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A Ministry of Presence

A Ministry of Presence

By Paul Totah ’79

Interior of the Jesuit Residence on Franklin Street. Photo by Joanne Lee
Celebrating a decade of a new Jesuit home and 165 years of service to students.

As SCU marks the 10-year anniversary of the opening of the Jesuit Residence, nothing quite describes the difference between the former and new community residences than the contrast between iron and glass.

Nobili Hall, built in 1930 as a student dorm, became the home of the Santa Clara Jesuit Community in 1975. Students who wanted to visit Jesuits there were confronted with an iron grate at the reception desk, a symbolic separation more akin to a medieval cloister. Jesuits who lived in Nobili traveled to their rooms down dark, windowless corridors and had to go knocking to see who might be in a common recreation or dining room.

At the start of the new millennium, Dennis Parnell, S.J., the rector at the time, began planning for a new residence by leading the Jesuit community in developing a mission statement and forming an advisory committee. “The move was precipitated by the need for more student housing, and we were living in a residence that was too large for our community,” says Gerdenio “Sonny” Manuel, S.J. (Jesuit community rector, 2004–2010). “We had fifteen or more empty rooms. The reality was that Nobili Hall could be more effectively used to house our students.”

Gary Schilling, the principal at San Francisco’s BAR Architects and lead designer and project manager for the residence (Devcon served as the architect of record), added that “Nobili Hall was designed to house 50-100 priests, and by the time we were brought on board, the Jesuits were rattling around living in a space that was too big for them. Nobili didn’t help community building, and the Jesuits wanted to be in a place that would feel more like a home with amenities you’d expect to find in a house. They also wanted a place that would reinforce and enhance their community and that would bring them together as religious people.”

Manuel, along with Michael Zampelli, S.J. (rector, 2010–2016), and Art Liebscher, S.J., 69, M.Div ’84 (incoming rector on July 31), were on Fr. Parnell’s advisory committee and all advised him to have the new residence reflect the openness, engagement, hospitality, accessibility, and involvement that characterized the Jesuits’ work with their lay colleagues on the faculty and their mission to the students.

In 2002, Schilling and his team, in conjunction with the Jesuit advisory group, began designing the new home on Franklin Street so that it would be the antithesis of the old, with bedrooms surrounding common living areas visible through glass walls. Jesuits and visitors walking in could be invited to sit for a meal, watch TV together, or engage in conversation. All of this was possible thanks to a group of generous benefactors whose donations allowed the Jesuits to move into a place more suited to the mission and vision of their work.

Though the two living residences were different, one thing never changed—a ministry of presence marked by service and by friendships formed between Jesuits and students since the university’s founding in 1851. In short, Jesuits past and present, because they lived on campus both in student dorms and in their residence, have helped students in crisis while providing living examples of what it means to be a Jesuit, a Catholic and a Christian.

The current and future rectors—Manuel, Zampelli, and Liebscher—offered their reflections on Jesuit life over the years and how the new residence hall has shaped their ministry since it opened in 2006.

All three either remember or heard stories of what life was like decades ago when as many as 80 men in black worked at the college. From its completion in 1911, Jesuits lived in St. Joseph’s Hall before the move to Nobili. That move meant one change only: private bathrooms, which pleased the men. The move to the new residence offered a real difference.

“The model changed from that of a cloister to what we truly were,” says Manuel. “We were a community that was open and engaged and that reached out to everyone in the university.”

Most of the 25 bedrooms surround common living areas. “As soon as you walk in, you see where people are gathered and you can join them,” Manuel says. “When I lived there, my neighbor was Michael “Mick” McCarthy, S.J., ’87, M.Div. ’97, and we gathered to watch the news every night at 10 o’clock, and others would join us for conversation. That shared space allowed us to become good friends.” There is also a community chapel, a major gathering spot where Mass is held every weekday evening.

Jesuits could also invite students and lay colleagues for lunch or dinner, “as sharing a meal is one of the ways to deepen relationships,” says Zampelli. “Fr. Reites would have his solar decathlon students over for lunch, Fr. McKevitt would host colleagues from the history department, and Fr. Tran continues to welcome students working in the Christian Life Communities. We all do likewise, as this is how we build and enjoy community.”

For Liebscher, the new Jesuit residence is just one more place the Jesuits can model Christ for their students. “We are all called to become Jesus in the world, and for Jesuits who teach, that happens mainly in the classroom. But because we’re on campus 24 hours a day, the classroom extends outside the school buildings.”

Liebscher, like many of his Jesuit colleagues, has close friends among the alumni — men and women he first met as a student while he roomed in Nobili his freshman year, and others he befriended as a scholastic and priest living in the dorms and Jesuit residence or while teaching. He has celebrated the weddings and baptisms for many Broncos, and he has cared for them when tragedy struck, sitting by hospital beds with them.

“For that kind of relationship to take place, it’s important to be here and not just commuters living elsewhere,” Liebscher says. “Once you move off campus, you have an employee relationship with the school, and we need to be here and welcoming when things go wrong, even if it’s at three in the morning.”

Liebscher also points to the demographic change that happened when SCU’s lay faculty found themselves priced out of Santa Clara’s sky-high housing market. “They aren’t around as they were in past years,” he notes. “But the Jesuits are still here.”

That presence also serves the broader community. “We have homeless people and others in crisis who drop in because they know how to find us,” says Zampelli. “They come with spiritual, financial, or emotional issues, and we have a list of Jesuits—including retired men like Fr. Goda and Fr. Phipps—who can be called for these kinds of visits. Until I became rector, I didn’t realize how many people they help and how generous these men are.”

Students also end up at the residence hall when they need help, often prompted by fellow students who work the front desk for the Jesuits. “Our student workers become a touchstone to their classmates whom they refer to the community,” says Zampelli. “Whether we meet students at our front door or in the dorms where many of us have lived for years, our job is to walk with them and help them with whatever they are going through.”

Some of those encounters have become more formalized over the years. “We had a program called Jesuit Conversations, where we invited small groups of faculty and staff to come in and talk with us about an important topic,” says Manuel. “We’d gather in small groups in the gardens and in our common living area and eat in one contiguous space. Another tradition that began and has continued now for many years is an annual barbecue for all of our students without documents, the Hurtado scholars, to celebrate those who are graduating. We could easily host 50 students in the garden. These are clear examples that the residence we had built was working as we had intended. We had made a place that was homey, open, and inviting.”

In addition to the Jesuit faculty, the residence hall provides room for Jesuits from other countries who have come to SCU to further their studies. “These men refresh our lives immensely,” says Zampelli. “Though we share a great deal, their experience of the Society is different. Those who come from Africa belong to provinces that are quite young. Some haven’t lived with very many older Jesuits and they find the veteran priests here to be wisdom channels. In exchange, we get to learn about the work of the Jesuits around the world.”

All these changes, says Liebscher, represent an organic, evolutionary shift in the relationship between the Jesuits and the university. “We are becoming a community that inspires more than we manage as we move from an institutional model to a charismatic, spirit-filled arrangement.”

That has come about, in part, because there are fewer Jesuits working today than in past years. “Future rectors will have to consider what our community will look like 5, 10, 15 and 20 years from now,” says Zampelli. “Maybe the Bellarmine Jesuits at the high school down the road and those working in the Province office will join us. Perhaps we will invite visiting Jesuit professors or graduate students to spend a year or two here to live and work with us, broadening our experience of the world and enriching the university’s educational environment. What we need to remember is that having fewer Jesuits at SCU doesn’t mean we have to be less effective. We’ll just have to reimagine what it means to have a Jesuit presence on campus, one that still allows us to walk with our students on their journeys while they are here with us.”

Paul Totah serves as director of communications and editor of Genesis magazine at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco, where he also taught English for 25 years. He is a 1979 graduate of SCU and the author of two books—The San Francisco Fair: Treasure Island 1939–1940 and Spiritus Magis: 150 Years of St. Ignatius College Preparatory.

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  • Sonny Manuel, S.J.
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