Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus

From the Heart of Catholic Studies Alumni Vocations Thrive

The heart of Sitzmann Hall is the chapel. On any given day, dozens of students greet our Lord as they arrive to study, attend class, or pray a holy hour. After all, Catholic Studies isn’t just about a degree; it’s about knowing and loving Christ.

While most students leave Catholic Studies to bring Christ to the workplace or family life after graduation, the Lord calls some alumni to follow a different path. In fact, more than 200 Catholic Studies alumni are serving the Church throughout the world in 51 dioceses or religious orders. (See the full list.)

Nick Vance '18

One alumnus is Nick Vance ’18. When he started college, Catholicism felt like a set of rules to Vance; but after his first class in Catholic Studies, he began to recognize the freedom found within his faith. Like many others, Vance began to realize that the Church – though it may be perceived like a dark and oppressive cathedral – contains within it great space, depth and light. Catholic Studies taught him to find Christ in the Church and in “ten thousand places,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins writes. Every class he took gave him a “wide-angle vision” to pursue the Lord with his whole self. “It’s not just an academic program,” he reflected. “It’s a way of life.”

Now in his fourth year of priestly formation at The Saint Paul Seminary, Vance brings his Catholic Studies formation to the theology classroom. He recalled the first thing one of his professors, Dr. Christopher Thompson, told the class: “Gentlemen, if you want to do good theology, you need to fall in love and take careful notes.” Love is at the true center of good theology, and as Vance reflected, “That’s not only good theology, that’s Catholic Studies.”

Catherine Wessel ‘19 and Sister Zita (Katherine “Kat” Kennedy ‘19)

Love and good theology also led two 2019 graduates to consecrated life. Catherine Wessel and Katherine “Kat” Kennedy both entered the Sisters of Mary Morning Star, a contemplative, non-cloistered community located in the tiny town of Ghent, Minnesota. These holy women dedicate their lives to pursuing wisdom as they study theology and philosophy, craft homemade goods in workshops, and adore our Lord for hours in silent prayer. Catherine, a current novice awaiting her habit and religious name, and Kat, now called Sister Zita (meaning “seeker”), credit Catholic Studies with awakening in them a desire for truth.

A pivotal experience for Catherine was her semester in Rome in 2017, where she fell in love with the universality of the Church: “I feel like I can better offer my life for the Church, having seen Rome ... I know what I’m offering my life for as a contemplative.” But it isn’t just Rome that gives her purpose. “Knowing that Catholic Studies exists is really encouraging,” she explained. “It pushes me to live more fully my contemplative life, knowing in faith that it’s going to bear fruit in the lives of the people who are out in the world studying and bearing witness to the truth in an apostolic way.” Catherine’s prayers now support the very place that formed her vocation.

Zita knew going into her Rome semester in 2019 that she would move to Ghent after returning to the U.S. Life in the Rome program was a “time of confirmation” for her where students have abundant possibilities for prayer and daily Mass as they attend classes imbued with love of the Lord.

“Happiness is a real thing and it is found in Christ,” Zita confidently proclaimed – a lesson she learned from her very first class in Sitzmann Hall. “I really didn’t know it before [Catholic studies], but the truth is incredible ... the one we are seeking to know is a person.”

Sister Agnes Pia (Kathryn Horlocker ‘14 CSMA)

Another Catholic studies alumna who entered religious life is Sister Agnes Pia (Kathryn Horlocker ’14 CSMA). Though she studied civil engineering in college, she moved to Minnesota to begin a graduate degree in Catholic studies and discern her vocation. Here she met the Handmaids of the Heart of Jesus, a local order with many connections to Catholic Studies, including their foundress, Mother Mary Clare (Claire Roufs ’01). A year into graduate studies, Pia entered the Handmaids and returned later to finish her master’s degree.

When it was time to write her master’s essay, Pia chose something she knew well: architecture. While reading St. John of the Cross, Pia was reminded of a Gothic architecture class she had taken as an undergraduate. Deep caverns, darkness and light certainly abound in Gothic spaces. With true Catholic Studies spirit, Pia fused the two together to explore how chapel designs can reflect the soul’s union with God. “The space informs the person,” she said. Likewise, the environment of Catholic Studies forms its students.

Brother Joseph Cullen (Cullen Hilliker ‘20)

Cullen Hilliker ’20, a Dominican brother in his second year of formation with the Order of Preachers, attributes much of his formation to Catholic Studies as well. Now called Brother Joseph Cullen, his decision to enter religious life was surprising to many. Nearly engaged and lined up with a job at NASA, Cullen heard the Lord’s call and left everything to follow Christ. The community he found in Catholic Studies formed his desire to grow in holiness and authentic friendship as he witnessed this in his peers and professors. With the “horarium,” or schedule, of classes, events and liturgy, Catholic Studies is fertile ground for structure, good habits and virtue. The program cultivates not only one’s faith, but one’s very life.

Cullen reminisced about his lifelong friends and his home in Catholic Studies: “Sitzmann Hall became like a little home to me,” he said.

The heart of Catholic Studies is still a home for these alumni and so many others.

This story is featured in the spring 2022 issue of Lumen.