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, UAB, 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, class of 2021
Finding My College Home
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, class of 2023
Petra Šilić: You Are Enough
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.
The FOCUS spring-break mission trip this past March was one of the most beautiful adventures I've embarked on so far in my life. The trip was very challenging and filled with much sacrifice, tiredness, and suffering, but I would not have spent my spring break any other way. Spending Holy Week in New York with four missionaries and seven other students my age truly seeking the Lord was amazing.
Even though people my age are known for documenting so much of what we do on social media, I actually took very few pictures showing the service that our team carried out to those around us, because in all honesty, I came to understand the value of being truly present wherever you are. Then, you are able to see all the beautiful things the Lord is doing around and in you.
What did I do in NYC? Well, I scrubbed the walls of a kitchen, organized shelves, had wonderful conversations with a beautiful woman named Carmella, helped prepare lunch for a large group of men, and polished the pews of a church with my friends. I am so glad I was able to be a part of God's work in a few of the communities in New York and be of service to the sisters and others we interacted with. However, my favorite part of this trip was not solely the corporal works of mercy (those involving what is physical/tangible/temporal) but even more so, the spiritual works of mercy (those dealing with the heart and soul).
Jesus says that we will always have the poor with us, and we will never be able to fully alleviate physical poverty. Rather, it is infinitely more important to share the love of Christ with another person's soul, so no matter how physically poor people are in the eyes of the world, they have hope and joy in the sole fact that they are loved and cared for by the Lord forever.
I am so thankful to have been surrounded with teammates and now new friends that were and still are amazing examples of Christ's love. Though this trip was not even close to being easy, I will never regret any minute of it, because each talk, laugh, tear, and smile was an encounter with Christ.
Dylan Jedlovec's Faith Was Stagnant Until He Gave Evangelism A Shot and Discovered a Great Adventure
God has been doing great things in my life over the past year at Samford. As I began my junior year last August, my faith was very important to me, as it had been since high school, but there was something missing. I spent my first two years of college asking a lot of questions about the faith. At the beginning of my junior year, I was no longer plagued by as many questions, but my faith had become somewhat stagnant. I loved being Catholic, I found beauty and comfort in the Sacraments, and I loved reading about Catholic theology. I was attending Mass on Sundays and sometimes during the week, but I lacked the confidence and enthusiasm for the faith that I once had when I was in high school. The challenges and questions that I faced during my first two years of college left me not without a faith, but with a weaker faith.
During this past year, my faith has grown tremendously. This year for the first time, two FOCUS missionaries came to serve St. Stephen’s. One of them, David, quickly befriended me, and we developed a Christ-centered relationship. He kept me accountable. More than that, he challenged me. He introduced me to The Great Commission in Matthew’s gospel and challenged me to evangelize as Christ called the twelve apostles to evangelize. Up until this point in college, my faith was something I had kept to myself most of the time. It was important to me, but I wasn’t exactly eager to share it with others. As soon as I embraced the Great Commission, I realized what had been lacking from my faith the whole time. It had been all about me. I was so absorbed in my fears and anxieties that I forgot that the Christian life is about loving others as Christ loved. It is in the abandonment of self and love of neighbor that we find true freedom and true peace.
One of the ways in which David challenged me was by asking me to consider leading a Bible study. I was at first hesitant, but after praying about it, I decided I would give it a shot. I have now been leading a men’s Bible study for several months, and I have loved every minute of it. At first, I thought no one would show up, but I had five people the first week and about as many each week since. I now have five guys coming to my Bible Study consistently, and several others who come every now and then. It has been a tremendous blessing to help these men grow closer to Christ throughout the past year. If David hadn’t challenged me to start a Bible Study, I almost certainly wouldn’t have done it on my own. I don’t know where I would be on my faith journey, and I don’t know where some of the guys I’ve been able to impact would be.
Through FOCUS as well as through involvement at St. Stephen and Samford CSA, my prayer life has developed tremendously. Praying with and for my peers has become a very fruitful experience. Receiving communion with my friends and mentors has been an indispensable part of my life in college. In the past year, I have grown so much closer with my Catholic brothers and sisters at both Samford and UAB. I am so grateful for FOCUS and how it has transformed the Birmingham college community over the past year.
The last year has been an incredible journey. I am grateful for the adventure the Lord has taken me on, and grateful for those he has placed in my life to help me through it.
I am a sophomore pre-nursing student at UAB. Growing up, my faith was tested at a young age when a friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Later in high school, I had to face the truth that what I thought was love (from a bad relationship) wasn’t good for me and didn’t make me a better person. I wanted something more. As we like to say, I had a “come to Jesus” moment during Adoration, and now I know what humble and authentic love looks like.
I serve as a student missionary through Saint Stephen Catholic Chapel, and l helped to lead the “Awakening” retreat last weekend. One of the most exciting things about an Awakening retreat is that it is led BY students FOR students (under the guidance of priests and mentors)! Needless to say, the two days spent serving these retreaters are extremely important, because we have to lead them closer to Jesus Christ, the only person who will fill each of their voids that the world only temporarily fills.
A few weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Texas and participate in Texas A&M’s 106th Awakening! (We are just on number 3 here in Birmingham!) The Catholic students at this university took my breath away! The faith and compassion each student leader carried on this retreat moved my soul in many ways. About two hundred students lead this retreat three times a year, and over a hundred were on the retreat. I heard many powerful talks by student leaders and even a professor from the university about important elements of the Catholic faith. While at one of the many Masses that weekend, I couldn’t even hear myself sing because all these college students were praising our God with all their might! It was such a beautiful experience, to be able to share this one weekend and the Eucharist with so many people MY AGE.
We want to bring this all to Alabama, and we are well on our way! I cannot wait to see how Christ will continue to work on my campus and in the hearts of all His children in the years to come.
Growing up, I was raised Catholic, but I was not devout. My freshman year of college, I was not involved in my faith at all, and I could tell there was something missing. My sophomore year, I came back to the Church as a way to get away from the overwhelming stress of roommates and school. It was during one of the more difficult times in my life that I really started pursuing my faith at a deeper level.
St. Stephens was my oasis from campus. It has been where I spent hours studying, spending time with friends, and developing a deep, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Through a FOCUS* Bible study, I came to delve deep into God’s words and really opened myself to His influence in my life. Now, I lead a Bible study with five sophomore and junior girls. Looking back on my early undergraduate years, I would have never thought I could develop such a deep and lasting relationship with our Lord. I would never have thought that I would become involved in a church community or actually want to attend Mass. Thankfully I have developed this relationship with Jesus Christ in my early 20s and not later in life.
This past spring, I graduated from UAB with my B.S. in neuroscience with minors in biology and chemistry. I am finishing my master’s of public health in health behavior and have been accepted into medical school. Without the opportunities presented to me through Saint Stephen Chapel, I probably would have left the Church like so many other college students do. Instead, I grew in my faith. While I do not know where I will be next year, I do know that I can always find another parish to call home.
*FOCUS stands for the Fellowship of Catholic University Students. Saint Stephen Chapel partners with FOCUS national organization to provide four full-time FOCUS missionaries who serve UAB campus.
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