Avila’s 1650 Society: Connecting the Charism

By Sister Mary Flick, CSJ

Associate Dave Armstrong has a call from Father Medaille that he wants to share with the undergraduates with whom he works: “Love God and let God love through you.” Dave is campus minister at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Since becoming an associate in 2007, he’s been looking for a way to share the message of Father Medaille, the Jesuit priest that helped found the Sisters of St. Joseph, and of CSJ Association with his students. “As an associate, I am always continuing my formation. A part of that for me is how to bring it to my students. I finally made the connection.”

It came in the summer of 2013 when he attended a meeting of campus ministers who work at the nine U.S. colleges and universities sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph. Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia had plans for a program that would share the Sisters of St. Joseph charism with their students. It would be called the 1650 Society, named for the frequently accepted year of foundation of the Sisters of St. Joseph in LePuy, France. Dave went home to Kansas City, inspired – and with a title for whatever would come.

As the semester went on, a vision was being formulated, he said. “I would not create a new program, but do something different with the associates’ program for our students,” he said. “So many of them are already involved in their faith and in service. I wanted them to understand they are already living this charism, but they are not aware of it.”

By December, he had invited 32 students to an introductory meeting. “I told them to keep their invitation a secret. I think the secrecy helped! Twenty-four came to that first meeting.” By January, 12 students had discerned that they wanted to begin the formation program.

For this student-centered formation program, Dave borrowed heavily from the associate formation handbook, from which he had been introduced to the CSJs. He also counts on the support of the two directing the Avila Associates program, Ruth Stuckel and Associate Nicole Nicoll. Dave says, “It’s because Ruth and Nicole have taken on the associates program here that I am able to take this step with our students.”  

 “The first time the group met, we explored the founding of the congregation and the consensus statement. It took a little bit of time,” Dave said. “But now when the students are asked, “Who was that Jesuit priest that helped found the Sisters of St. Joseph, they know the answer: Jean Pierre Medaille.”

The program, which began last January, consists of 10 sessions over 10 months, seven in the spring semester. Each meeting begins with three minutes of silent contemplative prayer, then a Sharing of the Heart. “The students are invited to share where they encountered God since the last time they met,” Dave said. “We just go an hour, so it fits their schedules and keeps it real. I start a discussion topic and we see where it goes.”

Central to the program is the CSJs’ early heritage and the charism of unifying love and right relationships.  “We do three weeks just on relationships,” Dave said. “I use materials I’ve developed over time: right relationship with God, right relationship with self and others, and right relationship with the earth.” Other topics covered include prayer and justice.

“I’ve recently been touched by the words of Dorothy Day, who said, ‘I only love God as much as the person I love the least.’ What a challenge it is to love!  I want to pass that on to the students and help them come to know that we become stronger in our faith, not just with love, but with a unifying love of God and neighbor.”

Dave’s work with college co-eds has been a work in progress. “After the first three or four sessions, my students were asking, “Why are we doing this?’ I told them, ‘You will get it as we go along.’ By the fifth or sixth session, they were saying, ‘I get it. I’ve been living this all my life, I just didn’t know it!’

One of the topics the young adults have most appreciated, Dave said, was the discussion on right relationship with oneself. “I tell them, ‘It’s okay to take care of yourself first. You can’t be in relationship with others until you are in a healthy relationship with yourself.’ They really grasp that. I ask them, ‘What’s important to you?’ So many will say, to make other people happy. I tell them the only person that can make you happy is yourself. Wow! They get that! Once they get that, then they can be in relationship with others – and that relationship is even more powerful.”

Dave has 14 students entering the 1650 Society in 2015. He has limited his invitations to freshmen and sophomores. Inviting students early in their collegiate experience will give them time to become well-rooted in the CSJ charism by graduation. “From the beginning, I have seen this as an associate program for young adults. If 1650 Society members, at graduation, choose to continue, they can enter the Avila Associate program and work with Sister Ruth Stuckel and Nicole Nicoll, who are directing the associates program here. We’ll see where this all leads.”

One small place it is leading is toward the design of a 1650 logo that will be used on shirts student members will wear. Dave also intends to invite members to design a 1650 Society pin that can be worn for special occasions, like graduation.

But more than a logo or symbol, Dave said, “It’s my hope that we are creating something here that will be significant and powerful in these young lives, and that they will be motivated to continue in after graduation.

“I really think this is something that can be brought to other CSJ schools. I’ve seen it. It’s working here. Students gather and look at how to create a culture around our CSJ charism. Of course, it’s up to the Holy Spirit where it goes from here.”

Yes, it’s up to the Holy Spirit, with the help of the newest Society members. The first “class” of the 1650 Society was inducted last December. Each student signed a registration book. Dave noted the thoughts of the newest inductees as they momentarily looked into the future. “Already they were thinking, wouldn’t it be cool if there are a hundred pages of students’ names in 100 years, and people look back at this beginning?”

It’s a sense of history, and a trust in the Holy Spirit, that is already growing in a program, which has its vision focused on the spirit of 1650 – and 2114 – and beyond.

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