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Kept Apart by COVID, Drawn Together by God


The pandemic didn’t derail service at Saint Louis University — it just required a little bit of creativity to keep the spirit alive

By David Suwalsky, SJ


Saint Louis University (SLU) is a community of faith and a community of education. In the unsettling weeks and then months following the closing of campuses in St. Louis and Madrid last spring, our community chose to respond to the uncertainty of our times by holding firm to our mission and values as a Catholic, Jesuit institution.

From nearly the beginning, all knew that what helps make our SLU experience distinctive is our experience of community: the accidental encounters while walking down the mall; the extra time a professor gives to a student after class; the housing, custodial, and facilities teams who see the students far more often than a vice president; the shared liturgies, retreats, and service opportunities – all were imperiled by the idea of going to college from your bedroom. Our first decisions were driven, therefore, by our mission and values and our desire to come back together, safely.

The challenge was how to come back and be with one another in ways that social distancing and mask-wearing complicate. First, we enlisted the entire SLU community in agreeing that this value would require sacrifice — we would accept inconvenience so that all would remain safe. It made no sense to assert that we are “men and women for and with others” if returning to campus was all about me and not about all those around me.

Next, we identified ways of coming together. When the fall semester began, Sunday liturgies were streamed without a congregation. Over time that changed, but rather than the more than 800 students at the Sunday 8 p.m. Mass, the College Church could accommodate only 140 distanced students. Our choir of 60 musicians and voices could not assemble, but the choir is a resourceful group. Every week, each vocalist and musician performed the music for Mass individually and our choir director, Sally Iocca, then mixed the voices and music for that Sunday’s service.

The Campion Centre, which includes SLU’s Catholic Studies Program, continued to celebrate Mass every Monday night and closed the last Monday of the semester with a Eucharistic Procession from the College Church to the Campion Centre. Students and Jesuits processed across campus in masks. The procession was much longer than usual, as all maintained their distance. They were drawn together by the Lord while also sharing care and concern for one another.


Heeding the Call to Service

While our rate of infection was low (in the last week of classes, our COVID-19 positivity rate was 0.38%), we did have students in isolation and quarantined housing. But throughout the semester, students were not forgotten, especially by the Campus Ministry interns who organized volunteers to create care packages of toiletries and treats for our sequestered students. Each care package also included a personal letter of support and the promise of prayers.


Students stay masked and socially distanced during the fall 2020 semester.
Photo by Douglas Garfield, Saint Louis University



Students at Saint Louis University prepare items for COVID care packages.
Photo by Gabby Lawson, Saint Louis University

Service has long been a hallmark of a SLU education, as well as a response to the Gospel call to care for others. Many of the typical service opportunities were closed, though our Campus Kitchen was not. Repurposing food donations from SLU’s food service and retailers such as Trader Joe’s, students and faculty continued to prepare meals that were distributed to the elderly and the homeless.

Students stepped up in other ways, as well. Many undergraduates volunteered to be Public Health Ambassadors, who were organized by our graduate students in the School of Public Health and Social Justice. The ambassadors would regularly audit the campus, identifying classrooms that lacked disinfectant or empty hand sanitizer stations. They would review public spaces, too, and their notes were given over to our amazing and exhausted facilities and custodial teams.

Our nursing students volunteered to assist in administering COVID-19 tests to more than 350 students each week. As one of our nursing students, Cathleen Cusic, shared, she believed that the university’s Jesuit mission was one of the reasons that she and her fellow nursing students jumped at the chance to get involved. “We are big on action. We don’t just talk about doing something. We pitch in and make a difference. I love that we are part of the solution. I’m so glad SLU gave us the opportunity to work on this together.”

We ended the semester Thanksgiving week having not closed the campus during the semester. Hybrid learning, virtual retreats, live-streamed liturgies, podcasts, and webinars were opportunities to think and do and pray in creative ways. And while we are now no longer on campus, we still stay in touch. We are celebrating the Advent season with “Thrill of Hope,” a daily reflection based on the day’s scripture readings written by a student or faculty or staff member. Those reflections are posted daily on the Mission Office Facebook page, @SLUjesuitmission, if you would like to see and participate.

Let’s continue to pray for one another.


David Suwalsky, SJ, is vice president of mission and identity at Saint Louis University.