A Common Space: St. Francis Xavier College Church
Ornate wooden doors leading from a city street open to reveal natural light filtering in through the brilliant colors of stained glass windows in every direction.
Passing the traditional baptismal font gives way to rows of pews punctuated with marble columns, leading to an ornate, exposed transept. Visitors walk around and behind the elevated altar, where they gaze intimately at enthroned statues of Christ and the saints. This is St. Francis Xavier College Church.
The Church, which was renovated just under 30 years ago, brings together century-old Gothic architecture with touches of modern spirituality, weaving together the spiritual journeys of nearly 200 years of parishioners and students.
St. Francis Xavier College Church, originally established in 1841, grew alongside Saint Louis University’s (SLU) original campus in downtown St. Louis, MO. The first English-speaking parish in St. Louis, the space now affectionately known as College Church functioned both as an archdiocesan parish and as a University-owned chapel. When the University moved, there was no question that College Church would move with it. Though 177 years old in spirit, College Church has been at its present location at the heart of SLU’s current campus since 1884.
College Church occupies a unique space. “People ask me, is this a parish, or a campus ministry site?” said Dan White, S.J., pastor of College Church. “And the answer is: yes.”
Because of its joint purpose as the site of its own parish and as the site of worship for Saint Louis University’s students, White sees the physical space as uniquely at the heart of the Jesuit mission. He explained, “When the Jesuits began, almost all of the parishes had a connection to a collegio, which is more like a high school."
To White, College Church is a building that represents that age-old Jesuit connection – but it’s also a place that belongs first and foremost to the students of Saint Louis University. In describing the students, he said, “I consider them parishioners. I say I have the biggest parish in the archdiocese, with 13,000 parishioners within our boundaries – and this is their place.” Though he may not be impartial, White recognizes the privilege and honor of serving at what he considers the most beautiful on-campus church in America.
Campus liturgical coordinator Erin Schmidt agrees. She works with a team of 150 student liturgical ministers to facilitate each week’s campus ministry Mass, held at 9 p.m. on Sunday evenings. In order to make the service as meaningful as possible, Schmidt relies heavily on her student team.
“I don’t ever want to assume that what I think is best is what students need,” she said.
So students take the charge each week, writing the prayers of the faithful and reflecting on the upcoming week’s readings in order to give the priest an understanding of what students may need from him at that time, and “help us [campus ministry staff] see where students are at” mentally and emotionally.
The focus on students taking the lead has created a joyful, energetic spirit that welcomes students of all faiths and backgrounds. That community and sense of belonging is what keeps Rio Febrian, a graduate student in the chemistry department, coming back and singing in the Mass choir.
“I’ve been to Catholic Masses where the preaching is about living a joyous Christian life, but I think that’s really embodied in the 9 p.m. Mass,” Febrian said. “No one is requiring anyone to go, but it’s always packed.”
It’s also what inspired Rachel Kondro, a two-time SLU graduate, to enter RCIA at College Church. She said, “I had attended the student Mass at College Church for a number of years before deciding to [become Catholic]. I was moved by the beauty of the space and the energy, joy and passion among the students and faculty. It was an energizing experience, and being part of that community moved me closer to the decision to become Catholic.”
While the 9 p.m. Mass attracts many students, the Church is also a home for students celebrating commencement events, white coat ceremonies where first-year medical students receive their first doctor’s coats, and other activities. Ameer Khan, senior and president of the Interfaith Alliance, recalls her first experience in College Church at an interfaith service during her freshman year. Khan was invited to read from the Qur’an, focusing on passages about Mary and the birth of Jesus.
Throughout that evening, Khan's fellow students read traditional Catholic Filipino prayers, Jewish scripture passages, and other readings. Through her experiences inside and outside of College Church with campus ministry, Khan has come to realize that “there are a lot of shared values between people of Muslim and Catholic faiths.” She loves campus ministry and said, “[These places] are spaces where I can be my full, authentic self with God and a community."
That community contains the many distinct groups who find their home in College Church – and White sees them all as part of his flock.
“It’s fun to think of what we all hold in common,” he said. “You may be a student, a parishioner, or just coming for confession – but this place is where we’re all together. And I think that’s what holds it all together. This place means a lot."