By Jill Kruse-Domeyer
Witness Editorial Assistant
MT. VERNON — With the beginning of a new academic year this fall, parishioners at St. John the Baptist Church in Mount Vernon have once again welcomed the students of Cornell College into their parish family, offering them a supportive Catholic community to belong to while pursuing their studies away from home.
Cornell is a private liberal arts school located in the town of Mount Vernon. The college is unique in that a large number of its students come from a significant distance to attend. According to the college’s website, the student body includes students from 42 states and 17 foreign countries.
Each school year, parishioners at St. John’s strive to make their parish a spiritual home for these college students, something parishioners feel is important to do, especially since so many young people encounter uncertainty on their faith journey while in college.
“The college years are those years when a student often says, ‘I was born Catholic and raised Catholic, but I want to own my Catholicism for myself. I want to be Catholic because I say I am Catholic,’” said Sharon Grice, a Cornell College staff member and a St. John’s parishioner who leads the student-focused initiatives at the church.
She said the journey is different for each student. “For some, they step away from their faith for a bit,” she said. “For some, they ask really good questions. And I do mean really good questions about their faith!” Being there for students during this pivotal time in their lives, Grice said, is critical.
One of the opportunities the parish offers those attending Cornell is the “adopt a student” program. Students who are interested are matched up with a parish family that picks them up from campus and takes them to St. John’s for Mass each Sunday and provides them with a ride back to campus afterward. This is particularly helpful since 50 percent of Cornell students are without a car on campus.
“I created the program because I reflected back on my first year away at college,” Grice said. “This was the first time in my entire life when I was going to Mass without my family. I had sat with my family every Sunday up until that point — and in the same pew! It’s hard to just walk into a parish as a new college student and feel connected. The students feel a little lost and a little sad. I wanted the students to have a go-to spot to sit.”
Additional involvement varies by family, but some parishioners take students out for breakfast after Mass or even invite them to join them for the holidays if the students are unable to go home to celebrate. Some parish families send birthday cards to students on their special day, attend students’ extracurricular activities, or act as a “parent” in case of something like a flat tire or a trip to the emergency room.
The “adopt a student” program has been offered for approximately the past decade and a half and has benefited students each year. In the past, 10 to 15 students have been matched up with a parish family. Currently, there are five pairings. Not all of the “adopted” students and families are matched up in a formal manner. Some of the relationships come about more organically.
Such was the case for Blake and Sarah Covington last year when they adopted Cornell students Clara Magallanes and Dominic Pancella. “We just really felt called to introduce ourselves and welcome them the moment we saw them at Mass their first Sunday at college,” recalled Sarah. “We figured they were good eggs if they walked from campus to church that first week. They are from out of state and away from family and such great kids that we wanted them to feel welcome and that they have a family away from home.”
Sarah said, “We haven’t always been the type to reach out to others and welcome strangers into our home, but getting to know these two has been such a blessing. We actually missed them over the summer and are glad they are back!”
Last year, the Covingtons picked their two students up for Mass each week. This year, with a new baby — their fifth child — and a very full van, they weren’t able to continue to offer the students rides. But they recently purchased a bigger van to accommodate their larger family size and hope to begin to pick up their adopted students for Mass once again.
Magallanes, who is a second-year student from Denver, Colorado, majoring in kinesiology and biology at Cornell, said her relationship with the Covingtons has meant a great deal to her. “At home, I go to church with my family. Just having someone to go to church with adds value to your experience. … Having the Covingtons to go with me, allowing me to go with them, has been impactful … ,” she said. “They’ve made me part of their family.”
In addition to going to Mass together, Magallanes said the family sometimes invites her over for dinner and has also helped her with other transportation needs, such as picking her up from the airport. “I can honestly say that I can count on them for anything,” she said.
“It’s always good to know that someone is there for you along the way,” she continued. “I appreciate families that are willing to do this for college students. I appreciate the Covington family for being my spiritual adoptive family.”
Along with the “adopt a student” program, St. John’s offers other opportunities for the Catholic students in the community. One initiative has been Friday night dinners in which a St. John’s parishioner opens up her home to the students in the Catholic student group once a month for a home cooked meal.
“They enjoy getting off campus, being in a family setting, petting the family dog and just kicking back,” Grice said of the students who participate. “They like being surrounded by like-minded students and feel like they can freely and openly talk about their faith.”
Grice has also organized retreats for the students and road trips as well as volunteer opportunities with Habitat for Humanity. She has provided the chance for students to pray the rosary together on campus and to have Mass offered there when a priest is available. Another initiative has included parishioners making Christmas cookies during the holiday season and inviting students to decorate them and take them back to their residence halls to enjoy.
And when any Cornell students have decided to go through the RCIA program to become Catholic, the parish has quickly rallied around them to show them support.
“We also make sure students are aware of what is happening at St. John’s,” Grice said. “Anything from adoration, anointing of the sick, holy day Masses, pancake breakfasts, etc. This is their parish as well.”
Grice said St. John’s also benefits from the presence of Cornell’s students, since many of them volunteer to sing in the choir, teach faith formation, serve as eucharistic ministers, provide child care or contribute to the parish in other ways. “It’s a win-win,” she said.
Catholic students from Cornell College pose with parishioners of St. John the Baptist in Mt. Vernon in front of the home of one of the parishioners during an evening visit recently. Parish members invite students for dinner regularly. (Contributed photo)