Though the pandemic initially reduced the number of participants, Immaculata’s campus ministry is now thriving again. About 65 core students engage in at least one weekly event, whether at Mass, community nights with dinner and a guest speaker, service projects, or simply studying and napping on the couches in the campus ministry “living room,” as the staff refer to it.

In fall 2021, as Immaculata relaxed its pandemic restrictions, the campus ministers worked “to build something for students to enjoy,” said Sister Laura Downing, IHM, director of campus ministry. And now, she reflected, “it’s just beautiful to see the way they’ve taken root here.”

Sister Laura and her team—Amanda Bielat, assistant director of campus ministry, and two members of the Redemptorist Congregation, Father Royce Thomas, CSsR, and Brother Ken Stigner, CSsR—have expanded Immaculata’s campus ministry programs this year and rooted them in Alphonsian-IHM spirituality, with support from a $29,709 grant from the Ambassador’s Fund for Catholic Education.

This emphasis on Alphonsian tradition better reflects Immaculata’s spiritual heritage because Father Louis Florent Gillet, who established the congregation of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, was a Redemptorist priest, an order founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori.

St. Alphonsus wrote, “Paradise for God is the human heart,” and Sister Laura sees this as a foundation for her work. In her interactions with students, she notices some who struggle with anxiety and self-doubt. “This statement nicely contradicts that,” she said. “Your heart is paradise for God,” that is, you don’t have to worry that you’re not good enough.

With affirmation like this, students are taking ownership of campus ministry. Sister Laura formed a student leadership board and asked the group for input on a campus ministry mission statement she and Bielat drafted last spring. “What we have now definitely reflects what the students wanted,” Sister Laura said.

“Immaculata University’s Campus Ministry is a spiritual home for all students,” the statement reads. “Our community is rooted in the Catholic and IHM traditions and inspired by the life and charism of St. Alphonsus Liguori, Mother Theresa Maxis and Father Gillet. We grow in relationship with God, ourselves and others through service, prayer and fellowship.”

Students share in fellowship through the weekly community nights Sister Laura established last year, with pasta dinners and guest presentations on a variety of topics, some that are accessible for nonreligious students and others that are overtly Catholic.

“It seems to be a good way in for students,” Sister Laura said, noting that some of them are uncertain about religion or unsure of where they are in their faith journey. About 30 students regularly attend community night, with a few new faces each week.

“It’s really beautiful to see what God is doing right in our midst with these students.”

Sister Laura Downing, IHM

And the students show up for more than just a free meal. They engage with speakers by asking thoughtful questions. “They’re thinking very deeply about these topics and about their faith,” Bielat observed.

Last fall, a larger than usual group of students attended the community night when Philadelphia Archbishop Nelson Pérez was the guest speaker. He let the students direct their time together, inviting them to tell him what was important to them.

One student referred to young people as the future of the church, and Pérez replied, “You are the church currently, right now,” echoing Pope Francis’ remarks at a previous World Youth Day.

“It was nice to hear him say it,” Bielat reflected, “affirming that their voice matters. They matter.” Bielat sees them growing into their place in the church, “learning who God made them to be and then living fully into that.”

Sister Laura enjoys pointing out the good she sees in students and asking, “What do you want to do with that?” She has observed students with a variety of gifts—pastoral care, leadership, generosity and prayer. “They’re often touched that someone noticed that in them,” she said.

Students put their gifts to use through service projects, such as visiting retired IHM Sisters at Camilla Hall each week and helping to grow and harvest produce for the Chester County Food Bank. In January, students built homes in North Carolina with Habitat for Humanity, and over spring break, they will work on a farm run by a Catholic community in West Virginia.

“Service is about upholding and recognizing the inherent dignity and worth of the people that you’re serving,” said Bielat, who organizes the service trips. “It’s not placing ourselves above people, but with them, in solidarity.”

To encourage students to link service with their faith, student leader Theresa Arata ’24 helped Bielat develop reflection questions: “In what places, people and situations have you found God? What challenged you? What experiences are you grateful for?”

“It’s deeper than just doing something good,” Arata said. “It’s serving God through serving his people.” 

The students also served each other during Immaculata’s Kairos retreat last fall, with a series of talks and activities to help them grow in relationship with themselves, each other and God. Sister Laura and the campus ministry staff prepare the student leaders, and during the retreat they help the student peer leaders shine. All the talks are given by students, not the staff, she noted.

Arata spoke about the ups and downs she has experienced in her friendship with God. Sometimes she struggles, but she sees fruits of this relationship in the patience and peace she gains to help her manage the challenges and time commitments of being a nursing student. A few retreatants told her they appreciated her openness about her struggles in her relationship with God, and several expressed how loved they felt as they connected with each other.

“In community, you see students come alive a little bit and let their guard down,” Bielat said. “God is present in the laughter and the joy and in the tears as well.”

“It’s really beautiful to see what God is doing right in our midst with these students,” reflected Sister Laura. “We get to see students flourish.”