Monday, February 4, 2008

Saint Xavier University keeps the faith through staff mentoring; Catholic University in Chicago pilots successful staff mentoring program

Chicago (Feb. 4, 2008) – What does a Catholic university do when its student body grows six times larger at the same time that the number of religious sisters who founded the school declines by nearly 90 percent?

To maintain and enhance its Catholic identity, Chicago’s Saint Xavier University, the oldest Sisters of Mercy university in the country, is meeting the twin challenges of declining numbers of religious sisters and an increase of students with less pronounced Catholic backgrounds by piloting a unique mentoring program for staff.

"This is not an approach we've seen anywhere else in the National Network of Church-Related Colleges and Universities," said John Steven Paul, program director of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts out of Valparaiso, Ind., which provided grant funding for Saint Xavier's peer mentoring program. "Even though the Lilly Fellows Program tends to fund mentoring programs for faculty, it seems so wise to me that SXU is mentoring its full time staff, because they work so closely with new students and faculty."

When it comes to engaging new employees with a university’s Catholic character, faculty mentoring may be common, but mentoring staff members, ranging from custodial workers to administrators, is not. Saint Xavier’s program recognizes that students are significantly shaped by their interactions with staff outside the classroom, including admissions, registration, residence life, mentoring and counseling.

Staff members periodically meet after work in an informal setting to continue a conversation about what it means to work in a Catholic institution. They examine the history and mission of the Sisters of Mercy and core values such as belief in the dignity of the human person, working toward the common good, and commitments to justice, compassion, service and the education of the whole person. They are encouraged to understand and then pass on what it means for students to study and live at a Catholic university.

“It was at one time easier to preserve our Catholic heritage and ensure that our halls were infused with a Catholic spirit,” said Vice President for Mission and Heritage Sr. Sue Sanders, R.S.M., Ph.D, who co-designed the program. “Not only did we have far more sisters walking our halls, but the vast majority of faculty, staff and students would have been committed Catholics.”

Saint Xavier’s enrollment has grown more than six times since 1967 to approximately 5,700 students. During that same time, numbers of Sisters of Mercy on campus dropped by 88 percent to seven with just two working as faculty. This shift reflects the overall reality for the Chicago-based Sisters of Mercy. In 1967, the median age for the approximately 800 sisters in the Chicago congregation was 58. The median age of the 200 remaining Chicago Sisters of Mercy is now 79.

Michael O’Keeffe, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, co-leads the mentoring discussions. Beyond the decline of women in the religious life, he noted that students now come from a culture that has changed dramatically in the past few decades.

“Even the students who are Catholic don’t necessarily have the same faith perspective or identity that students might have had in a pre-Vatican II world,” O’Keeffe said. “Up through the 1950s, the typical Saint Xavier student would have been well-versed in an Irish Catholic life reflected in the largely working-class culture of Chicago. They knew what being Catholic was all about, even if they needed reminders. But just as the 1960s exploded in new ways to consider traditional categories like being an American, a woman or an African American, so too the 1960s introduced new ways to consider Catholicism. Today there is pressing need to clarify what it means to be Catholic, and one of the best places to do so is at a Catholic university.”


Contact Joe Moore
773-298-3937 or

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