EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series profiling the two largest Catholic campus ministries among Southern Tier colleges.
In terms of staffing, Ithaca College Catholic Community is rock-solid: The director is beginning her ninth year there, and the first-year priest chaplain has more than a quarter-century of experience in campus ministry.
However, both emphasized that student leadership is the biggest reason that their community thrives.
“I firmly believe in empowerment. This office could not run without empowering the students,” stated Mary Humenay, director.
Father Mike Mahler, chaplain, added that such a structure “would be a hallmark of a strong and healthy campus ministry anywhere. And it’s very obvious here.”
“The involvement of the students is just enormous. I do a lot, and there are many others who do a lot as well,” said Kris Williamson, 22, a senior.
Williamson serves as co-chair of the music ministry, and he also belongs to the visioning team — a student-operated version of a parish pastoral council, consisting of several committees. For instance, senior Caryn Poulin co-chairs the social-justice committee.
“We want to plan a mission trip and would also really like to get involved in the community of Ithaca, with other churches. My goal is to educate a lot of students, Catholic or non-Catholic, about social-justice issues,” said Poulin, 21, noting that her current focus is on environmentally unsafe pesticides and farm workers who receive less than minimum wage.
In addition to social justice, the visioning team stresses such areas as Bible study; development of conscience and ethics; and student outreach. Katie Maslanka, co-chair of the visioning team, said outreach has been a top priority as new students have arrived on campus.
“We try to be a big ministry of presence, especially at the beginning of the year when you’re welcoming incoming freshmen and transfer students,” said Maslanka, 21, a senior.
The community’s efforts along these lines have been recognized nationally. In 2003, Ithaca was honored by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as one of the top campus ministry programs in the country based on its community outreach program, “I Am Catholic, But … .” The program was developed by a core of 12 Ithaca College students who identified three issues that caused young Catholics to turn away from the church — a lack of understanding of the Mass; a perceived bigotry against gay Catholics; and the role of women in the church. Seminars were given on those subjects during the 2002-03 school year.
Humenay said that last year approximately one-third of Ithaca’s 6,000 students were Catholic, with 400 to 450 students attending weekend liturgies at the on-campus chapel. She hopes to bring in even more students via an atmosphere where they can embrace the Catholic faith rather than be wary or indifferent.
“Many people had bad experiences at their parish back home,” Humenay remarked.
On the other hand, people such as Maslanka were eager to seek out the Catholic community as a freshman.
“I went to Catholic school my entire life, so coming to Ithaca, I was nervous. It was the first time I was somewhere where it wasn’t everyone was going to be Catholic,” she said, recalling that she soon became involved in the music ministry: “That got me in with a core group of people I would see every Sunday. I can’t even say how helpful it’s been to me. At the bare minimum, to be an active part of liturgy was just so important to me. I honestly felt I became more grounded with my faith.”
Several opportunities exist to solidify that grounding, such as evening prayer and rosary on weekdays, as well as the Thursday-night music hour followed by a fireside Mass and chat. Williamson attends all these weekday events regularly — and he noted that other students, despite their busy schedules, find the time as well.
“Personally, I put God before everything else. What it basically comes down to is, faith is the most important thing to me, as well as a lot of people on campus … there are a lot of devotional people here, I find,” he said.
Poulin describes the Catholic community as “just really good, beautiful people that I connect with. The people and the services and everything going on here is what kept me involved. If you go to Mass, you just want to cry, because the music is so good.”
“We’ve worked at building community through our liturgies,” Humenay said. “When you have good liturgy, it makes people want to come back.”
Though he’s new on campus, Father Mahler — who splits his time between the college and Ithaca’s St. Catherine of Siena Parish, where he is pastor — already has good vibes about this assignment.
“The Catholic community impresses me as very well-organized, very strong, a high involvement of students,” said Father Mahler, who also had long tenures in campus ministry at Cornell University (1983-2003) and SUNY Geneseo (1976-83). “I’m just delighted to be coming aboard to a situation that’s very healthy.”