A Catholic university in Indiana has opened an LGBTQ center as part of its larger efforts to support diverse students.
Saint Mary’s College, South Bend, launched the center earlier in October following a series of LGBTQ-related programming this semester. The Office for Student Equity was also opened. The Observer, the student newspaper, reported that this center is the “first official safe space for LGBTQ students,” and administrators hope it will impact not only students, but community members and alumni. The report continued:
“‘A recent Saint Mary’s College student climate survey revealed that our LGBTQ students had more difficulties making friends and did not always feel welcome,’ [Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Redgina] Hill said. ‘These findings pointed to a dire need for a safe space at Saint Mary’s for our LGBTQ+ students.’ . . .
“‘I hope this Center is the first step towards reconciliation with our alums, and a place for our students, faculty and staff to express themselves authentically and as a result, allow Saint Mary’s to truly become a place they can call home … This moment is one that exemplifies [that] Saint Mary’s is committed to change and cracking barriers that hold communities back.'”
Saint Mary’s new president, Katie Conboy, who was inaugurated the same week as the center’s opening, spoke of how LGBTQ support fits with the school’s Catholic identity:
“‘This space that you’ll see upstairs and the good work of the Office of Student Equity affirms the Catholic Church’s belief that all persons must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity,’ she said.
The center’s opening comes amid other LGBTQ programming at the school. Saint Mary’s recently hosted Sr. Jeannine Gramick, co-founder of New Ways Ministry, to speak about her experiences from 50 years of LGBTQ ministry. Robert Shine, associate director of New Ways Ministry, led a workshop for students, faculty, and staff on how Catholic campuses can take the next steps on their journey to inclusion.
Other speakers at the opening included leaders of the LGBTQ community in South Bend, a queer alumna, and several students. Sophia Sanchez, a junior who helped lead efforts for the center, spoke to the need for it to be a starting point as the community expands its support:
“‘It’s just the easy questions: asking someone’s pronouns, using inclusive language, just recognizing that there are different types of students that come from different walks of life who have different identities,’ she said.
“Sanchez also invited all members of the tri-campus community [which includes the University of Notre Dame and Holy Cross College] to visit the Center and explore its offerings.
“‘It’s going to be a space for people to feel welcome, but also a space where we can invite people outside of the tri-campus community to come in and do speeches or talks or events — so be on the lookout for that for sure,’ she said. ‘This is definitely something that’s not just a Saint Mary’s thing. The center is definitely a tri-campus space for all students to come and hang out and talk. Whatever space they need to do anything — it’s definitely here for everybody.'”
Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, who is the director of Saint Mary’s Center for Spirituality, commented to Bondings 2.0:
“The new LGBTQ center at Saint Mary’s is significant because it shows that the administration and the broader Saint Mary’s community is serious about working for inclusion and equity. Anyone who works at a college or university knows how precious physical spaces are on campus, and when a college such as ours not only speaks a message of inclusion but also backs that up with resources such as the space provided for the new LGBTQ center, you get a clear sense of the school’s commitment to the LGBTQ community.”
Saint Mary’s College is one of just a handful of Catholic colleges and universities that has a dedicated LGBTQ space, a problem that needs to be remedied. Fr. Horan is correct that supporting LGBTQ students must extend beyond kind words or one-off events. Catholic higher education must make real investments so that every campus can be, in the words of Dr. Hill, “a place they can call home” and one that commits to “cracking barriers that hold communities back.” To the Belles of Saint Mary’s College, congratulations on a big step forward!
This post is part of Bondings 2.0’s “Campus Chronicles” series on Catholic higher education. You can read other stories by clicking here.
—Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, October 18, 2021