The love of being a Tommie often draws alumni back to campus, either to mentor, or as the legacy parent of a new Tommie or sometimes as faculty or staff to inspire a new generation. Father Christopher Collins, SJ, who was raised in Phoenix and graduated high school in Dallas, has a deep-rooted Minnesota connection that first attracted him to St. Thomas when he transferred to the university as a sophomore in 1990.
“My dad went there, a couple of uncles, several cousins went there, my sister, Josephine, went there. St. Thomas is where the roots are, so I went there for college,” said Collins, a 1993 graduate who was recently tapped by President Julie Sullivan to become vice president for mission, effective July 1, 2021. He will assume the position currently held by Father Larry Snyder, who will retire at the end of June.
Father Chris, as he is called, “is eager to engage in relationship-building within our community and the greater Twin Cities metro area, focusing on where the needs are greatest,” said Sullivan in her Jan. 25 letter announcing his appointment. “He has a deep passion for promotion of racial equality, for reducing poverty and homelessness, and for helping students turn their own passions into action.”
Most recently serving as assistant to the president for mission and identity at Saint Louis University (SLU) where he received a master’s degree in history, Collins said he began his work in the Gateway to the West right after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The protests and unrest that followed for a week thereafter would parallel the emotional roller coaster that gripped the Twin Cities last summer after the killing of George Floyd.
“The killing of Michael Brown and the pain that surfaced because of that in the community certainly shaped the way I did the work of mission at SLU,” said Collins. “I think it is incumbent upon every Catholic university to try, as a community, to be attentive to the needs that surround us and to be discerning about how we might best be able to help address those needs whether it be through our teaching, research, learning or concrete service off campus.”
Police interaction with community is a topic that will likely arise during the Theologies of Justice and Peace course he is teaching at St. Thomas this spring semester ahead of his appointment. The course, Theology 421 under the old core, examines the views of various religions and ideologies on issues of justice and peace, with special attention to the Catholic and other Christian teachings on such issues as war and peace, violence, economic justice, the environment, criminal justice, and social justice.
Collins, who was ordained a priest at Creighton University in Omaha, has experience with a variety of peoples and cultures. He worked with the Lakota as a pastor on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. But it was during a service trip to Ecuador before his freshman year in college that awakened him to a love for service, for community and for faith, leading him to continue his calling to serve through various roles at St. Thomas.
At St. Thomas, when he wasn’t grabbing meals at Sweeney’s or Snuffy’s burger joint or studying for his philosophy and theology classes in his room at Ireland Hall, he was availing himself of the various university offerings that would set him on the course that has led him back to the campus known for its stone archways and the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“One of my student jobs was with the VISION office within Campus Ministry,” said Collins. VISION, which was founded in 1987, provides global community-building opportunities for St. Thomas students to work alongside diverse communities that are dedicated to creating a more just world. J-Term and spring break programs are formed around six components: Service, Simplicity, Spirituality, Community, Cultural Exchange and Justice Issues.
“I was a student worker organizing those trips during J-Term,” said Collins. “Going into another culture … that was a big deal for me. That shaped and planted the seed.”
Still not yet aware that he’d one day find himself enrolled at the Jesuit Novitiate on Summit and Lexington avenues, right down the street from St. Thomas, Collins graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and took a different service position: He taught English and theology at Cotter High School in Winona, Minnesota. He enjoyed teaching, but after a conversation with a cousin about how God was calling him, he decided to join the Jesuits and dedicate himself to following Christ and a life focused on learning and service. He studied at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before ordination, and went on to complete his doctorate in theology at Boston College. The decision eventually brought him full circle back to St. Thomas.
“Father Collins’ goal is to create a variety of experiences and ongoing opportunities to help people find themselves in ways that pertain to the Catholic mission that we all share,” said Sullivan, who pointed out that Collins will assist part time in the Office for Mission until his new role begins.
“When Dr. Sullivan contacted me and said she was looking for a priest with higher education experience to place in that [vice president of mission] role, I was amazed with the timing,” said Collins. “I know the university has changed a lot since I was there. There is lot of great momentum there. I am looking forward to meeting a lot of people and doing what I can to try to make a contribution, building on what has been established already under Father Larry Snyder’s leadership.”