‘What Did You Do on Spring Break?’
Many Catholic students serve the Church through a variety of mission trips.
While most college students spend their spring breaks soaking up sunlight on a beach, shredding snow on a mountain or resting at home, hundreds of Catholic students across the country have been making unique journeys of their own.
Among a dozen students and staff interviewed by the Register from different American Catholic universities, several were part of a group of 300 from Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, that traveled to 13 cities across North and Central America in March, bringing the love of Christ to the world. Sites for Franciscan students ranged from Arizona to Nicaragua and several countries in between.
The goal of the mission trips, according to Franciscan students and staff, was to see Christ in the people they encountered.
But just weeks after completing their missions, many testified that, by spreading Christ’s love to others, the blessings were powerful.
Sharing Faith and Hope
C.J. Irvin, 21, is a junior business-management major at Franciscan. A three-time participant in the school’s annual mission trip, Irvin led a group of 20 students, staff and clergy to New York City to serve in soup kitchens, homeless shelters and assist with the city’s different religious orders.
Though their trip was based in the Bronx, Irvin said his group visited four of New York’s five boroughs, spending days with groups like the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Missionaries of Charity, Heart’s Home and Little Sisters of the Poor.
“A lot of stuff in the inner city: house visits, painting, leading youth groups and helping at nursing homes,” Irvin explained.
Meeting missionaries, learning about religious vocations and contributing to restoration projects was fulfilling, Irvin said. But the most rewarding moments of the week came in conversations with his fellow students and his group’s collective evangelization of New Yorkers on the city’s subway.
“The best feeling was looking back at my teammates in the subway — almost all of them had been in some kind of conversation with other people,” Irvin explained. “And their faces were just glowing. Everyone was just laughing and talking with each other. It was fantastic, being able to witness that joy that those little conversations started.”
Lydia Lopez, 19, a freshman at Gonzaga University, helped reintroduce formerly incarcerated women into a life outside of prison. Working in New York City, Lopez’s group of 10 taught former prisoners the basics of job interviewing, caring for children and communal responsibility.
“A lot of times these women had been in prison for several years, and their children were born in prison,” Lopez explained. “So there were a lot of things we could help them with in acclimating to today’s world.”
Working with Sister of St. Joseph Tesa Fitzgerald and the Hour Children organization, Lopez said her program’s focus on simplicity humbled her to appreciate both what the women had been through and the many blessings in her own life.
“I think many of us were fearful of staying in the same residence as ex-convicts,” Lopez said. “But after meeting and talking with them, you realize we’re all just people.”
“A lot of these women grew up in adverse circumstances and weren’t given a start in life,” she added. “Sister Tesa wants to give them that start — it’s not their second chance; it’s their first.”
Carlos Tobon, 28, took part in Francican’s newest mission to Douglas, Ariz., a city on the U.S.-Mexico border. A first-year graduate student studying theology, Tobon was one of about 100 Franciscan students who participated in the school’s spring-break mission trip for the first time.
Tobon’s group, also of 20 students, staff and clergy, worked exclusively at Loretto Catholic School — a Douglas elementary school operated by the Carmelite Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart. Roughly half of Loretto’s students legally cross the border each day for the chance at an American-Catholic education.
In Douglas, Franciscan students ran retreats for middle-school students in anticipation for their confirmation and a mini retreat for elementary students preparing for first Communion. The experience was life changing, Tobon said and, perhaps most importantly, a huge step forward for a community in need of spiritual growth.
“I’m just excited as to how our impact will help the students and teachers in the long run,” Tobon said. “One of our main goals was to give them hope. We might just be there for one week each year, but we trust the Holy Spirit was using us to instill joy in their hearts.”
Ron McNamara, Franciscan’s coordinator of student leadership development, directed Franciscan’s trip to Douglas and also oversees the school’s other spring-break missions. Student leaders for the trips are selected nearly a year in advance, McNamara said, and meet up to four times per week in the months leading up to the missions.
“A lot of what we did was catechetical in nature, so students had to be really well prepared,” McNamara said. “It was quite an amazing sacrifice from everyone involved.”
Allison Kelly, 21, a senior chemistry major, was one of those leaders. A student director for Franciscan’s mission to Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Kelly said finding students for service programs in cold, remote areas was one of the leadership’s group greatest challenges.
“It’s a lot of work on our part, but one thing we talked about was finding joy in suffering,” Kelly said. “It was a really powerful experience for both students and the community we work with.”
But once students commit themselves, the joy received from their sacrifice almost always outweighs their collective efforts, Kelly said.
“It’s so rewarding to offer yourself as a gift to someone else, to be able to sacrifice your time and rest and build up the body of the Church,” she said. “And that repays you tenfold for the time and work you’re putting into it. It’s worth it, because, in the end, you know you were able to change people’s lives.”
Caroline Johnson, 22, a senior at The Catholic University of America, served at Hogar Manos Abiertas (Open Hands Home), a hospital in Alajuela, Costa Rica, providing medical care and physical therapy for disabled children and adults.
Working alongside the Franciscan nuns who run the hospital, Johnson provided physical therapy for patients with cerebral palsy and other movement disorders.
“It was an incredible, faith-filled week,” Johnson said. “I learned to see God in anyone and everyone I worked with. They were some of the most beautifully hearted people I’ve ever met.”
CUA students in Alajuela also painted classrooms at local elementary schools, helped girls at local boarding schools and prayed at a homeless shelter for men battling addictions, said program director Brother Jim Moore, who founded FrancisCorps in Alajuela.
A total of 110 CUA students participated in spring-break mission trips, ranging from the campus in Washington to Alajuela and even Jamaica.
After expressing pride for his students, Brother Jim said the school plans to expand its spring-break missions next year for the programs’ growing demand.
“These students are great examples of what it means to be Catholic,” he said, “preaching not just with their words, but with their actions.”
Register correspondent Chris Kudialis writes from Las Vegas.
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- chris kudialis