EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series profiling the two largest Catholic campus ministries among Southern Tier colleges.
A firm Catholic presence has existed since the early years of Cornell University — which is rather ironic since its founder, Ezra Cornell, strove to establish a liberal institution free from the effects of religious dogma.
Cornell’s Catholic campus ministry was founded in 1888, 20 years after the Ivy League school opened in Ithaca. Today, Cornell Catholic Community is led by a notably well-sized staff of two priests and three lay chaplains, all full time. According to Sister Donna Fannon, MHSH, chaplain, they serve a campus where 25 to 30 percent of the 13,500 undergraduates are Catholic.
“Hundreds of students come to Mass on the weekend,” Sister Fannon said.
The community’s chapel facilities and offices are based in Anabel Taylor Hall, which serves as the university’s interfaith center. There, Catholics find numerous spiritual opportunities available such as eucharistic adoration, Bible study and the “XLT” praise-and-worship gathering.
“We have a group that started praying the rosary Monday through Thursday nights,” added Adrienne Lanier, 20, a sophomore. “That has grown tremendously.”
Cornell Catholic Community also offers many social, volunteer and social-ministry opportunities — some of which take members well past Ithaca. In March, seven Cornell students joined with All Saints Parish in nearby Lansing on a mission trip to Guatemala. And in 2002, a number of Cornell students joined with a diocesan young-adult group to travel to World Youth Day in Toronto.
Lanier has felt strongly connected to Corning Catholic Community almost from the time she arrived on campus last year.
“It’s been amazing, how welcome I feel here,” she said. “It’s just a really big fellowship of Catholics.”
According to Father Daniel McMullin, first-year director of Cornell Catholic Community, solid spirituality helps students cope with the considerable pressure of attending an Ivy League institution.
“It isn’t just the stress of their academic work, but the stress of parents and their internal stress of trying to be the best. Most of the students here were big fish in small ponds. When everybody’s been a big fish, it’s harder,” Father McMullin observed.
“It really helps to have a balance of things. Some people are so focused on academics, their spiritual life and their social life crumbles,” Lanier said.
Sister Fannon said her staff is a vital resource for people struggling to find that balance.
“A lot of our work is individually meeting with students — just somebody to talk to. Lots of times students don’t need professional help, they need a little nurturing,” she said.
Lanier has found that she must navigate not only academic rigors, but challenges to her Catholic faith as well.
“Just even among my closest friends, they’re constantly asking questions,” she said, noting that she has been debated about such subjects as Catholics’ devotion to the Virgin Mary; abortion; and priestly sex-abuse scandals. “You have to be willing to defend your faith — be courageous, almost.”
Getting more students to grow in their faith is a collective goal of the staff, which also includes Father Robert Smith and chaplains Philip Fiadino and Theresa Miller.
“One of our challenges is evangelization. Even though we’re in a building in the central part of campus, our visibility is not that high. There are so many things the students are being inundated with,” Sister Fannon remarked.
Father McMullin hopes for Cornell Catholic Community to become more visible through what he terms “creative loitering” — having staff and students spend time outside Anabel Taylor Hall to attract the attention of passers-by.
“It’s the personal contact that ultimately creates relationships,” he explained.
Fostering spiritual relationships in a collegiate environment has special appeal for both Sister Fannon and Father McMullin.
“Students have this incredible amount of energy. They keep me young,” said Sister Fannon, in her 12th year at Cornell.
Father McMullin noted that Cornell is his fifth campus-ministry assignment, but the first in which he’s a full-time college chaplain.
“I’ve always had kind of a hankering for getting back to this,” he said. “This opportunity was like a godsend, like a dream come true … there’s a great deal of energy because of the youth, and there’s a great deal of intellectual stimulation.”
He acknowledged that youthful energy and intellect also exist in parishes, “but it’s a lot more evident in a setting like this.”