In the lobby of Divine Word College—printed in gold letters on a black background and framed in oak—is its Mission Statement. The words will soon change as the result of months of meetings and input sessions. The college has updated its message to more accurately reflect the work of the institution today.
Over recent years, DWC has gradually opened its doors wider, offering its educational resources to others, beyond young men from this country and around the world seeking to be SVD priests and Brothers. It now shares its wealth of educational resources with Sisters, seminarians from other Catholic religious orders and, potentially, lay persons from SVD parishes. By doing so, the college is able to advance the vision of St. Arnold Janssen, who founded the SVD missionary order to, "...go where the Gospel has not been preached at all, or only insufficiently."*
As the change developed, Fr. Mike Hutchins, SVD, president of the college, said he had become increasingly aware of the need for a statement update. Every fall, a prayer service starts the new school year and includes a reading of the Mission Statement by the congregation.
"I became so conscious of the people sitting out there who weren’t included in the Mission Statement," he said. "We’d be referring to the education of young men for the Society of the Divine Word and there we had students who were not young men preparing to be future Divine Word missionaries, but were very much a part of the experience in a really positive way."
Work on a new Mission Statement began in 2008. Committee work and input sessions with faculty and staff resulted in a draft proposal in November. In December, the SVD Board of Directors approved the new Mission Statement. Fr. Mark Weber, SVD, Provincial of the Chicago Province, said it represents both continuity with the college’s primary purpose, and an exciting new element. In welcoming students who are not the traditional seminarians, the college is sharing a wonderful SVD resource–a college-level education and formation program that is oriented toward the universal mission of the Church.
|Rev. Mark Weber, SVD
"The dedicated faculty and staff of the college is experienced in walking with students from many cultures, and therefore are well-equipped to welcome other religious and lay students seeking an undergraduate education with a unique world mission orientation," Fr. Mark said. "The worldwide SVD has grasped the importance of both forming and working with lay missionaries, and thus the expanded mission of the college contributes to our collaboration with other religious and the laity in the field of mission."
The expanded mission also embodies SVD commitment to mission animation, one of the "characteristic dimensions" of SVD life.
"We hope to not only offer a high-quality undergraduate education to our new students, but send them forth with the spirit of our founder St. Arnold Janssen, and the vision of contemporary mission of the Society," Fr. Mark said.
The new Mission Statement is not window dressing. In a day and age when such proclamations can be more promotion than substance, the words carry a lot of weight at DWC. Decisions are based on those words on the wall.
"We look to the Mission Statement for decisions about students we accept. The kind of education that we provide, the expectations we have around the formation program," Fr. Mike said. "It does say who we are and what we are supposed to be doing. It’s recognized by outside groups when they come. Here it really is the Mission Statement."
Expanding the student body of a seminary in this way—accepting Sisters and seminarians from other orders—is revolutionary, but such groundbreaking efforts are not new to the Society of the Divine Word. Historically, the order has been willing to undertake visionary initiatives.
In the 1930s, the SVD in the United States was the first religious order to accept African American candidates. In the mid 1970s, the order welcomed Vietnamese students. Such moves have transformed the institution.
"It’s because of such moments when some SVDs stepped into something new and said, ‘We can do this and we ought to do this.’ We’re very proud of that tradition," Fr. Mike said. "I’m not sure that this compares to those, but it certainly could have a transforming effect on this institution and on the preparation of our candidates, for their future formation and ministry."
Testing the waters of change
Sisters were the first non-traditional students to be welcomed at DWC. The move was championed by a member of the DWC Board of Trustees, Sr. Judy Vallimont, who was the Superior of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (SSpS), an affiliated order of the SVD. Early on, she saw the potential in Divine Word College. Her vision was founded on her experience in parish ministries and the training of lay leaders. She saw how the educational foundation offered at the Epworth campus would benefit those who wanted to dedicate their lives to missionary work.
|Sr. Judy Vallimont, SSpS
In August of 2006, the SSpS established a house in Epworth so that three of its Sisters could attend DWC. It was the first test in the experiment to expand the student body to include others outside the SVD. The effect has been more than positive. It’s been transformative.
"Honestly, the Sisters have brought such energy to the place. I don’t think there is anybody here who is not happy about the spirit that they bring, the dedication in their studies, the commitment in their prayer life," Fr. Mike said. "They just know how to form community. It helps create a much more focused environment on vocational growth and religious life."
The first Vietnamese Sisters arrived in 2008 and saw their number grow later that year along with the arrival of two Vietnamese diocesan priests. Last year, they were joined by seminarians from two other orders.
The college has been sensitive to public perceptions of men and women religious studying this closely together. The SSpS Sisters live in a house purchased by their order in Epworth. Other Sisters reside in Megan Hall, across the campus from the main building where the rest of the students live.
Core remains SVD
The expansion of the student body at DWC does not mean a shift away from its primary purpose—educating young men for SVD missionary service. In fact, continued commitment to that primary purpose was a stipulation made at the Provincial Chapter meeting, when it approved the move to welcome these new students.
"Half the students need to be SVD candidates, so that we keep the core group of future SVDs," Fr. Mike said. "It’s stipulated and that will be reviewed in 2012. We’re pretty much right on target with the number of candidates."
Perhaps one of the greatest values in this more diversified student body is the strength it gives to the SVD.
"Our own SVD seminarians at the college will be enriched by the presence of a more diverse student body, enabling them to better collaborate with other religious and lay people," Fr. Mark Weber said. "The new students and other religious will bring different and challenging perspectives to the classroom as well."
As missionaries, these seminarians will be better prepared because they will have been part of a shared experience with men and women from different cultures and different congregations who share a common faith and common goals.