It is very common, as humans, to abuse our free will, and think that our plan is the plan. I am very guilty of this, but what happened became a rock to set my faith in. My name is Jonah Celeski. I am a sophomore? Junior? At UAB. I’m from Huntsville, Alabama. I am a brother of the International Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, more commonly known as FIJI. Some of you may know me as the guy with the funny hair that sings at Thursday Mass. This is my faith story.
Growing up, I was, like many of us, a good Catholic kid. Besides the occasional rebellion, my faith was strong, and it showed in my actions – and then came high school. Somewhere along the way, because of my demeanor, people began to stereotype me as somebody who was, to say the least, not very religious. If you want to ask me what stereotype, come talk to me in person. Regardless, I began to live up to the stereotype, because that is who I thought I was. I remember at one point that my best friend told me about somebody finding out I was Catholic. He said they were surprised and they thought I was an atheist! This hit me hard, but not hard enough. I continued to make bad decisions, and my faith suffered because of it. This continued until senior year, when I decided to get my act together so I could join the military without any trouble. At this point, I was so far in, and so deep in guilt, that I actually couldn’t believe that anyone, let alone God, loved me. I was stuck in a weird, backwards, twisted, prideful ditch, and I couldn’t get myself out alone. I couldn’t bring myself to receive Communion, even directly after Confession and penance. I felt that it would all be over once I joined the military and left my hometown. Now, as for the military…
The U.S. Army was my key to unlock the ideal life I had in mind. I’ve wanted to go into the medical field for as long as I can remember, and my dad introduced a round-about way that would mean the whole thing would be monetarily free. It sounded too good to be true! I decided on that early on and when it came time to take my ACT, I didn’t because I didn’t need to! I was joining the U.S. Military, baby! The summer of 2018 came around, I had graduated high school, I had just gotten my National Certification of Emergency Medical Technicians, and I thought I was headed into the army as a 68N cardiovascular technician. We started hitting some roadblocks with my recruiter, and next thing I knew, it was the fall, I was jobless, I was friendless, and I was painfully alone. I finally got the call to get to the recruiting office ASAP! They told me they were sending me to the medical processing center so I could get the signing and swearing in process started. What happened next quite literally changed my life.
I failed the hearing test. Twice. I never saw it coming. I have acoustic trauma that keeps me from hearing the frequencies that the army needs of their soldiers. The significance of this is that I never had just one incident that messed my hearing up. All my life I’ve been around guns, loud cars, football stadiums, loud music, lawn mowers, pressure washers, motorcycles, you name it. If it was loud, my friends liked it, and we made it louder by not wearing hearing protection. This is my fault, and it was dumb for us not to be smarter. All these things that happened years before I tried to join the military prevented me from actually joining. There are few coincidences in life, and they are rarer when they are reoccurring and so significant that they turn your life upside down. This was a wake-up call from God, and the military wasn’t the plan.
To keep this short, after many months of emotional pain from not knowing what I was going do with my life, I ended up here at UAB, which was once again a small chance. I almost didn’t come UAB, and the only reason I listed it on the ACT website was because I was prompted to add another college to my list. I’m here now, and I’m doing my best to find out why. There is no possible way that the things that happened to me were coincidental. I saw the power of the Lord and decided to bow to it.
Take every moment you have and live in it completely. Don’t plan so hard for the future because whatever is divinely written into existence is going to happen, and you don’t know if that is your plan or not. Have no expectations. Face your fears. Do that thing you’re scared of. Dance in the rain. Kiss your loved ones. Ask someone on a date. Hike a mountain. Run a marathon. Learn guitar. Whatever it is, get off your phone and go experience life. You are not on your own terms, and you will never know what’s next.
-Jonah Celeski, class of 2022
“You guys should come to St. Stephen’s sometime!” These words out of a now treasured friend’s mouth were definitely some of the last that I wanted to hear upon entering into college. While I was planning on still attending Sunday Masses, I had never thought about diving in any deeper than that. I was standing in shallow water, and I was completely fine with that. I had heard about college being the best years of one’s life, and I was ready to live it up. Having struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, I longed to be free from all fear and control. I had my mind made up about who I was and who I was going to be, and I had all my plans laid out in my head. I was ready to embrace and live life to the fullest. Little did I know that I had no idea what that actually meant. Thankfully, God made it evident that He also had a plan - one that is so much better than anything I could have imagined.
All the plans that I had laid out in my head instantly shattered into a schmillion pieces the first time I set foot inside St. Stephen’s and was greeted by humans I never knew existed. I grew up Catholic, attended Sunday Masses, and even went to a Catholic school. I was constantly surrounded by God’s message, constantly reminded of His love, and yet I never truly believed/experienced it until encountering God in His presence and love through these wonderful beings. To hear about the light of Christ shining through His creation is one thing, but to be a witness to this light burning brightly in others is completely different. I found myself being drawn to this light, and wanting so badly to shine too. I could hear God’s voice calling me closer and closer, but looking at the people around me, I did not know how I was to ever compare. They were so full of love, so fully open - all the things I was scared to be. I was not open to the gifts God is longing to give all of us. I was closed off - placing a limit on the love of God, thinking He could only love those who rightly loved Him too. I could feel and see His love through others, but I did not know how to receive it. When I tried, I still found myself (and still find myself) clinging on to my own desires, plans, and wants. I knew I needed help giving everything over to God. It was then I realized that I was trying to do what no one can do without the grace of God. I had to surrender to Him in the place that I was - a place of weakness and confusion. It was not until I embraced my weakness, my monstrous ways, my brokenness, that God started working and transforming me. Only then could I receive God’s love and truth into my heart - when I realized that to live is to live in Christ.
It took me way too long to realize that my life is not mine to live. To learn that surrender to the will of God is the only way to be at peace. To dare to hope in something greater -the true wants and desires placed on human hearts. To dive into relationships that will leave you open and vulnerable, but full of so much joy and love. To let love lead me on a never-ending adventure. To embrace the little deaths of life - thousands of deaths every single day for the greater glory and purpose for which I am called. To push back against insecurities and fear that ultimately do nothing but harm. To be okay with not knowing anything - and to understand that a lot of the time I am not supposed to. To seek the face of God in everyone and everything around me. To experience the beauty of a true fulfilling presence - and to allow myself to be filled with it. To be constantly learning, searching, and listening for His voice. To not be afraid, to share these truths with others, and to recognize that I will constantly fail at doing all of these things (and more) for the rest of my earthly life.
I would have never come to these realizations without the grace of God and surrounding myself with people who allowed Him to work through them. I now know what it means to be set free in Christ - to know that the journey towards the kingdom is one that will never end on this earth. Without St. Stephen’s, FOCUS missionaries, authentic friendships, and most importantly the abiding presence of God, I do not know where I would have ended up. Probably somewhere thinking I was free and living my life to the fullest - and oh how wrong I would be. Here’s to the never-ending journey and seeking, growing, learning, and transforming! Here’s to truly living life to the fullest!
-Jessie Clark, class of 2022
I was born and raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and religion class was more of an extra history lesson to me. It was boring, church was boring. When I started going to public high school, I didn't have many Catholic friends. I went to church every Sunday with my family and we prayed together occasionally, but that was the extent of my prayer life. I didn’t have a great community to help me learn and grow in my faith. When there were youth groups or bible studies, I would rarely attend them, and I wasn’t comfortable enough to participate. My faith was not my top priority, and towards the end of my senior year, I began to realize how detrimental my life would be if I didn’t change this.
I am currently attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When I got to UAB’s campus I decided I would change my prayer life for the better. I knew of St. Stephen’s and was lucky enough to have friends already involved in the Catholic community there. I joined a bible study and started attending events like Abide and Adore and Thursday Mass and dinner. I felt welcomed and loved. The St. Stephen’s community gave me a sense of what being Catholic actually meant. I was encouraged to go to Adoration, daily Mass, and retreats. Before college, I didn’t have a group of people to help me in my walk toward Christ; but at St. Stephen’s, everyone was encouraging and more than willing to share Christ’s love. I could tell this was a group of people who were actively striving to live out their faith and bring people closer to God. St. Stephen’s was the Christ-centered fellowship I had been missing my whole life.
I have only been attending UAB for a year, but I have already grown so much in my faith and in my love for the Catholic Church. The community at St. Stephen’s helped me realize why I was Catholic. I went from dreading Sunday Mass to going almost every day. Being taught about the beauty of the Mass and the Eucharist made me realize how incredibly magnificent it is. Mass is nowhere near boring to me now. The person I was in high school and the person I am today are so very different. My priorities have been changed for the absolute best. I can honestly say my life became much more joyful, brighter, and full of love when I was shown the beauty of Christ’s love again. My first year at St. Stephens revealed to me how loved I am, and I cannot thank the St. Stephens community enough for that. I can't wait to see what God has planned for my future at UAB and St. Stephens. I know it will be absolutely beautiful!
-Julianne Naro, Class of 2023
Hi! My name is Elizabeth Stephens and I am an incoming sophomore at UAB! St. Stephens has played a huge role in my faith journey this past year. Before coming to college, I hadn’t really heard of FOCUS or their missionaries, and the first time I met them, I didn’t even realize who they were. I met Karly, Sarah, and Carissa at a women’s night hosted at Carissa’s house. They were so friendly, welcoming, and personable. They made me feel welcome when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to transition into a new prayer community. As I got to know them throughout the next year, I began to witness the beautiful and personal relationships each of these wonderful people had with God, and learn how to deepen my relationship with God. There were very few times I would head to St. Stephen’s and not find a FOCUS missionary there either in prayer, playing pool with students, or discipling. They are always so happy to give advice on how to go deeper into prayer, go over a passage in the bible with me and pray for me, which are things I deeply appreciate. I have had so many good times and conversations with them, both faith-related and not, and I cherish my relationships with them.
The FOCUS missionaries evangelize with students on our campus green once a week, and I decided to go join them in this after my classes to see what it was like. I knew God was calling me to reach out to my fellow students in some way so that they could encounter Him, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I was really nervous to be praying publicly in a place where so many of my peers hung out, since I didn’t know how they would feel if I shared my faith with them. While the women prayed a Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet for everyone on campus, the men went out and asked other men if they needed prayers. After praying, we went and asked the women on campus if they needed someone to pray for them. The missionary I was with never pressured me to speak, but only encouraged me to pray with them and be bold in my faith. Eventually, I felt enough courage to approach someone who needed prayers, and it was a very moving moment. I was reminded by the FOCUS missionaries how much those around me need, just as much as I do, a Christ-like gesture. Because of them, I have gained the boldness that I need to approach others with Christ’s love.
I am so grateful for our FOCUS missionaries and I can’t wait to get to know them better in these next couple of years!
-Elizabeth Stephens, class of 2023
Before I came to college, I don’t think I fully believed the words “God has a plan for you.” I had heard it before and probably had said it many times myself, but I am sure now that those were half-spoken or half-believed words. After being at UAB for two years, and specifically being a part of the St. Stephen’s community, I have come to realize that God does have a plan for me, and for you as well.
Coming to college was definitely a transition. I come from a family of seven, so living on my own and going to Mass on my own was completely new territory. I went to St. Stephen’s not knowing anyone, and to be honest, it took a few times to get really comfortable there. It was at St. Stephen’s, and being with the people I have met there, that I have come to recognize that God has a specific purpose and plan for my life and every single person’s life in the world.
Being a part of the community at St. Stephens has opened many doors for me, not only academically and socially, but most importantly, spiritually. It’s through being involved there that I came to be a core-team member for the St. Francis Xavier Middle School Youth Group; I was led to study abroad in Italy; and I applied, and was accepted, to serve as a Totus Tuus missionary last summer. I have switched majors a few times and now know what I want to do with my life (ha-ha, I think). I have met some of the most wonderful and faith-filled humans who have become some of my greatest friends and call me higher as a person, and as a child of God.
Most importantly I have become more involved and more on fire for my Catholic Faith than I have ever been in my life. I began going to Eucharistic Adoration, Confession and daily Mass on a regular basis (after some time and many persistent invitations); I became a sacristan, which has completely transformed the way I view and participate in Mass; I not only joined a bible study, but also led a bible study (shout out to Mabry and Ana!), and just showed up at events going on at St. Stephen’s. It is through some incredible FOCUS missionaries, priests, bible study leaders, friends that turned into roommates, and many brothers and sisters in Christ (a lot of whom I was given the privilege of meeting at or through St. Stephen’s!) that I am able to continually seek Christ, and have a yearning to share my faith with others.
I remember being hesitant to choose UAB, none of my friends were going there, and I honestly had no clue what I wanted to do… it wasn’t looking too good. But through the grace of God, I am getting ready to head back for my third year. Going into this year, I find an enormous amount of joy, consolation, and confidence in the fact that my Heavenly Father has placed me here with a purpose! I look back on my time so far at UAB, being a part of the community at St. Stephen’s, building Christ-centered friendships with people who are leading me to Heaven, continuously growing in my faith, laughing and crying, and I realize what a blessing it has been in my life, and will continue to be in my life. I am so thankful for a community like St. Stephen’s. Every day has its ups and downs, and while I have no idea what the future holds, I live every day knowing that God has placed me where I am. He has put amazing people in my life, and this brings me incredible peace.
-Marilou Jackson, class of 2022
After graduating high school, I was sad to leave my parish youth group and fearful that college ministry would not be as vibrant. Saint Stephen the Martyr Campus Ministry far exceeded my expectations and truly deepened me in my faith. Not only did I have a deepening of my faith, looking back now on my time in college, I can truly say it was the reason that I was able to keep the Faith at a secular university. Saint Stephen’s has such a vibrant community of Catholic, college students; not only the students at UAB, but also the other Birmingham colleges of Samford and Birmingham-Southern College. This community of Birmingham, Catholic, college students readily welcomed me into, not only fellowship, but also lasting friendships that I will I carry with me for the rest of my life and into eternity.
One of my first memories of St. Stephen’s was when I attended an Adoration night the week before Fall classes began. I had visited the chapel before a few times, but the space didn’t quite make sense until I was there before our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Having that time to rest with the Lord in the peace and stillness of the sanctuary, while the busy city of Birmingham continued rushing about below, was a strong assurance that His graces would continue to be with me as I began my college career. The chapel changed in my eye from a jarring space that was kind of awkward to a beautiful place that was comforting within the context of the Eucharist. The graces of that night were not only spiritual. After Adoration, I got to meet some of the students, but since school had not yet begun, there was nothing else going on at the chapel. So, a large group of us decided to go to Chick-Fil-A and spend time together. I truly felt welcomed into the group and have continued to feel that way since.
Saint Stephen’s is truly blessed to be a mission out of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the diocese. As such, a university student is exposed to the many wonders contained within the Diocese of Birmingham. While discerning a vocation to the priesthood of this diocese, I took full advantage of this privileged position and was plugged into several parishes throughout the diocese, regularly making retreats with student groups to EWTN, Saint Bernard’s Abbey, Casa Maria, and events happening at Our Lady of Sorrows, Holy Rosary, and Saint Paul’s. It was the greatest gift to be introduced, not only to the community of Saint Stephens, but also to Catholic life within Birmingham. This college ministry is not only on an evangelical, apologetic, or catechetical mission, but also on a mission of serving the students’ needs for a strong support group of fellow believers, and building the student up in the four pillars of formation: intellectual, pastoral, human, and spiritual. My time at St. Stephen’s has not only made me a better Catholic, but an altogether better person.
-Mark Moore II, Class of 2020
I moved into my UAB freshman dorm a week earlier than other students for Greek sorority rush. On a Wednesday, I decided to try the Catholic College Ministry that I learned about during my previous tours. It was just me and maybe two other people who were there for daily Mass, and I was worried that I would feel the same disconnect as I did at the church I grew up in.
As the year went on, I accepted invites from my friends who went to other churches to see if I could find a community, and it never clicked until I met a FOCUS missionary on the Green. She was always so welcoming to me, and texted me a lot of reminders for their events and gatherings. After a couple months, I felt that I could fit in and started participating in communications with Catholic Blazers. The Catholic Blazers Board, Frederick (our music director), and student musicians ended up putting together a small, musical, worship gathering with a quick message from soon-to-be-graduate students. At that time, it turned out to be the most attended student event that Saint Stephens had ever hosted. We were proud and felt like family.
To expand the family, I went to a FOCUS conference in Texas where I befriended and grew with even more students. The conference really helped me heal from emotional wounds that I brought to college and gave me a direction to move forward as an adult in the Church. It also gave me my discipler, Mary Kopp. She taught and showed me what a raw and aweing love for the Lord and Mother Mary looked like, and how to grow closer to them.
Unfortunately, I became distracted by life and started to fade away from involvement with the Church, but I never stopped going to Mass. Saint Stephens always made me feel welcomed, with a non-judgmental dress code. There was Confession before Mass, friendly waves, friends to sit with, and a place to cry. After my absence, I joined the hospitality team and became a door greeter and a liturgy reader. I loved it and it gave me a sense of belonging again. I loved welcoming people into Mass and making sure that they felt like they made a lovely choice by making time for Mass, and that Jesus was excited to see them in His house. I also loved, and will always be thankful for, all the dinners after Mass and other events. Every broke college student is grateful for a free meal. Saint Stephen’s has given me many sweet friendships, wisdom, and wonderful diverse perspectives.
Thank you, Saint Stephens, for always being there to welcome me back, encourage me, and continue my growth in the Faith.
-Caroline Davis, Class of 2020
From my perspective, identifying as a Roman Catholic at a university like Samford is a blessing and something I am very proud of. Despite being recognized as a minority within a student body composed predominantly of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and non-denominational Christians, I have found that the fellowship and community within Samford’s Catholic Student Association is undeniable.
While some might be overwhelmed by the presence of non-Catholics on campus, especially at a school located in the south, I have learned so much from my peers who do not identify as Catholic, and in some rare instances, do not identify as Christian. It has allowed me to learn more about my faith and grow as a person, developing an ability to inform others about the complexity and depth of the Catholic Faith.
At first, it can appear as if you may not interact with any Catholics who take the faith seriously, but if you choose to get involved with CSA, which I did early in my freshman year, you will meet friends that change your life for the better. There are so many opportunities to get involved in CSA, ranging from Bible study and home group to social events, such as cookouts and game nights.
In my three completed years as a member of CSA, I have worked, prayed, learned, and enjoyed activities with a multitude of incredible students and staff. I was lucky enough to have the leadership of three fantastic CSA presidents: Madeline Fric, Becca Weatherford, and Liz Harris. It is not often that you find yourself with a group leader who cares so much about your well-being outside of Catholic events, but each of our presidents has done an amazing job leading the Catholic group on campus. I would also like to mention that I am confident that our new president, McKenna Martignoni, will do the same this year and expand the reach of CSA on campus.
Although everyone’s personal relationship with God and experiences within the Catholic Church vary, it is important to remember that you are never alone in your faith journey, even at a school like Samford. I came to Samford knowing nobody, and CSA has provided me with a solid platform on spiritual, academic, and social levels. I hope to call the people I interact with from CSA on a regular basis my friends for life, and I look forward to meeting new students in my final year at Samford.
-Gunnar Sadowey, Samford, Class of 2021
Let me begin by introducing myself: Hello! My name is Elizabeth Pryor and I am a sophomore at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I am a Pre-Nursing Major and a proud member of Catholic Blazers. I devote a lot of my time to hobbies including reading, crafting, cooking, exercising, and enjoying time in nature. I also love board games! Throughout my life I have grown to love prayer and service, but most importantly, I have become aware of my identity in Christ and of the relationship that He desires to have with me.
My journey at St. Stephen’s started before my first semester as a UAB student. During the summer after I graduated high school in 2019, I found an intense longing to grow deeper in my relationship with God. I knew that a lot of students, after the new freedom and independence found from leaving home and beginning college, lost their faith. I never wanted to forget the love that God has for me or the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross, so I sought ways to ensure that I would be able to cultivate and grow my relationship with God. I found FOCUS missionaries online and reached out. I looked online at churches near UAB and once I found St. Stephen the Martyr Chapel, I wrote all of the events listed on their calendar into my planner. I knew that I wanted to grow closer to Christ and His Church during my time in college. What I didn’t know is that Christ’s Church, specifically in Birmingham, at St. Stephen’s, wanted the same thing for me.
The moment I walked into the student lounge before my first Mass at St. Stephen’s, I was overwhelmed by the love and joy that each student had. After Mass, I got to meet all of the FOCUS missionaries and other students from Birmingham. I found myself at a table full of holy men and women who wanted to know about me and desired for me to grow closer to Christ. It was such an incredible encounter and I felt so overwhelmingly loved and appreciated. I immediately felt like I had a home. As the semester progressed, the parishioners of St. Stephen’s taught me about fellowship and that God literally made each one of us to be in relationship with others. They invited me to prayer and taught me that there are many different ways to pray. I was encouraged to love my neighbors, especially the ones that I did not get along with. I met friends that I will cherish for the rest of my life. The people at St. Stephen’s love God and their neighbor, not only at Church, but in the community as well. I never felt judged by my peer or as if I had to prove myself to anyone. I was simply loved and welcomed as a daughter of Christ because that is who I am.
I was so excited to have met such a wonderful group of people and I felt like nothing could take away the fire within each one of them. Even after school was shut down due to the Coronavirus, Bible Studies, fellowship, and communal prayer never stopped. I would get texts regularly, amid the stress of everything, asking how I was doing and if there was any way that people could pray for me. It was incredible to see such wonderful examples of how to live like Christ throughout a global pandemic. While some communities struggled to stay connected, the students at St. Stephen’s showed what a family was and exemplified resilience and strength rooted in God and His Church.
I am so excited to have had such an amazing first year of college. In my upcoming years, I can’t wait to see other students have similar experiences as I did!
-Elizabeth Pryor, UAB, Class of 2023
When God brought me to St. Stephen’s in January, He knew this was exactly what I needed. Through the fellowship during Abide and Adore, Catholic Underground and other events, He showed me what it is like to belong to a community in which you do not have to try hard to fit in; you do not have to be “good enough,” or “_____ enough.” You are loved and accepted just as you are. And over time, I realized that that is exactly what His love is like: unconditional and ever-lasting. I realized that I do not have to wait until I am “holy enough” to be worthy of His love, but that right now I can choose to be vulnerable before Him and to invite Him into all parts of my life, especially the dark ones where He brings healing and light. Even when I am a mess, I am still His mess. He longs to be with us, to love us, with all our imperfections and faults. The Cross, the Chalice and the Host, constantly remind me of His love and sacrifice for us, and that we are called to love others like that. He is calling us to not worry about how big of a mess we are, but to turn it into a mess-age of hope and love to those around us.
My friend Emily leads a bible study I am so happy to be a part of! Before attending the first study, I was very anxious because I did not know enough verses word for word and was hesitant to share my thoughts and experiences out of fear of being judged. And yet, less than two minutes into the first study, that group of women made it a safe place where we were able to share our thoughts and get to know God and ourselves in His eyes. As the trust within the group grew, so did my trust in Lord and His Mercy. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spending time before the Blessed Sacrament, and conversations with Fr. Altonji and others, I realized that no matter how far we might drift away, and even when we think that this time we messed up too badly, He is waiting for us with arms wide open, ready to give us a new chance, every single day. His Love and Mercy swallow all our shame and guilt. And what greater Mercy is there than that? What greater hope than in Our Savior?
During my time at St. Stephen’s, He has helped me create a little tabernacle in my heart, which I can turn to at any point to thank Him for the blessings He provides and ask for His help in hardships. His presence there brings peace in the midst of chaos and reminds me that He is always with us. Putting my trust in Him, and being in communion with Him during Mass gives me strength to face anything life brings with great confidence that the Good Shepherd will take care of His sheep. The St. Stephen’s community has helped me realize what our true purpose in life is and to whom we belong. And we ought to act like that. We need to love and serve God and those around us, just as He loves and serves us.
St. Stephen's is home to students from UAB, Samford, and Birmingham-Southern.
We hope you enjoy reading their stories about what God has done for them.
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