Rachel Vandermeer, left, hugs Victoria Doucette, one of her “sisters” from St. Therese Institute. Photo courtesy Rachel Vandermeer

Formation program builds pandemic bonds

By  Elizabeth Gay, Youth Speak News
  • June 24, 2021

Jim Anderson faced two options when COVID-19 first hit back in March 2020. The director of formation and acting registrar of the St. Therese Institute in Bruno, Sask., could have closed the doors for the duration of the pandemic — or he could devise a way to forge forward. He chose the latter.

Fortunately, a small student population is very intrinsic to this Catholic-Christian post-secondary school. In 2020-21, 43 students engaged in a nine-month residential program that strives to help each student strengthen their spiritual bond with Jesus.

Although academics are essential at the school providing faith formation inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux, the primary focus is living in a community. This personal dimension remained the core focus when the vast majority of undergraduate institutions went virtual. 

The school adapted to COVID-19 hurdles by establishing a clear intake protocol and with a two-week quarantine period upon arrival. The students underwent regular health monitoring. After the initial two-week period, they began to lodge with a roommate and were able to move about the facilities freely. No guests were allowed and students remained except for essential reasons on the 65-acre property.

Anderson said St. Therese usually functions as a “hybrid between a small Catholic college and religious community, and this year we tended towards the religious community.”

“The students developed a deeper bond with one another as naturally occurs when you face a challenge together,” he said.

“This made the leaving more difficult. However, we have our largest returning second-year class ever, 15 students — a great consolation.”

Students and staff agree the importance of living in community and fostering a familial spirit is an essential quality of St. Therese. The curriculum emphasizes spiritual accompaniment in the first and second years, and mentorship in the third year as students are empowered to be student leaders.

First-year student Michelle Pacheco from Brampton, Ont., described her year, saying, “43 people went from strangers to a family because each person was open to God and seeking to love Him and others. I can truly say that I’ve gained more than 43 brothers and sisters.”

Rachel Vandermeer, a second-year student from Woodstock, Ont., also had a beautiful experience despite the pandemic. She described the focus on joy, which transformed the work into “an opportunity to praise God and learn about Him.”

The biggest difference from Vandermeer’s perspective was the new limitation to the school grounds and restriction on incoming visitors. Priests came to administer sacraments according to the safety protocols.

This hurdle “could have been terrible,” Vandermeer said, “but I think it was a huge blessing to our community because we all learned how to be creative with our love.” 

With a little effort, students became creative with their familial love. The result was a weekend homemade coffee shop on campus, in-house movie nights and household games which drew them closer to each other.

“Looking back,” Vandermeer said, “I would say it was almost a gift that we had to be more intentional because we got to be a very close community. A group of friends hanging out for nine months. I can say that each person in that community is my friend and my brother or sister.”

(Gay, 21, completed her third-year at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ont.)

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