10/4/2012 12:03:00 PM CATHOLIC STUDENTS Union College campus ministry is on the grow
CATHOLIC STUDENTS picked more than 75 pounds of apples for the emergency food pantry of Schenectady Inner City Ministry (SICM) through the courtesy of Riverview Orchards in Rexford. Learn about Union College's Office of Religious and Spiritual Life at www.union.edu/campus/diversity/religious/index.php. The college does not financially support ministries on campus; the Albany Diocese subsidizes many Catholic Student Association activities. Deacon Thomas worries about finances if CSA participation continues to grow. To make a tax-deductible donation, call 388-6618.
When Maria Dreeszen, a junior at Union College in Schenectady, first became involved with the Catholic Student Association (CSA) there, only a handful of other students went to Masses and participated in activities. Three times as many do today.
"We take up at least three or four pews in the front" of nearby St. John the Evangelist parish, Ms. Dreeszen said. "We definitely have more of a presence. I just want to see it continue to grow."
Students serve as eucharistic ministers and lectors at St. John's in addition to attending on-campus Sunday meals, Thursday afternoon Masses, lunches, Bible studies, prayer activities and more. Bishop Howard J. Hubbard has attended an annual dinner named for him for a decade, and area priests attend weekly dinners. Three Union students were confirmed last year.
Catholics are the largest religious group on campus, about 28 percent of the 2,100-student population. More than 50 percent of students have no religious preference; Protestants and Jews comprise about 17 percent each.
There are chaplains for two branches of Judaism, as well as groups for Muslims, atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Buddhists and others. The campus celebrated a year on religion last year, bringing in well-known interfaith speakers and sponsoring a series about tolerance.
The current Catholic chaplain at the college, Deacon Frank Thomas, taught a course on religion in the public square during that period. He has boosted the CSA's involvement with community service and retreats since he started three years ago, inviting special guests like the editor of Commonweal magazine to speak at events. Students get copies of Commonweal and The Evangelist.
"Frank is just a really good match for this campus," said Rev. Dr. Victoria Brooks, Union's director of religious and spiritual life and the campus Protestant minister.
In her 14 years in the position, she's overseen three Catholic chaplains. She praised Deacon Thomas' "sense of ease with the students and comfort with various expressions of Catholicism. He's very good at accepting students where they are."
The deacon spends six days a week on campus in addition to his ministries at Our Lady of Grace parish in Ballston Lake and with the diocesan diaconate formation program. A radiation oncologist for 30 years, he also teaches at Albany Medical Center, mentors medical students and facilitates St. Luke's Guild of Catholic Physicians.
"The students all think he's awesome," said Kerri Wolf-Piechota, assistant director of student activities at Union College and a liturgical minister at Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady. She attends Thursday Mass on campus and has seen enthusiasm around campus ministry grow.
"I think it's super important," Mrs. Wolf-Piechota said. "Having that community to fall back on helps you stay connected to your Catholic faith."
Deacon Thomas says the three CSA student officers are responsible for the recent upswing.
Ms. Dreeszen, a religious studies major on a pre-dental academic track, uses her position as a resident adviser and orientation adviser to talk about CSA. She says her role is to "let [students] know there is a welcoming place here. When the freshmen come in, they're kind of curious about, 'How does the religion thing work here?'"
Ms. Dreeszen, who won a community-building award from the college last year, has started new social activities and brought in new members. She said keeping teenagers interested in Catholicism after confirmation is an ongoing challenge.
"It's very easy for people just to kind of cut it out of their lives. I don't want to be an overwhelming presence. I just want people to feel like they can get involved."