Salesian Sisters to help staff Newman Center at U. of I.

By: By Jennifer Willems

CHAMPAIGN — St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois will say goodbye to two old friends and welcome four new friends at the end of the spring semester.

Preparing to leave are Sister Sarah Roy and Sister Janice Keenan, members of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception of West Peoria (also known as the Heading Avenue Franciscans). Sister Sarah was named full-time vocation director for her community last June.

Succeeding them will be the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco, whose eastern province is based in Haledon, N.J. Members of the community staff schools in Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey and New York, as well as in the Diocese of Rockford where they minister at St. Patrick School in St. Charles.

In making the announcement to the students on April 12, Msgr. Gregory Ketcham expressed his thanks for both communities of women religious.

“I wish to first acknowledge publicly our immense gratitude here at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois for the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception who have served us faithfully for over a decade,” said Msgr. Ketcham, director and head chaplain at St. John’s. “Their tireless prayer and pastoral work have literally touched the hearts and lives of thousands of students. Their dedication will never be forgotten and they will always be part of the Newman family.”

Noting that Salesian spirituality is based on love for Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, friendship with Mary under the title of Help of Christians, and a dedication to the church that includes a great love for the pope, he said, “It is with great excitement that we anticipate the abundant fruit that will come from the ministry of the Salesian Sisters for decades to come.”
He asked the Newman community to welcome them with a prayer and a hearty “Go Illini!”

“When Sister Sarah was asked to be full-time vocation director, it precipitated a need to explore having another religious community serve here at the Newman Center,” Msgr. Ketcham said.

He learned of the Salesian Sisters from another priest of the Diocese of Peoria and started to correspond with them. Eventually he visited the motherhouse in New Jersey and was impressed by what he witnessed.

“I saw them working with everyone from toddlers to high school seniors. I had a feeling in my heart that these Sisters would be right to work with college students,” he told The Catholic Post.

While their mission has always been to the young, the Salesian Sisters had been exploring ways to expand into campus ministry. St. John’s Catholic Newman Center provided the right opportunity at the right time, according to Sister Loretta DeDomenicis, FMA, who serves at Bishop Lane Retreat Center in Rockford. She accompanied Sister Phyllis Neves, FMA, provincial, on a visit in April.

“We were so impressed with the young adults we saw. We were impressed with the joy of the place,” Sister Loretta said. “It was like an answer to our prayers. . . . We’re so happy God opened this door.”

She said St. John Bosco wanted the Sisters to create an environment where students felt welcomed and at home so they could drink in the love of God, and that’s what the Salesian Sisters saw at the Newman Center.

“Msgr. Ketcham said their number one mission was to accompany the young adults. That’s a big thing in our Salesian spirituality — accompanying one another on our journey of faith,” Sister Loretta said.
Msgr. Ketcham said that gift will be appreciated on Koinonia retreats,
Service and Justice Outreach programs, spiritual direction, catechesis and evangelization. He is also hoping the Salesian Sisters will help to coordinate the sacristan program at St. John’s Catholic Chapel.

Sister Sarah, who has offered spiritual direction, been involved in pastoral ministry and directed the Koinonia retreat program at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center over the last six years, said she has enjoyed watching the students develop as people of faith.

“They come in as freshman, not sure if they want to study their faith or live their faith and you watch them grow until they’re convicted by it,” she said. “Watching people find God and transform — that’s the best part.”

Sister Janice, who has ministered at the Newman Center since 2002, said “the first blessings are the people you work with, the staff and the students. I have had some wonderful connections with both.” That includes the priests and “wonderful lay people” who have served at St. John’s.

Noting that the Service and Justice Outreach there is a big part of what she does, Sister Janice also called her work with RCIA “a real blessing.”
Patricia Gibson, chancellor of the Diocese of Peoria, said Sister Janice and her community are discerning ways that she will be able to continue their work with Newman ministry in the Diocese of Peoria.

“The bishop is grateful for everything they did there and said they made a significant impact in the lives of the young people we serve at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center,” Gibson told The Post.

“We look forward to having religious sisters continuing that work at the University of Illinois,” she said. “The bishop is thankful that the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco will be coming to the Diocese of Peoria and building that relationship.”

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