Published December 9, 2009
GB: I understand campus chaplains have no way of knowing the religious affiliation of students. How do you approach the challenge as Catholic campus minister at Georgia Southern?
Helen Almeter: This year we gathered most of the Catholic students’ contact information by asking students after all the Masses (for the first three weeks) to fill out a registration card and indicate how they want to get involved. We also set up a table on campus, advertising the Catholic Eagles group. We set up a Catholic Eagles Facebook group for students to join. Between the e-mails, Facebook, and flyers (with monthly events that we post in the dorms and on campus), we can notify a large number of students about our Catholic student group. It would be helpful if parents notified us if a son/daughter were here simply because it’s one more way to get in touch with students to let them know that they have Catholic support at Georgia Southern University. I would encourage parents to help their son/daughter find the local Catholic church when they arrive on campus. We are in the midst of creating a Catholic Eagles Web site. This Web site will have an electronic registration option.
GB: Do you have a Catholic Center on the Georgia Southern campus? If not, where is Mass celebrated?
Helen Almeter: We do not have a Catholic Center on the GSU campus. Our campus ministry operates out of St. Matthew Catholic Church, which is literally across from campus. The campus ministry office is above the church hall. While we don’t have a space on campus, I try to spend three-five hours a week in the Russell Student Union so I can be more available to the students. I usually send an e-mail or a Facebook message to the students so they know where I am. I encourage them to stop by for a chat, talk about life, and to bring their questions about the Church. If I don’t know the answer then I will research it for them and get back to them later.
GB: What are you doing to try and build community. I see you have quarterly newsletters. Is this in print, online or both?
Helen Almeter: Many students, when they move away from home for the first time, find it difficult to get plugged into a new community. It takes a lot of energy to meet new people and find someone that you connect with. Unfortunately, some students are too shy to introduce themselves while others, who are already connected, don’t take a moment to meet someone new. The awkwardness this creates wouldn’t be so bad if both parties went outside their comfort zone a little. With campus ministry we hope to help motivate the students in meeting each other by hosting weekly events and encouraging student leaders to take an active role helping other members meet.
The newsletters are an attempt to create a greater awareness that there is an active Catholic group at Georgia Southern. This is the first year that we are sending them out and we hope that it encourages present and future students to get more involved in the community as well as keeps families in the loop. I have a list of subscribers that receive it via e-mail unless they prefer a printed copy. This same newsletter is also e-mailed to all the students whose e-mail info I have. Each newsletter will describe some of the events we have going on as well as feature a story by a student describing their experience with the Catholic Eagles group.
GB: Please provide a little biographical information about yourself.
Helen Almeter: I count myself blessed to have been raised by Catholic parents who took particular care of our family’s spiritual well-being as much as they provided for us with the physical necessities. The faith was so important to me that by the time I went to college I choose to attend a good Catholic one: Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. There my knowledge and love for faith grew and was fostered especially through daily Mass. However, I didn’t come to a true understanding of the person of Jesus Christ until my senior year when I realized that, while I knew a lot about my faith, I was not living out my life as a disciple of Christ truly should – giving my all instead of getting by with just the bare minimum. Through this deeper conversion, God placed a desire on my heart to share His love and the fullness of the truth in the Catholic Church with others and particularly with college students. I knew that if it took me that long to realize what I needed, how difficult it must be to live it out on a campus where there is less support in living out the Christian life. A year after my undergrad, I applied to be a missionary with FOCUS because not only does it equip the missionaries to help college students, but the leadership program empowers the students to share Christ with all those they come in contact with. The training and formation that FOCUS has given me in the last three years has prepared me well for the position as campus minister at Georgia Southern.
GB: Give us a flavor of how the Georgia Southern Catholic community gathers and interacts.
Helen Almeter: We try to have a wide range of activities, both social and faith forming. Our weekly activities are: Sunday 6 p.m. University Mass where students participate by serving, being extraordinary ministers, lectors, and also provide the music. Mondays, we pray the rosary for the GSU and Statesboro communities. Tuesday nights are our Catholic Eagles night. We rotate between a Bible study or faith forming talk and a social event. Social events we’ve had are mini-golf, volleyball and pizza, and a bonfire with s’mores. Wednesdays is Parish Night for St. Matthew’s. There is 5:30 p.m. Mass followed by a covered dish dinner and talk. Campus ministry provides a couple of dishes for the GSU students so they can participate too. We reserve three big tables so the students can sit together and fellowship. Parish Night is a great way for the students to interact with the parishioners. Once a month we have Eucharistic adoration with confession available. Sometimes we have weekend events like kayaking and
pick-up Frisbee or volleyball games. During the months of October and November, campus ministry hosts a dinner for the students following the 6 p.m. University Masses. These are very popular with 60 plus students per meal. This year we would like to get a weekly Bible study going on campus.
GB: How many approximately gather for liturgies and for other gatherings? What is the Catholic population of the Georgia Southern campus?
Helen Almeter: About 120 students show up for the 6 p.m. University Mass. A few go to the earlier Masses. It’s difficult to tell how many come for sure since many students go home half their weekends. Numbers for the other gatherings vary, but on Tuesday nights there are usually at least 10 students. At the beginning of the year we hosted an ice cream social that drew 200 students. On Wednesday nights there are usually 15 plus students. The dinners after the University Mass usually draw 60 plus students. Campus ministry would like to increase the numbers all around. We strongly encourage the regular attendees to invite friends. We know from personal experience that advertising events can only do so much, but a personal invitation from a friend makes a huge difference. Extending an invitation to get involved is vital in getting students more involved.
Although we don’t know for certain, we have estimated that roughly between 5-10 percent of Georgia Southern students are Catholic. Out of a population of almost 19,000 students this makes the numbers somewhere around 1,200 Catholics. This means we are only reaching about 10 percent of them. God willing these numbers will increase so keep up the prayers and get the word out that there is an active ministry involved here.
GB: What is important about this age group and their faith life? What can parents do to help you and other campus ministers work with their young adults in building their Catholic faith?
Helen Almeter: College students are tomorrow’s leaders for our country and Church. College is an extremely influential time where decisions are being made that will affect the rest of students’ lives. We are all called to holiness—to be disciples of Christ. There are a lot of teachers, doctors, lawyers, and parents being formed who happen to be Catholic. What would our world look like if it was the other way around: Catholics who happen to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, and parents? Our faith is the one thing that cannot be compromised. In campus ministry we try to support our college students in living out their Catholic faith in an environment that is hostile to Christian living.
The best thing parents can do in helping their son/daughter and campus ministers (to help reach them) is to teach by example—to live out their faith well. Parents are the first and primary teachers. They have the responsibility of passing on their love and knowledge of Christ and His Church to their children. I know that my faith would have been empty had my parents not taken this seriously.
Once the children leave the nest for college, parents need to trust that God will take care of them. If parents did all they could to form their son/daughter well, then it will be ingrained in their hearts. Continue to encourage them in their faith and let them know that, no matter what happens, they will always be loved by you and be welcomed home. Before you take them to college, research where the local Catholic Church or Catholic Center is and visit it with them. This will give pastors and campus ministers a chance to meet them. After this, pray and trust!
Georgia Southern University
St. Matthew Church & Newman Center
221 John Paul Ave.
(912) 681-6726, ext. 204
Daily Mass: 12:10 p.m. except Wednesday when Mass is at 5:30 p.m.
Weekends: Saturday, 5 p.m. (Spanish)
Sunday, 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. University Mass
This is the third in a series of articles on Catholic campus ministries.