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St. Norbert College Magazine
Spring 2008 | Radical Hospitality

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Radical Hospitality
by Jeff Kurowski

A banner that hangs from a light pole north of the Todd Wehr Library reads “Your Community. Relationships. Care for and about others.”

This same banner would have been appropriate hanging outside a Norbertine abbey centuries ago, for the call to welcome and build community at the college is a value rooted in tradition.

Radical hospitality traces back to the beginnings of the Norbertine order. The abbeys welcomed travelers and all strangers with a meal and a place to sleep.

“In the ancient world, hospitality was one of the most sacred obligations of the people,” says Bill Hyland (Classical Studies), director of the Center for Norbertine Studies.

“When you think about the roots of the Norbertines; when you think about monasticism, it’s central. Every guest you receive, it’s like you’re welcoming Christ. That’s a central idea that is still very much a part of the Norbertine ideal.”

While St. Norbert may not be a destination for wandering pilgrims like the abbeys in the 14th century, creating a welcoming environment remains an essential part of the college’s mission. The value of radical hospitality is played out today in many forms on campus, says the Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem. ’84, vice president for mission and heritage.

“It absolutely is a conscious effort on our part,” he says. “Our welcoming center and our visitor center are examples. Little things that many of our students, faculty and staff may take for granted are important parts of welcoming, such as keeping our grounds and buildings looking nice.

“The Kress Inn is a part of that welcoming spirit. We reserve a few rooms, so if there is a crisis on campus, we make sure we take care of family members.”

The college is always looking for way to improve its hospitality, he added. A recent climate survey asked participants to share both positives and negatives about the college as a welcoming environment for two groups, women and people of diverse origin and culture.

Mary Kay Bressers (Facilities), a member of the president’s commission on women and of the mission and heritage committee, says that while the final results of the survey have not been released, the plan is to implement some changes in the fall based on the responses.

“It involved the entire college community,” she says. “We consider the staff, students and administration as part of that community. Everyone should feel they have a voice.”
Bressers is in her 15th year at St. Norbert. She continues to see positive changes making the campus more welcoming.

 “Common Prayer on Wednesdays is also a nice way to bring people together,” she added. “It helps build community.”

The climate survey carried out last semester may be compared to chapter at monasteries and abbeys, says Hyland. “In chapter, they gather to meet and talk. ‘Are we all doing what we say we are doing?’ It’s an honest, forthright way of addressing things.”

Wearing a welcoming face
Outreach to the community is tied to the Norbertine tradition, says Hyland. In the Middle Ages, the Norbertines aligned themselves with monasteries by living in community, but they were also looking outward.

“The Norbertines would assess the needs of the area to determine their external mission,” he says. “That extended to helping local people in need. Feasts of the year were important. They would give extra care to the poor on those feasts. Also, in the Middle Ages, as we understand it there were no hospitals. The monasteries and abbeys provided whatever local health care they were able. It was very demanding, but was an important part of their hospitality.”

Radical hospitality is introduced to new students the day they step on campus in the fall. Convocation and a service project, “Into the Streets,” are part of the orientation process.

“The service project is not required,” says Julie Massey ’87, director of campus ministry and the Faith, Learning and Vocation program. “The whole first year class is invited and we get very respectable numbers. They are put on buses on Saturday morning and sent out into the community. They immediately realize that if you come to St. Norbert, you are part of a larger community.”

The freshmen learn more with their introduction to the staff of the mission and heritage division.

“We try to meet the incoming class wherever they might be in terms of spirituality and faith,” says Massey. “We have a menu or tapestry offering different entities wherever they might want to be connected or wherever they want to explore.”

Massey explained that some students want no part of campus ministry during their four years on campus. Others will be regulars at Old St. Joe’s Church. Some commit themselves to serving at the Peace and Justice Center. Others may join the Alive Team. All are part of the diverse programs offered in the division of Mission and Heritage.

As they settle in, the new class experiences for itself the transformation that comes when strangers begin to feel at home. Agnes Miller (Dining Services), who works at Phil’s is one example of the spirit of radical hospitality at St. Norbert, says Massey.

“Agnes is blessed with a great recall for names and she puts it to use,” says Massey. “She has a gift. Students may look down or tired and Agnes will address them by name and ask them how they are doing to help uplift their spirits. It’s another little way to be more welcoming. It may be a little thing, but it’s significant. Some of those little things may not draw much fanfare, but they are all important.” 

Room for all
Welcoming events are not only reserved for new students. Major campus events are offered for all classes. Caitlin Zach ’09 of Oregon, Wis., who will be a senior in the fall, helps plan events as an intern for the alumni house. She applauds Junior Knights and Days, an offering that gives the junior class a chance to play host to its parents.

“It’s a pretty neat weekend,” she says. “Parents of juniors get the opportunity to see what life is like for their children. They go to classes and it helps develop a greater understanding.”

The event includes a reception and dance, a guest speaker and Mass.

St. Norbert is a tradition for the Zach family. Caitlin’s parent’s Steve ’80 and Patty Zach ’80 are alumni. Her younger sister, Bridget ’11, is currently a student at St. Norbert.

“I was quite sure that I wanted to go to a different college,” says Caitlin, a music education major. “St. Norbert ended up being the best fit for me. When you step on campus you feel a part of the college community. The rich Norbertine Catholic tradition was important to me. When I came for orientation, I knew I made a good choice. I met some of my best friends at freshman orientation.”

Recent graduate Amir St. Clair ’08 of Batavia, Ill. did not encounter the first day apprehension felt by many incoming freshman. St. Clair arrived on campus early as part of the St. Norbert soccer team, but he embraced the orientation activities.

“When you arrive they want you to get involved,” he says. “The ‘Taste of SNC’ is really helpful. It’s a recruiting day where all the campus organizations promote their activities. Community and service were the main aspects that attracted me to St. Norbert.”

St. Clair, who graduated with a degree in religion and philosophy, served as a student ambassador, helping host events on campus. Reflecting on his four years at the college, he says the little things made a big difference in his experience.

“Things such as getting flyers and posters out for events and presentations invite students to turn out,” he says. “Students also feel that the college wants to hear from them. There was a town hall meeting in April. That’s very important to the students.”

St. Clair looks forward to staying connected to the college as an alumnus. He is pursuing the SEAL program of the U.S. Navy.

“Once a Knight, always a Knight,” he says. “From my involvement with the alumni office, I realize that the alumni events are planned to welcome you to remain a part of the college.”

A sacred obligation handed down
A new class, Communio, is a pilot course at St. Norbert and is designed as a potential requirement for freshman. The liberal arts course presents the Norbertine heritage to students from their first semester on campus.

“I believe it is important to make that tradition explicit to people,” says Hyland. “Once upon a time the faculty was from the religious order walking around in white robes. Schools can’t take for granted that students will experience the tradition as part of their formation.”

All colleges attempt to be welcoming, but at St. Norbert it is a responsibility, he added.
“There is a historical context,” he says. “There is a theology. It is centered in xenodochium, a Greek word referring to stranger or guest. Treat people as you would like to be treated as a stranger or guest.”

Norbertine hospitality is a quality that Fostner, Hyland and Massey and many others have all experienced firsthand through mission and heritage trips to the order’s abbeys in Europe.

“It’s very real,” says Hyland. “Eating dinner in a 14th century building rubs off on you. The tradition can inspire you and guide you.”

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