Salesian Sisters share joy at the University of Illinois

Photo Caption: Sister Theresa Lee, FMA, lends a hand and a smile as students move into Newman Hall ib Aug. 18 at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

By: By Jennifer Willems


It is a gift of Salesian spirituality and one that the Salesian Sisters of St. John Bosco have shared freely during their first year at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois.

They have so much of it, in fact, that the four members of the religious community who serve at Newman found it difficult to contain while greeting students and talking with their families, helping to unload the cars and pick-up trucks that lined Sixth Street, and interacting with the resident advisers during the early move-in day on Aug. 18. Laughter abounded and at one point Sister Theresa Lee, FMA, danced as she pulled a cart filled with one student’s belongings into the residence hall.

“The first thing that is so prevalent in the presence of the Sisters to the staff and community at St. John’s is the joy they have brought to our community,” said Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, director and head chaplain. “They are such joyful people. Ask anyone and that’s what they’ll say.”

“We’re not bringing anything new to the place,” Sister Theresa told The Catholic Post. “We feel that we’re working with a spirit that’s already here and we’re just helping to make it grow. It’s so wonderful to be part of the process and part of the journey of these students’ lives.”

“For us, Salesian spirituality is finding God in the ordinary of our lives and this atmosphere here at Newman is truly God-centered,” said Sister Loretta Dedomenicis, FMA, one of the four “pioneers” from her community who came to St. John’s last fall.

“It’s such a loving environment because Christ is the center and people really care for each other and love each other,” she explained. “We felt that from the day we arrived here. We felt so welcomed and accepted. The students just reached out in great joy to have us as part of the community and I can say that they do that for everyone who comes here.”

The Salesian Sisters — or Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians — are devoted to working with young people of all ages. While they have staffed elementary schools and high schools and been involved in youth centers, this is the first time they’ve had a mission on a college campus.

In addition to Sister Loretta and Sister Theresa, the other pioneers included Sister Mary Arciga, FMA, who is back for a second year, and Sisters Bernadette Mota, FMA, and Linda Gonzalez, FMA, who have been called to other Salesian ministries. Shortly after arriving last fall, Sister Theresa was asked to return to New Jersey to assist the Salesians in formation work, but is happy to pick up where she left off at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center.

New to the little community this year is Sister Maryann Schaefer, FMA, who comes to Newman after three years as facilities manager at a Salesian school, early learning center, and boys’ and girls’ club in Tampa, Fla.

While all of them are involved in spiritual accompaniment of the students, as well as fostering a greater love for the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother, each has accepted responsibility for different ministries.

Sister Loretta is coordinator for the four student-led Koinonia retreats that take place every year. Sister Maryann will work with the service team for the Koinonia retreats and coordinate Newman’s Service and Justice Outreach — particularly serving the poor in Illinois and assisting in Salesian ministries in New Jersey, Florida and Louisiana.

Sister Mary trains and works with the sacristans at St. John’s Chapel and lines up students to pray and spend time in eucharistic adoration during the Koinonia weekends. She also makes arrangements for coffee and doughnuts on Sunday mornings.

Sister Theresa has been charged with assisting in the RCIA process, finding new ways to make the Asian-American and foreign students feel at home, and evangelization and outreach to the roughly 10,000 Catholic students on campus. As part of that, she will collaborate with the students and staff on the new monthly CommUnity Nights that are intended to raise Newman’s profile and get more people involved.

The Salesian Sisters take almost all of their meals in the Newman Center dining hall as another way of being present to the students.

“They will sit down for lunch and then I’ll notice that they’ll go over to a table with students — they just go into a different mode. That how engaging they are,” Msgr. Ketcham told The Post. “It’s just beautiful to see that charism kick in.”

He’s also seen them engage students who may be sitting alone or dressed differently, breaking down walls and letting them know that they are loved by the Sisters and the church.

Sister Loretta said they are excited to begin another year of doing just that.

“The first year went way beyond our expectations,” she said. “This place is unbelievable. With all that’s going on in the world that’s negative toward faith, this is a well of spirituality, a deep well.”

She added that the students’ great desire to know God is inspiring to them and feeds their faith every day.

“They’re not just solid in faith, but solid in faith and solid in joy,” Sister Loretta said. “They really feel like they’re at home — at home with a large family.”

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