Deacon starts campus Catholic chaplaincy

By 
  • January 6, 2009
{mosimage}OSHAWA, Ont. - Providing a ministry of presence to post-secondary students is something that Deacon Bill Letterio considers the greatest aspect of Christian witness — and also the newest.

Letterio single-handedly started up a chaplaincy from scratch at Durham College at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) this past fall.

However, Letterio still manages to find time in his hectic schedule to serve his parish, Holy Family in Whitby, his family and maintain a full-time position with Seneca College as a computer science professor.

Last April, Letterio realized Durham College and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology did not have an official Catholic chaplaincy. Both institutions, along with Trent University, share one common campus in the northern part of Oshawa.

“As part of my ongoing diaconal formation, I continued to feel this strong call about initiating a Catholic group somehow. So I jumped on the idea and away I went,” he said. “Plus, I can devote a lot of my time and energy to the group since the campus is right around the corner from my house.”

Immediately following his formation program in spring 2008, Letterio submitted a proposal to Toronto Archbishop Thomas Collins calling for the creation and support of the group which he called “Durham Campus Catholics.” After his proposal was approved, Letterio reached out to various parish communities for their help over the summer.

“I got in contact with all of the churches in the eastern part of the archdiocese, Durham Region, and asked the clergy to mention the new group in their weekly bulletins and homilies,” he said.

“Sure enough, Jessica O’Brien, a UOIT student, heard our appeal and came forward.”

O’Brien became a founding member of the group and, eventually, chaplaincy president.

Eleana Howell, another founding member and third-year nursing student at UOIT, thought that joining the Durham Campus Catholics has helped strengthen the strong connection she has with the church.

“I joined and helped start the group because I thought it was a great idea,” she said. “There are many faith groups and clubs on campus and I felt that one for Catholics and those interested would add to the culture of the campus. Personally, I want to build upon my faith and by becoming a member of this group, I would make a difference in the lives of others.”

When the school year began, Letterio met with prospective members at a coffee pub on campus. In those initial meetings, Letterio incorporated prayer and a question and answer time for those students who may have questions or concerns about their faith. With the students help, Letterio drafted a long-term plan on how the group would be run. Their first action was to hold a membership drive in October.

“The best idea that we could put forth, as a new group, would be to hold membership drives on campus and to spread the word by mouth,” he said.

“Members told their friends who then passed the word along. Our group went from one member, at first, to 11 before the membership drive, to 65 following the membership drive.

“My personal goal is to see the Durham Campus Catholics to 100-plus people by the end of the school year.”

Prior to Christmas, Durham Campus Catholics got together with the York University Catholic Chaplaincy for Sunday evening Masses at York.

“As an established community, we should know what’s going on elsewhere within our archdiocese,” Letterio said. “There’s an importance by being connected to our chaplaincies so we can bond together and join in faith.”

Durham Campus Catholics meet every Monday evening in the Student Centre Boardroom. Letterio offers prayer, praise and worship, fellowship and planning for the weeks ahead. The group decided that as part of its outreach efforts, it would sponsor a family through the St. Vincent de Paul Society this Christmas and make hampers.

All members contributed cash and gifts totalling a few hundred dollars.

Apart from its weekly meetings, the group joins together Tuesday mornings at St. Gregory the Great Church in Oshawa. Members have also attended monthly Lectio Divina sessions at St. Michael’s Cathedral and a Young Adults Retreat, sponsored by the Office of Catholic Youth.

“One day, I envision the Durham Campus Catholics with a proper space staffed with priests, lay workers and an elderly deacon like myself,” he joked.

“Students and faculty could then have a place to turn to, free from all of the stresses and burdens that come with being a post-secondary student or faculty member.”

Letterio has extended an invitation to Collins and the regional bishops to visit the campus and celebrate Mass in the New Year.

Letterio spoke about the importance of reaching out to everyone on campus and helping them to join the group.

“It is my wish to speak with Catholic educators and leaders. I want to help mentor our students and help them to become Catholic leaders in the next generation.”

For more information about the Durham Campus Catholics, visit www.dccsa.org or contact Letterio at Deacon Bill@dccsa.org.

(Santos is a journalism student at Durham College in Oshawa, Ont.)

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