, literally, yet St. Francis and the Franciscans have been following that directive for more than 800 years. St. Bonaventure, recounting the story in his Major Life of St. Francis of Assisi, tells us how St. Francis was moved by the Spirit to pray before the iconic image of the crucified Christ in the rubble of a forgotten chapel dedicated to St. Damian. With all the fervor and confusion of a young man searching for answers, kneeling before what we now call the San Damiano cross, he heard a voice telling him three times: “Francis, go and rebuild my house, which you see is falling into ruin.”

Franciscans throughout the centuries have continued to respond to that challenge to “rebuild my house.” It has taken on many forms, styles and manners that would include organizing soup kitchens, forming support groups, and hearing confessions, along with the building of churches, parishes, dioceses and even universities.

About a year ago, St. Bonaventure University president Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF, told F. Edward Coughlin, OFM, then-vice president for Franciscan mission, and me, the executive director of university ministries, that the rebuilding of the Lord’s “house” on our campus was about to take a giant leap forward.

With the dedication, vision and generosity of John R. “Jack” McGinley Jr., ’65, his family, and the Rita M. McGinley Foundation, the 157-year history of Franciscan presence in the Southern Tier will be moving into a new home. Several trustees are joining Jack McGinley in support of the project.

Francis Di Spigno with students in St. Bonaventure's RCIA program. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

Francis Di Spigno with students in St. Bonaventure’s RCIA program. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

There’s Something About Bona’s
During my four short years at St. Bonaventure, I have heard countless times, “There is something special about St. Bonaventure.” Parents of prospective students have said it. Students who are fully ensconced in their academic careers have said it, and certainly many, many alumni have shared the same sentiment. But what is it? What is it that makes our university so special?

Of course, I am biased, but it seems obvious to me that what makes St. Bonaventure so special is that intuitive Franciscan sense that everyone is welcome. Everyone is a part of the family.

After all of these years of brown and white, the charism permeates the multitude of bricks, the miles of sidewalks, and certainly the people who love to call this place “home.” Once a Bonnie, always a Bonnie.

That Franciscan spirit is found in the classroom, certainly, but it was most likely sparked by an experience you had that enlivened your soul. Perhaps it is the memory of a friar helping you through your freshman year when you didn’t quite fit in yet. Or maybe it was a dinner and reflection at Mt. Irenaeus, or perhaps, more recently, joining in the “Blessing of the Brains” on Reading Day to help calm your panic the day before finals start.

Whatever the experience was, the foundation of it all was rooted in the Franciscan spirit of welcome, acceptance and respect that is embodied in the university’s values of discovery, community and individual worth.

The campus community gathered to dedicate the new rugby field in September 2014. The Thomas Merton Center stands in the background of the photo, on right. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

The campus community gathered to dedicate the new rugby field in September 2014. The Thomas Merton Center stands in the background of the photo, on right. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

History of Campus Ministry
The Thomas Merton Center has been the locus of ministerial outreach since 1973.

It was at that time that Daniel Riley, OFM, and John O’Connor, OFM, asked the president, Damian McElrath, OFM, if ministries could move out of the basement of Butler Gym into what was the old maintenance building.

The maintenance department had moved farther west the previous year to its present location beyond Plassmann Hall. The vacated maintenance site, a one-floor brick building located on prime real estate, was up for grabs.

The University Archives tell us that Dan and John oversaw “the $60,000 facelift, completed by a workforce consisting almost entirely of volunteers. Open[ing] in March 1973, the newly renovated facility initially had no carpeting, hanging fluorescent lights and little furniture, but was soon furnished to include a piano, stereo system, movie projector, kitchen, library, prayer room, study-conversation room and shag rugs. In 1977, the Campus Ministry Center was rechristened “The Thomas Merton Center.”

Under the leadership of Bob Donius (then vice president for university ministries) and with assistance from the Lilly Foundation, significant renovations took place at the center 12 years ago.

The large room that once wore the green shag carpet was divided to create office space to welcome the Franciscan Center for Social Concern, the University Mission Office, the Office of Faith Formation, Worship and Ministries, The Warming House/Bona Buddies, and Mt. Irenaeus.

Yet with all the changes, the Franciscan spirit of building and rebuilding God’s “house” continued. The countless number of students, faculty and staff who have come to The Thomas Merton Center over the years found a place to rebuild themselves, and one another, within that simple brick building. They knew they could always find the spirit of welcome and spiritual exploration in the heart of campus.

A map of the St. Bonaventure University campus. (Photo courtesy of SBU)

A map of the St. Bonaventure University campus. (Photo courtesy of SBU. Click to view in detail.)

Making All Things New
The new ministry center will occupy the same location. Construction of the William E. and Ann L. Swan Business Center has resulted in a newly formed campus quad that is the place to be. It is a perfect intersection for those walking from the Reilly Center to the library, Butler Gym or Café La Verna, or between Plassmann and Robinson, Falconio and Doyle halls.

As Franciscans, we want to be in the crossroads of people’s lives — in the great, fantastic and wonderful times, as well as the painful, difficult and challenging times. Michael Blastic, OFM, in a presentation he made to the guardians of Holy Name Province in 2005, used the word conversatio to imply that the friars should be among the people.

Fr. Michael explained that “using the Latin word conversatio, the root of the term conversation, the rule (of life of the Friars Minor) envisages a conversation (being with and towards another).”

He went on to say that “the brothers’ manner of life is thus to be conversational — sharing life with brothers and sisters in this conversational manner rebuilds the house of God.”

The Franciscan spirit of welcome, generosity and respect does not expect perfection.

No, as Franciscans we begin our conversation with who we are. We recognize that we are people who are broken (sinners), and in need of rebuilding (forgiveness), and because of who we believe God is for us, we know that we are redeemed (made whole). We are forgiven. We are loved.

Franciscans throughout the ages have continued to rebuild the Lord’s house by sharing the good news that all people and all of creation, in our own uniqueness, are good, holy and blessed.

After all these years, from the basement of a gym to a maintenance building to what will be a solid foundation of our Franciscan heritage, this new ministry center will be an outward sign of what the friars and sisters have been doing for centuries.

It will become a sacramental place where we can continue to build up one another, recognize our own dignity and that of each other, so to realize God’s kingdom is among us.

The new ministry center, besides housing the offices within University Ministries, will contain a state-of-the-art conference room, meeting rooms, a full kitchen, a great room for larger assemblies, and an Interfaith Tower. The tower will stand tall within the Plassmann quad. Rightly so. A great vision of Sr. Margaret was to have a place for people of all faiths to come for private or communal prayer. There will be no iconography specific to any faith tradition within the tower so that everyone knows that it is their space. There will be the possibility to bring forth our own symbols and images, but always, without ownership and with great respect for the other.

Ultimately, it is our hope that we can follow Jesus’ great prayer that we “may all be one.” [John 20:17]

We anticipate construction to begin in the spring of 2016 with completion and occupancy by the middle of fall semester 2016. Typically we would say, “Let the building commence,” but in this case it is only appropriate to say, “Let the rebuilding continue!”

francis-di-spignoFr. Francis is executive director of University Ministries and guardian of St. Bonaventure Friary.



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