PERU (SNR) - Roughly once a month during fall and spring semesters, parishioners at St. Clara Parish in Peru host college students who are hungry for a home-cooked meal and a chance to express their Catholic faith.
Students and parishioners gather together at 6 p.m. on select Sundays for Mass. Then, they head downstairs to share a pot-luck meal.
It all started a few years ago when Valerie Abel was president of the Altar Society. While looking at the history of the diocese, she discovered that St. Clara Parish was formed specifically to provide sacraments to Peru State College students in the town.
Mrs. Abel had to admit that the parish wasn’t doing anything specific to reach out to local college students. And it showed in how many were coming to Mass at the small wood-framed church.
"None of them," she said, shaking her head.
With a little brainstorming, the ladies of the Altar Society hit on the ideal solution: a Mass scheduled in the evening so it’s easier for students to attend after late nights of studying, work and socializing, followed by a dinner.
Parishioner Peggy Groff works at Peru State in student success services. She started promoting St. Clara’s monthly Mass and dinner, and the students started responding.
"I think we averaged six the first year," Mrs. Abel said.
Miranda Decker now leads the Altar Society’s efforts to reach out to the college students. She said different themes are chosen each month to keep things interesting.
"It allows us to do something that we ordinarily might not make," she smiled.
The parish has hosted Italian, Mexican and holiday-themed meals, though nobody minds if a dish of curried beef shows up on the Thanksgiving buffet. The important thing is for the tables to be well-laden with a variety of dishes so that students and parishioners can enjoy the meal.
While the Altar Society was planning and hosting dinners, Riannon Jeffrey found herself in a common situation for Catholic students at Peru State – a sincere faith but little help in growing.
"I tried Campus Crusade but it wasn’t quite right," said the Bellevue native, referring to an evangelical Protestant college outreach program.
Over time, however, she found she was not alone. Other students were in the same boat – not quite comfortable at Campus Crusade, but longing for a community of faith.
Miss Jeffrey was able to make a connection with the Franciscan Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother in Nebraska City. Since the sisters focus on religious education, working with a college group dovetailed nicely into their existing apostolate.
"We help students deepen their Catholic faith in a variety of different ways," explained Sister Cynthia Young, O.S.F.
With the help of the sisters, Miss Jeffery was able to organize a legitimate campus club, complete with a constitution. The Peru State Catholic Union was officially launched in in the fall semester of 2010.
Since then, St. Clara Parish has encouraged the students to take an even more active role at Mass.
"They’ve invited us to lead the songs and do the readings," Miss Jeffery said.
"Ultimately, it’s about serving the students," Mrs. Decker said.
She noted that one of the tough parts about keeping one’s faith active in college is having to go it alone.
"To make that personal decision to go to Mass is harder if they don’t have somebody to go with," she reasoned.
That’s why the parish feels it’s so important to offer a warm – and delicious – welcome to the students at Peru State College. As the number of students attending the dinners continues to grow, St. Clara Parish will continue to cook… and set up more tables and chairs to welcome them.
All students are welcome to visit St. Clara Parish for their monthly Sunday evening dinners, whether or not they can come to the 6 p.m. Mass.
For more information about the Peru State Catholic Union, students are invited to look for the group on Facebook, where activities and other information are readily available.