CHRIST-CENTERED COMMUNITY. Male and female ‘households’ foster faith and fellowship. Courtesy of Franciscan University
Students were lonely. Father Michael Scanlan saw that right away. He also saw that they lacked spiritual direction. They needed more, both in the way of friendship and formation.
So, in December 1974, as the new president of the College of Steubenville (now Franciscan University), Father Scanlan went before the student body and made an announcement: Beginning the following year, every student would be required to join a “household” — a fraternal community designed to foster friendships and provide students with the spiritual support they needed.
According to Franciscan Father Gregory Plow, who as pastoral minister for residence life now oversees Franciscan’s households, that announcement changed both the culture and the course of Franciscan University, which celebrates the households’ 40th anniversary this year.
“Alongside academics and sacramental ministry, households have been the No. 1 culture-forming aspect of this university,” he said. “They’ve been the conduit by which students have become excited about their faith.”
That excitement, however, wasn’t immediate.
In 1975, when households began, Father Scanlan hired Theresa DiPiero, a recent graduate, to coordinate the endeavor. Although most students gladly cooperated, many did not.
“If you tell any group of college students that something is mandatory,” DiPiero explained, “you’re going to be met with resistance.”
To mitigate the resistance, DiPiero and Father Scanlan initially kept the definition of “household” loose. Athletic teams and Greek organizations could qualify as “households,” and their required weekly meetings could be as simple as dinner together in the cafeteria. There also was no mandatory faith component, although that was strongly suggested.
By the early 1980s, however, households took on a more definite form, the form they still take today.
No longer compulsory, students freely choose to associate with like-minded students who dedicate themselves to a particular charism (i.e., evangelization, pro-life work or spiritual childhood). They put that charism down on paper — called the household covenant — and put themselves under the patronage of a saint (or saints) who embodies the charism. For example, one female household, “Warriors of the Word,” claim St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel as patrons.
All households are single sex, and their members make commitments to biannual retreats, weekly meetings, Saturday “Lord’s Day Suppers” and regular service projects.
With more than two-thirds of graduating students currently belonging to households (and approximately 50 households on campus), those service projects add up.
“Our households do over 5,000 hours of community service per year,” said Father Plow.
This past year, household service projects included feeding the homeless, praying outside an abortion clinic, visiting the sick and the elderly, working with underprivileged youth, assisting in area clean-up efforts, and what the students call the “Red Light Ministry.”
Brian Tullier, a senior from Baton Rouge, La., and member of the “Fishers of Men” household, has participated in the Red Light Ministry for several years. Along with his household brothers, he spends Friday nights standing outside of a local strip club, praying for both the women who work there and the club’s patrons.
“It has taught me what it means to be a Christian man,” Tullier said of his time praying with his household. “You’re forced to go outside your comfort zone and practice both courage and humility at the same time.”
That type of “peer evangelization,” noted Father Plow, is key to households’ effectiveness, both in individual students’ lives and on the campus culture as a whole.
“When freshmen meet upperclassmen who are excited about their faith, it has a totally different effect,” he explained. “They own it more. The same holds true for the upperclassmen doing the evangelizing: ‘He who teaches learns twice.’”
When they’re not praying, evangelizing or serving the poor, Franciscan’s household members are having fun. They sponsor dances and coffeehouses, host movie nights and play sports.
“We’re like sisters,” said Jessica Schissel, a senior from Rice Lake, Wis., who belongs to the Rosa Mystica household. “We laugh together, pray together and talk together about anything sisters would talk about, from growing in holiness to boy problems.”
“It isn’t a convenience to have these people in my life,” she added. “It’s not about having someone to hang out with so I’m not alone. My sisters are there for a purpose: to help me become holier. We really love each other, and we really want the best for each other.”
Importantly, that love doesn’t end when college does.
“I’ve had groups come back for reunions after 25 years,” said Father Plow. “Household members help each other find work, find housing — even raise their families.”
That ongoing bond was evident last year, when one alumnus, 34-year-old Paul Coakley, passed away from an aggressive form of cancer, leaving behind pregnant wife Annie, three small children and a half-built house. Immediately, his household, “Brothers of the Eternal Song,” rallied around the family.
With the help of other university households, they raised the money to finish and furnish the house, cover medical expenses and provide ongoing support for Annie and the children. Many also drove to the family’s home in Tennessee to work on the house themselves.
“Because of the brotherhood that was formed through household life, we have a sense that Annie is like our own, his kids are like our own, and we should take care of them like they’re our own,” said Paul’s household brother Jacob Welp, who helped with the fundraising efforts.
“Father Scanlan had many things in mind when he created households,” he concluded. “It started with building brotherhood and sisterhood for 18- to 22-year-olds. But it has become so much more.
“It gives lifelong friends, bridesmaids or groomsmen, godfathers and godmothers to your children, a whole safety net, so if something unforeseen happens, we know our family will be taken care of. It allows you to experience a brotherhood and sisterhood on this side of our last breath that foretells of what’s to come.”
Emily Stimpson writes from
Father Gregory Plow and Regina Doman recently co-authored a history of Franciscan University’s households: No Longer Strangers. It will be available through Franciscan’s bookstore in February.