Donnelly College Renews Vision of Students ‘Fully Alive’ to God’s Glory
The Kansas City, Kansas, school’s beginning-of-the-year traditions are deeply rooted in the rich Benedictine tradition from which it was born.
The Saturday morning before the start of the school year found many of Donnelly College’s instructors and first-year students on campus bright and early for the annual “Day of Service.” This special event not only emphasizes the college’s commitment to community, one of this Kansas City, Kansas, college’s key values, but also encourages students to begin the school year with an eye toward noticing and loving one’s neighbor.
After a brief charge from Donnelly’s president, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, in which he compared the service the students would be doing to those who heed Jesus’ call to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty in Matthew 25:31-46, students and faculty split into groups to serve in various ways across the Kansas City area.
Some students tended to the local community garden, as others picked up trash in the neighborhood around the college; one group helped at a nearby equine therapy center; a few groups sorted clothes at local TurnStyles thrift stores operated by Catholic Charities; and another group went to Catholic Charities’ main distribution center to sort food donations.
For two hours, each group was immersed in hands-on tasks that would benefit the community. As Kendra Dudasko, outreach coordinator of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, told students at the main distribution center, Catholic Charities’ mission is “putting love into action,” which echoes Donnelly’s own mission of “continu[ing] the mission of Jesus Christ in our time by making the love of God tangible in our world.” In this particular assignment, students were invited into the process of giving food to the hungry by organizing food into boxes, which would then be distributed to local food pantries. For all the groups, the day wrapped up with lunch and time for reflection on the day.
In terms of how their service impacted others, students noted the camaraderie it promoted between group members, as well as the positive effect their efforts had on the places they served and the wider community. Through their service, students not only learned a deeper care for the community around Donnelly, but also gained an appreciation for work and working with others. As one student shared in a survey, “hard work is good work.” Such community building allowed first-year students to enter their first week of school knowing some of their professors and fellow students.
Beginning With Prayer
Donnelly also takes part in another academic tradition: Convocation launches the academic year and consecrates it to God. Students, alongside faculty and staff in full regalia, process five blocks to the Cathedral of St. Peter to join together for a Mass of the Holy Spirit. During the Mass, the students take a matriculation oath to “respect and nurture my God-given personal dignity and the dignity of others; to do my best to realize the full potential of my unique personal gifts and abilities and to lead, serve, and make the world a better place.” Faculty and staff pledge to honor the mission of the college by “encourag[ing] the intellectual, personal and professional growth of our students.”
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, who celebrated this Mass on Aug. 25, shared in his homily some of his own story. Noting that he was “impressed by how many [Donnelly] students are the first in their family to go to college” — 71% of the graduating class in May 2022 were first-generation college students — he shared the story of his own mother’s journey as a first-generation college student. After the tragic death of her husband, she returned to college in her 30s for a degree in education. “She believed God could bring good out of this tragedy,” he shared.
The archbishop recommended that students take advantage of Donnelly’s on-campus chapel, reminding them, “The Creator of the cosmos desires to have a friendship with us. … This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Educating the Whole Person
Donnelly’s beginning-of-the-year traditions are deeply rooted in the Benedictine tradition from which it was born. In 1949, the Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica and Bishop George Donnelly established a college dedicated to serving those who might not otherwise get the opportunity to attend college.
The beauty of the Benedictine tradition is that it is an embodied education — one that involves not only the mind, but the body and spirit of the person — something that Margarita Mooney, in her introduction to the book A Benedictine Education: The Mission of St. Benedict and The Benedictine Schools, calls “poetic.” Elaborating on St. John Henry Newman’s declaration that the Benedictine charism is marked by poetry, Mooney says:
“The importance of the Benedictine charism is evident in its power to elevate the being mode of life and shut down (or at least slow) the analytical mode of life aimed at investigating means and ends, predicting outcomes, or examining premises and conclusions. Not educating the inner core of our soul from which all other capacities emanate — including our reason — leads (and has led) to dissonance, dispersion, and the fragmentation that results from a lack of direction for our drives, passions and instincts.”
This does not mean that the intellectual virtues (i.e., understanding, wisdom, science, art and prudence) are not part of a Benedictine education. Quite the contrary: It means taking a more embodied approach to seeking knowledge. Instead of learning only to pass a test or achieve a degree, students learn to ask the bigger questions — as Donnelly president Msgr. Swetland puts it, “to ask who we are and why we are.”
Entering into the “being mode” of life is to dwell in wonder, to discover that the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know, and to understand that this is a supremely hopeful thing. To become educated, Mooney suggests, is in a certain sense to become more childlike — to become open to other ways of learning besides sitting at a desk and taking notes. And this holistic mode of learning is encompassed in Donnelly’s value of excellence, which involves students “[becoming] the best version of themselves in their vocation, personal life, civic engagement and faith pursuit” — that is, the next saints of the 21st century.
In promoting this embodied, holistic education, Donnelly faculty excel. For example, service learning is incorporated into curriculum across classes. The “Environmental Ethics” class continues to care for the community garden as they learn about being good stewards of the earth. The “First-Year Experience” course — required for all first-year students — will involve students returning to various Catholic Charities sites this semester. Gretchen Meinhardt, director of humanities and associate professor, leads her students in a local literacy project in which students read with and give books to a neighboring grade school.
Of this hands-on educational approach, Meinhardt shared, “Service learning is a wonderful experiential learning opportunity for students in which they can apply their learning in meaningful ways. They are not just consumers of education, but young people with so much to offer their communities. Service learning is a practical way for students to live out the pledge they make at Convocation: ‘To lead, serve, and make the world a better place.’”
Whether examining pondwater specimens with assistant professor of biology Joe Multhauf, taking a tour of the chapel with director of mission and theology professor Aaron Williams, or learning dancing from the director of academic support, Isaac Falcon-Cruz, during Salsa Club, students are nourished not only mentally, but personally. The poeticism of the Benedictine tradition invites students to respond to their education — and to the world around them — with their whole beings.
As the great doctor of the Church St. Irenaeus observed, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” In the Benedictine tradition that undergirds Donnelly’s mission and vision, one finds an education that fosters just that.
Poet and writer Lindsey Weishar holds an MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She writes for a variety of outlets, including Verily magazine. Her column, “My Vocation is Love,” appears in The Catholic Post, the newspaper of her home Diocese of Peoria, Illinois.
Editor’s Note: She is the also the executive assistant to the president of Donnelly College.