Beyond choosing a field of study or deciding which dorm to call home, college students face deeper decisions: Who do they want to be? What do they believe in? For the first time, it’s up to them to decide, and many contemplate leaving their Catholic faith behind.
“Colleges and universities are really a battle ground for the hearts and souls and lives of young people,” said Gordy DeMarais, founder and executive director of St. Paul’s Outreach (SPO) who attends St. Joseph in West St. Paul.
Thirty years ago, DeMarais, alongside Christina Smith and Father Kevin Finnegan, founded SPO on the campus of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul as an evangelization initiative to bring college students back to Christ and the Catholic faith. Using DeMarais’ own experience of leaving the Catholic Church as a teen and being brought back to the faith through a friend, they built the program on the foundation of peer-to-peer relationships and community.
Today, SPO has seven “mission centers” and more than 200 staff and student missionaries across the nation spearheading formation programs, retreats and more. Many missionaries lead SPO households, where they live alongside an average of six students, sharing meals, daily prayer and chores. Within Minnesota, SPO operates chapters at the University of St. Thomas, the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Guided by a model they call “reach, call, form and send,” SPO missionaries work to reach college students through social events and sports before calling students to embrace faith through Bible studies and prayer events. Later, missionaries work to form students in the Catholic faith through households and programs and then send them out as missionaries and leaders in SPO, the Church and the greater community.
SPO co-founder Father Finnegan, pastor of Our Lady of Grace in Edina, sees SPO as a critical resource for college students who are searching for meaningful relationships and purpose outside of the support network of their home parishes. He remains an active supporter of SPO, fondly recalling his time leading an SPO household in the 1980s with residents including Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens and Father Michael Becker, rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul.
“We need to help young adults realize they have a calling and really reach out to one another to bring people deeper into the life of Christ,” Father Finnegan said. “SPO can do that and is doing that.”
Going ‘deeper in life’
Will Johnson, 22, a senior at the University of Minnesota, said he experienced true brotherhood for the first time through his involvement as an SPO student missionary. Johnson, a marketing and supply chain operations major from St. Paul, spoke at the nonprofit’s “30 Years on Mission” benefit banquet Feb. 9 about how SPO challenged him “to go deeper in life.”
“They called me out in areas where I was hiding, but they always did this without judgment and from a place of love,” he said. “I am certain that I would not have the relationship I have with God today had it not been for the men of SPO.”
Zachary and Lauren Froelich, both 29 and members of Maternity of Mary in St. Paul, also credit SPO for enriching their faith lives during their years as SPO student missionaries, but also for bringing them together.
Now married for almost five years, Zachary, an attorney, and Lauren, a part-time office manager for a midwifery practice, said living in SPO households provided accountability and encouraged them to live with intention, paving the way for a faith-filled marriage.
“It really helped when forming a family culture,” Zachary said about their shared formation. “We both understood the intentionality of living a household life where we fit family prayer in and make family meals a priority.”
Now with their 21-month-old son, Daniel, they have a support network of SPO friends they can lean on just as they did during college.
“We can’t do this walk alone, and we need others around us, encouraging us and providing great examples,” Lauren said.
As SPO celebrates 30 years of Catholic ministry and evangelization to college students, they’re seeing the life-changing, long-lasting impact passed on to the next generation. Thousands of alumni and former students touched by SPO work throughout the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and beyond are now in various areas of business, ministry and family life; four out of DeMarais’ six children are actively involved or employed by SPO.
It’s this community of people guided by faith that DeMarais knows will carry the mission of SPO forward as the organization evolves and works to spread the Gospel to young people in the decades ahead.
“We’ve only just begun,” he said.
SPO honors alumnus Bishop Cozzens
Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens was among recipients of the Bishop Paul Dudley Servant Leadership Award at St. Paul Outreach’s annual banquet Feb. 9 at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis. Bishop Cozzens served as a full-time missionary for SPO before joining seminary. Today he is chairman of SPO’s board of directors.
In remarks at the banquet, Bishop Cozzens recalled joining an SPO summer household in 1989, when he was 20 years old. Several of his housemates are also now priests and Catholic lay leaders in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “What I witnessed in these first men when I came to live in St. Paul . . . was a call to authentic discipleship. It was a call to really and truly put Jesus Christ and his Church in the center of my life, and to begin to make all my decisions based on that reality,” he said.
He is grateful SPO was there when he needed it and continues to serve young adults today. “St. Paul’s Outreach helped me to come to meet the greatest treasure of my life and to understand what it meant to live in a daily relationship with Jesus Christ,” he said.
SPO alumna Sister Gloria Therese Laven, a Carmelite Sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, also received the Bishop Paul Dudley Servant Leadership Award.