Evangelizing Secular Campuses: St. Paul’s Outreach Reaches Students in Droves — and Has Been Doing So for Almost 40 Years

SPO preceded a similar college-evangelization effort, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students.

Giovanna Pessa, chapter leader for Saint Paul’s Outreach at Rutgers University, prays with a retreat small group.
Giovanna Pessa, chapter leader for Saint Paul’s Outreach at Rutgers University, prays with a retreat small group. (photo: Courtesy of Giovanna Pessa)

Gavin Gunkel remembers clearly the first time he met members of St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO). 

He was a senior at Texas State University and feeling disillusioned with his life as vice president of a fraternity. 

“I was done with the party lifestyle and was trying to get back into the faith. I had been in a youth group as a kid, but then fell away from the Church my senior year of high school,” explained Gunkel.

One day, he walked into a chapel on campus and sat down alone. 

“I prayed, ‘God, I need to find new dudes to hang out with,’” he recalled to the Register.

When Gunkel walked outside, he found himself — literally — in the middle of an ultimate frisbee game. A group of guys invited him to join in. After that day, Gunkel was invited to play with the group several more times. Then, one of the men invited Gunkel to an SPO men’s group.

“Around this time, I lost my grandpa. The guys in my frat tried to be there for me by saying that I needed to ‘drink it off.’ But the guys at SPO were there for me as spiritual brothers. One of them actually helped me write the speech I gave at my grandpa’s funeral,” recalled Gunkel, who currently serves as an SPO campus missionary and will be an SPO chapter leader at The Ohio State University next year.


The Origins of SPO

SPO is a national organization dedicated to bringing Catholic missionaries to university campuses. It was based on a successful program for high-school ministry in St. Paul, Minnesota, called St. Paul’s CYC (Catholic Youth Center).

Gordon “Gordy” DeMarais, the founder of SPO, traces the origins of his group to his experiences there.

“I fell away from the faith as a teenager,” said DeMarais. “My dad died 50 years ago and left my mom, at 36, a widow with seven kids from the ages of 15 down to 3. I was the oldest, and that event messed me up for a while.”

The summer after high school, DeMarais felt completely discouraged and wondered about the purpose and meaning of life. He began to hang out with a friend whose parents had recently gotten involved with a prayer group.

“As I was talking about what I was experiencing, my friend began to talk about the Lord. I had never heard a friend talk about the Lord. There was something there that resonated with me. His parents then encouraged us to go to this youth center called St. Paul’s CYC. We were in and out of that for nine months. Then I went to a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar,” he said.

This seminar changed DeMarais’ life.

“I experienced a coming back to the faith that was rooted in an experience of God’s love for me. I can’t put it any other way; 12 years of Catholic education and I had never heard that God loved me,” he said, “that God was a personal God and he desired to have a relationship with me. This unlocked purpose and meaning in my life.”

DeMarais went on to work as a high-school youth minister after college, traveling nationally with the group known as NET ministries (National Evangelization Teams).  

From that experience, DeMarais formed SPO in 1985 as a national organization of Catholic college missionaries. After working for years in high-school ministry, DeMarais and his team realized that college kids needed deeper conversion and formation on campus. SPO preceded a similar college-evangelization effort, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS).


Relational Evangelization

SPO’s approach to college ministry is based on something they call “relational evangelization.”

“I took my experience of someone not going to church. If someone wanted to reach me, they had to go outside of church,” said DeMarais. “Relational evangelization is at the heart of what we do in SPO. People do not just come and ask, ‘Can I come in?’ You have to go and meet them in the ordinary circumstances of life. That became a part of our approach.”

After DeMarais came back to the Catholic faith, what he found was that he had to go back into his college dorm and try to live his faith there.

“And it was really hard. I realized that I needed support and community if I was going to live my faith life well. I also needed more formation. I needed to learn how to pray and how to relate in a godly way to other people, how to live the sexual issues, how to discern vocation. Those ingredients became how SPO approached campus life,” he said.

The first place where SPO operated was on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“We experienced all kinds of success right away. We led prayer gatherings of 150 people in the first year. We established ‘households;’ these are houses near the university where students live with our missionary staff and share a common way of life,” said DeMarais.

SPO households, for women and men respectively, become centers for evangelization and mission. Missionaries invite people over for dinners, parties and faith-forming events.

“Students see young people filled with joy, in authentic relationships with one another. This becomes a doorway into faith. You start with human relationships and find that the source of authentic human relationship is grounded in relationship with God. This is so important, especially today when kids are so lonely. Mother Teresa said the greatest evil in the West is loneliness, that feeling of not being loved,” said DeMarais.

“Our whole thrust is to live a deep relationship with God and each other, and we do this in part by forming households on university campuses, which is a community of students and missionaries from all over the campus who are alive in their Catholic faith,” said David Fischer, president of SPO. “It’s critical that students not only learn about their faith, but that they have a community of peers to practice what they have been inspired by the Gospels to live out, and we do this powerfully through our household communities. The SPO household program has been transforming lives and campuses for almost 40 years.”

“The world is hungry for authentic relationships. Most college students feel isolated, lonely and empty. SPO sends its missionaries into the university landscape, to invite college students into a Catholic community filled with joy and authentic friendship,” he said, “an invitation that has transformed tens of thousands of lives across the country.”

SPO established an evangelistic process based on four pillars: reach, call, form and send.

“The ‘reach’ is like the cold calls in sales. We train our missionaries to get outside of themselves. For example, at Seton Hall University, there might be a table in the middle of campus with free coffee. You meet SPO missionaries, and they invite you for dinner. Or you meet guys in the weight room, in intramural sports, in class, playing volleyball. This is all part of the ‘reach,’” said DeMarais.

SPO missionaries are generally a few years older than college students. They are invited as seniors in college to consider a two-year commitment after graduation.

SPO’s mission training takes place every summer at the University of St. Thomas, with more than 200 missionaries taking part every year. They live in several households both on and off campus, to get a sense of what it will be like to lead a household.

“We have 50 households across the country at 16 different chapters,” said Mark Cantine, senior donor engagement officer for SPO. “Each chapter has a full-time missionary staff. Our regions are made up of multiple chapters, and many times chapters can impact more than one campus. For example, our chapter at Northeastern University serves seven other local colleges in the immediate Boston community. We are impacting 54 campuses across the country.”

Rutgers SPO
College students pray together at Rutgers University.(Photo: Courtesy of Giovanna Pessa)

Lasting Impact

Over the last year, SPO believes that it has impacted the lives of more than 34,000 students. More than 300 priests and religious are former SPO missionaries and countless marriages and children have come out of the program.

“I got involved with SPO my sophomore year in college, when I went to SPO’s ‘Fan Into Flame’ retreat,” said Alexa Noseworthy, currently a senior at Seton Hall University. “I was a Christian before the retreat, but this retreat made me realize the beauty of the Catholic Church. ‘Fan into Flame’ focuses on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Prior to this, I had considered myself a nondenominational Christian. ‘Fan into Flame’ made me convert to Catholicism.”

Noseworthy said she also loves “the priests associated with them; they truly care about shepherding their children well.”

“Several of the early SPO missionaries are now impacting the Church in a significant way as rectors of seminaries and superiors of different religious orders. One is even a bishop. There are also several former SPO missionaries who have begun an order of nuns called the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus,” said DeMarais. “There are over 1,000 students committed to weekly formation and small-group participants right now through SPO.”

Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, is the aforementioned bishop. He is currently overseeing the National Eucharistic Revival. 

Bishop Andrew Cozzens shared about the impact of SPO, for him personally and on campus, online

“I found my time as an SPO missionary to be some of the most joyful months of my life. I served for a year, doing Bible studies and leading athletic events, leading prayer meetings and doing teachings. And it was a great experience for me, to be able to learn the value of sharing my faith directly with another person.”

“I learned how to pray. I learned about the value of the sacraments. I lived with other men who were also going to confession, going to daily Mass, and these things had a profound impact on me,” he continued. “What I found when I was working with SPO on campus was that, really, SPO taught me the heart of an evangelist. It gave me the courage to begin to reach out to other students on campus and begin to make friends for Christ.”

“The men and women of St. Paul’s Outreach are the first responders on the front lines of the Church’s missions on college campuses,” he added. “They are going where you and I can’t go, reaching college students far from God and searching for the truth.”

Giovanna Pessa is in her fifth year as an SPO missionary, currently working at Rutgers University.

“I have had the beautiful opportunity to see the ebb and flow of community. In 2020, COVID closed everything down. In the past two years, we have been rebuilding. There is an openness and hunger now,” said Pessa. “I see students discerning the Lord’s will for their lives, which manifests itself in a greater openness to applying to live in one of our SPO households or applying to full-time mission with SPO.” 

Rutgers has one women’s household and one men’s household. Every Wednesday, Rutger’s SPO has a table on campus where they ask students thought-provoking questions to engage them in conversations.

Ohio State has one of the biggest SPO communities in the U.S.

SPO at Ohio State
SPO at Ohio State(Photo: Courtesy photo)

“We are about to open our fourth men’s household, and we have 130 men coming to our men’s nights. We have 18 small group meetings every week. These are guys who are hungry for a relationship with our Lord, and hungry to bring the Lord to others,” said Gunkel.

When Gunkel left his fraternity to become a missionary, he recalled that everyone in the frat was against his decision.

“They rejected me for leaving to become a missionary,” he said. “But when real life hits you and maturity hits you, things change. Ten of my old frat friends have talked to me since and have come to Jesus. The Lord can’t be outdone by a fraternity.”



Contact Mark Cantine: [email protected]