Cajun Catholics Find Home at University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Active Catholic center encourages faith and prompts vocations: May 6 issue feature.
Like gumbo, Catholic campus ministry gets served six ways to Sunday, depending on who’s doing the cooking and what goes into the pot.
At the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the recipe infuses two rich traditions — Catholicism and the culture of southwest Louisiana. Daily Mass, Eucharistic adoration, spiritual direction and devotionals get mixed with crawfish boils, po’ boy fundraisers and Cajun dancing.
And, unlike what often happens at secular universities, the mission of forming UL Lafayette Catholic students — affectionately known as “Ragin’ Cajun Catholics” — is made easier by a campus that helps with the cooking.
“It’s a Catholic culture we live in,” said Father Bryce Sibley, pastor of Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center at UL Lafayette. “There’s not a place like this in the nation.”
The area is 65% Catholic, Father Sibley said, as is the university’s 17,000-strong student body. The university’s symbol is the fleur de lis, which is a symbol of, among other things, the Blessed Virgin Mary. The president is a Catholic whose investiture was preceded by a prayer service with a priest-led opening prayer and Scripture readings. Father Sibley writes a religion column for the school newspaper and regularly celebrates Mass for the university’s football team.
The long-standing traditions here include Catholic formation, taking place since 1923, when a Newman Club was established at what was then the Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute. Today, Catholic campus ministry at UL Lafayette offers an array of programs, vibrant evangelical outreach and bountiful conversions and vocations.
“If you go to Our Lady of Wisdom and really throw yourself into studies, different classes, liturgies, you’re going to come away with a good, solid Catholic formation that can last you for the rest of your life,” Father Sibley said. “It’s about forming the next generation of Catholics, of leaders.”
Numerous programs offer substantive opportunities for faith formation.
Wednesday nights feature “The Crux,” consisting of prayer, worship and adoration. On Fridays, Father Sibley and the Shreveport, La.-based Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows provide spiritual direction. On Sundays, it’s standing room only in the 650-seat chapel during the 6pm student Mass (daily noon Mass attracts between 100 and 125 students, faculty and parishioners).
There are retreats, nationally renowned guest speakers, vocational-discernment groups, book studies, music ministry, daily confession, First Friday adoration and prayer groups, too. Focus — the Fellowship of Catholic University Students — has been on campus since last fall, and now has seven missionaries. They help direct 34 student leaders and 180 students in about two dozen Bible studies. Off-campus activities include feeding the poor, visits to the elderly, pro-life events, mission trips and high-school recruitment.
A Newman lecture series has been resurrected, too. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Father Sibley said, UL Lafayette’s Newman Club was the biggest in the nation, with more than 800 members who met regularly. In November, the series will offer a symposium on the work of Flannery O’Connor, who was one of the speakers back then.
Much of the activity happens in a Catholic Student Center, the site of the popular Kurzweg Café, which is open from 7am to 11pm.
Jessica Courville, a senior from nearby Acadiana, La., said she appreciates how a traditional Catholic faith and lifestyle is encouraged through modern means. And since most students can be found online, that’s where they’re met.
“For example, Father Sibley uses Facebook to keep us updated with concerns of the Catholic faith, such as the recent health-care mandate,” Courville said. “He also posts his Sunday homily and links to other things we should be interested in as Catholics.”
There’s plenty of evangelization happening face-to-face, too.
“We need to get on the campus and witness,” Father Sibley said.
Kyle White, a junior from Lafayette and president of the university’s Newman Club, said Focus has helped him develop his prayer life and discipleship skills.
“This semester, I have committed myself to doing whatever I can to lead others to Christ, especially here on my campus,” White said. “I am honored to be a part of the mission of the New Evangelization.”
Such students have a great model in Father Sibley, who every Wednesday sets up a table and chair at the busiest spot on campus for “Ask a Priest a Question” sessions. He hands out brochures and prayer cards and answers questions about faith and Catholicism.
“I’ve talked to Buddhists, atheists; nice people, snarly people,” Father Sibley said. “It’s about letting people know there’s a Catholic presence on campus, even if they don’t ask me a question.”
But when they do, he said, “Students want the truth. They don’t want things sugarcoated.”
The truth is attracting plenty of converts and vocations, too.
The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults is held every Thursday and helps the Our Lady of Wisdom community welcome five to 10 new Catholics each year. Courville is among the converts. Her interest in the faith was fostered at UL Lafayette, and she joined the RCIA program in January 2011, then started to attend Mass regularly. This Easter she was baptized, confirmed and received first Eucharist.
“The RCIA process and staff at Our Lady of Wisdom have radically changed my life,” Courville said. She specifically mentioned the work of Father Sibley and RCIA coordinator Juan Carlos Pagan.
“They both have a passionate desire to reach out to college students and instill in us what is really important in this life — the salvation of our souls and our eternal destiny,” she said.
As for vocations, UL Lafayette has a strong marriage-preparation program. Engaged couples meet with a marriage-ministry coordinator and are mentored for six weeks by married parish couples. This year, Father Sibley said, 15 student couples will be married in the church.
Religious vocations, meanwhile, are flourishing in their own right.
The parish has five seminarians, with two more applying. Two other students are applying for the diocese’s seminary from other parishes, a third is applying in another diocese, and a fourth is applying with the Norbertines. That could make 11 seminarians.
Among them is Andre Metrejean, an alumnus and former Catholic Student Center participant. He’s a third-year theology student at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. Metrejean was raised Catholic in a family that includes several priests and a bishop.
By college, though, Metrejean “slowly crept away from God in some ways,” he admitted. He arrived at UL Lafayette and joined a fraternity rife with “nihilism, relativism, materialism.”
“I knew something was wrong with their worldview,” Metrejean said. “I could not articulate it, though.”
One day he decided to attend an event at the Catholic Student Center. That led to conversations with others, a few weekday Masses and stops at Kurzweg Café.
Eventually, he developed relationships with “some really on-fire Catholics,” and then became part of the student leadership team.
“Three years later I entered the seminary,” he said.
No surprise, he’s from Lafayette.
Just more home cookin’ at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center.
Anthony Flott writes from
and has written about several Catholic campus ministries
at secular universities.
Go to NCRegister.com
and search ‘Campus Ministry.’