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Issue Date:  February 22, 2008

-- Avila University

Avila University faculty and staff who have joined the lay associates program of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the Kansas City, Mo., school's sponsoring order
Lay staffers embrace order's charism

Associates program blossoms at university sponsored by sisters

Kansas City, Mo.

When Delany Dean enters her classroom at Avila University, she has more on her mind than the lecture she prepared for her psychology students. Like many who have gone before her at Avila, located in Kansas City, Mo., she is mindful of the mission espoused by the school’s founder and sponsor -- the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis Province.

The order’s original charge still applies, to do “all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy of which woman is capable and which will most benefit the dear neighbor.” Dean, assistant professor of psychology, wants that charism to permeate her work and the work of the entire school.

“There’s a constant presence in my mind to bring something extra to my students,” she said. “When I see an opportunity to bring up the kind of work CSJs do, I try hard to do so.”

This is not a top-down directive. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

While the number of Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet has dwindled to a mere handful at Avila, the order’s presence -- its values, its mission and its guidance -- is increasing. Last year Dean and 10 other faculty and staff members at Avila became lay associates of the order.

“In many ways people who work here see their work as a form of ministry,” said Avila president Ron Slepitza, one those 11 new associates. “To find a way to affirm that, grow in that, is what we are trying to do. So the associates program started as a faith-sharing group that became a more focused way of living the charism of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.”

Grass roots

This spring, another seven faculty and staff members are expected to join as associates after meeting weekly for the entire school year. The candidates, of which nearly half are non-Catholic, study the order’s history and spirituality and discuss their own personal growth. It’s not a small commitment and it has surprised even members of the order that so many are eager to join.

“We already considered the staff here partners in ministry,” said Sr. Ruth Stuckel, associate professor of humanities and performing arts at Avila. “We didn’t think to make them associates. A few did it on their own and got so excited they started spreading the word.”

Jeremy Lillig, a 26-year-old graduate of Avila and a media specialist for the university, was one who planted the seed by becoming an associate himself two years ago, under the sponsorship of Stuckel.

“It seemed like a natural step in my spiritual growth to become an associate,” Lillig said. “Once I went through the program, I saw how beneficial it could be for others.”

Lillig wrote a letter to colleagues he felt shared the order’s values and spiritual aspirations. The response went far beyond his expectations.

“It was amazing,” he said. “Not only did everyone express interest, there was just such a hunger out there for this kind of community.”

It was such an enthusiastic response, it caught the attention of employees at other Carondolet ministries, which include eight other universities, as well as high schools and hospitals.

“I’ve had other campus ministers ask me about it,” said Dave Armstrong, Avila’s campus minister and a co-leader of the associates program along with Stuckel. “What I’ve told them is it’s a wonderful and somewhat rare opportunity to minister to faculty and staff -- and it’s pretty easy to do.”

Right relationship

There is no obvious professional benefit to the associates program. In fact, Slepitza said it remains to be seen what institutional outcomes result from this movement at Avila. Still, he has his hopes.

“I think a university that wants to be successful must really understand what sets it apart,” Slepitza said. “The more we say, ‘This is what we stand for,’ the better off we are. And when you look at the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, the value that is prevalent is right relationship.”

Slepitza is referring to the the order’s statement on social justice: “We commit ourselves to liberation from violence by the promotion of right relationships within community, with the dear neighbor, and with all creation.”

Dean said right relationship begins for her by honoring the spirit of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

“We can stand and walk with the sisters in our own versions of their ways of living,” Dean wrote in her blog shortly after her commitment ceremony last spring, “for the benefit of our university and, especially, our students. We can do so even if there are no sisters walking beside us in the flesh. They certainly walk beside us in the spirit, and constantly encourage us.”

That spirit is what must thrive in this modern age, said Peggy Maguire, the order’s director of association and a 30-year lay associate herself. The numbers are clear about the order’s future as a body of women religious. At its height, the sisters numbered around 1,600. Now the number is 416. Meanwhile, the associates numbers have grown to 164.

“I think it’s very reasonable to expect associates to take a more active role in the community,” Maguire said. “In fact, associates are already involved in almost every aspect of the community, with the exception of the leadership in the motherhouse.”

And, of course, right relationship goes both ways. Armstrong, whose office is now in the former living quarters of the sisters at Avila, said that many of the associates and candidates are drawn to the program because the order’s values reflect their own.

“For me and for others in the group,” he said, “becoming an associate is a way to publicly affirm what we have already believed and practiced. Now we do it with the mission of the order in mind.”

Many paths

Lillig’s and Dean’s stories provide similarities and contrasts on how one’s journey leads to becoming an associate.

Lillig grew up Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and was deeply influenced by the religious who lived and worked in his schools.

“I’ve had seven Sisters of St. Joseph who really had an effect on me,” Lillig said. “It started in second grade religion and went through to Avila, where I discovered my calling to be an empowered layperson in the church to advocate for social justice.”

His time studying theater at Avila exposed him to one of the core principles of the Sisters of St. Joseph -- standing up for social justice in all realms of life, including the arts. The sisters have long been known for their justice work -- they have marched for civil rights, opposed war and all forms of violence, advocated for the sick and elderly.

The example inspired Lillig to apply his interests toward similar causes. While in college he wrote a play about homelessness that he toured around the area. The experience led him to form Full Circle Theater Company, which addresses social justice themes.

Justice was also a key draw for Dean, 55. But her values and causes were well formed before she encountered the sisters four years ago, when she joined the Avila faculty.

“I didn’t know any more about the CSJs than what we were told at the orientation,” Dean said. “But once I had a chance to learn about their history and their values, it was clear I had found a charism that very much matched my own.”

Dean had to turn at several crossroads before she reached Avila. She was reared an Episcopalian, but said she was drawn to Catholicism at an early age.

“I fell in with a crowd of justice-minded Catholics while I was in college and they corrupted me,” she laughed. “I was just drawn to that spirituality and eventually joined the church. But I really knew more about Jesuit spirituality, partially because my parish is Jesuit.”

Even her career had to change for her to reach this stage in her life. Dean served as prosecuting attorney and later became a defense lawyer before she returned to school to get a doctorate in psychology, which led her to teaching. She said the model of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet resonates with her life experience -- one where a deep spirituality and commitment to a more just world go hand-in-hand.

“I think Sisters of St. Joseph live their principles in very powerful ways,” she said. “Perhaps they are a little quieter about it than other orders. But their story is inspirational when you learn it.”

An associate makes a three-year commitment to the order when she or he joins. There is no financial commitment on either end. Nor is there a prescribed way that associates live out their commitment to the order.

But in a sense, Dean says, there is a directive if associates look to the sisters’ example of living.

“The challenge for us is to live out our lives the way they live out theirs,” Dean said. “When they find people in need, they find the resources and they tend to that need. We should be doing the same in our own lives.”

Michael Humphrey is a Kansas City, Mo., freelance writer.

National Catholic Reporter, February 22, 2008

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