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Campaign to bring FOCUS missionaries to ISU

Four Iowa bishops serve as spiritual co-chairs of effort

By Joe Leisz
Special to The Witness

AMES — This fall, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa, formally launched a new endowment campaign to provide permanent support for campus ministry and outreach at Iowa State University. Archbishop Jackels is providing support as one of the four spiritual co-chairs.

“It is vital for the Catholic Church to be present on a college campus, with the best people and programs, in order to serve college students, who are asking big questions about themselves, their future and the world,” reflected Archbishop Michael Jackels of the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “We need to be present and prepared to answer their questions with the teaching of Jesus, his promises, and his plans for our happiness and fulfillment here and in the hereafter. It is therefore a worthy cause for charitable giving to provide permanent support to St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Student Center so it can provide ministry and outreach to students at Iowa State University.”

When Father James Supple establish­ed St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and Catholic Student Center (STA) in 1947, it was unique in Iowa. With 75 families and 1,154 students, it was both a parish and a student center. After 70 years, it has grown to include more than 850 registered families and provide a home for the 8,000 Catholic students at Iowa State University (ISU).

Now serving the largest university in Iowa (ISU has grown 44 percent in the past 10 years), and with more Iowa residents than any other school in the state, STA’s campus ministry has struggled to keep pace with the growth.

Even with the growth, Father Jon Seda noted that St. Thomas’ needs are not in bricks and mortar, but in outreach and evangelization. “Pope Francis often reminds us, it is not enough for a church to have a nice building, open doors, and just hope that people come.  No, we must go out, go out into our community and onto campus, go out and reach more for Christ,” he said.

To support this effort, St. Thomas Aquinas publicly announced a major endowment campaign to increase the Msgr. James A. Supple Endowment to better support campus ministry and outreach efforts. “Catching Souls: Our Catholic Mission” has a total fundraising goal of $5 million; $3 million has already been pledged.

Father Seda identified some of the main reasons why now is the time to do this campaign. “Only 30 percent of Americans raised Catholic are still practicing, and 80 percent left Catholicism by age 23. With more than 8,000 Catholic students at ISU, what happens at STA impacts the larger church,” he said. “Our student leadership team has also grown from 10 to 72. These are young people who take on leadership roles in their parishes after they graduate. And last year we had 17 alumni in seminary for various dioceses and religious orders.”

“We’ve had a great partnership with Evangelical Catholic over the past five years. In 2012, we had five small faith-sharing groups, last year we had 524 students sign up for 43, and this fall we expect to have more than 50 active small groups,” added Shari Reilly, director of campus ministry. “Our Thursday night liturgy has grown from around 100 to about 170 attending at 9:15 p.m. every week. And last year we started a new event to help introduce more students to our faith called ‘Come Awake’ – it has grown from 130 attendees to more than 270 at our kick-off this year.”

Father Seda continued, “These days we are swamped, which is a nice problem to have. And we have lots of potential to reach even more.  We are excited that this fall, we welcomed four FOCUS missionaries to St. Thomas Aquinas thanks to a grant from the Lilly Endowment. Students are constantly invited away from their Catholic faith by the secular culture on campus and by other churches (another church in Ames has 15 full-time campus missionaries). After years of feeling like we are playing defense, it is time to go on offense.”

FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic Univer­sity Students) has over 600 Catholic campus missionaries on 130 campuses. Founded in 1998, FOCUS missionaries go out onto campus and invite students to get involved in weekly Bible studies where students can delve into the mystery of Christ’s love found in sacred Scripture and form small-group communities of fellowship and support, grow in discipleship and reach out to others in service.

Campaign co-chair Tom Stark noted that alumni around the state and around the country are excited about FOCUS and have been supportive with pledges and volunteer efforts to have missionaries at ISU long into the future. “They are stepping up,” he said, and alumni events are planned around Iowa, and in cities from Phoenix to Minneapolis, and areas from Southern California to Florida.

“The Msgr. Supple Endowment currently supports about 20 percent of the actual cost of Catholic campus ministry at ISU,” reported Development Director Joe Leisz. “Father Supple’s vision was that one day our alumni would fully support and endow campus ministry – this campaign will put us closer to realizing that vision.”

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Leisz is development director for St. Thomas Aquinas Parish and Catholic Student Center.


Campus ministry student leaders at the ETC Midwest Conference in August in Carlinville, Illinois. (Contributed photo)