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St. Mary, Hillel help students balance faith and college life

By Allie Shultz
On March 4, 2014

In the center of Uptown, among dozens of bars, restaurants and student-hangouts, sits St. Mary Church. The Catholic worship space has stood in the same spot on High Street since 1920, after existing in temporary locations since 1853.

Father Jeffrey Silver has lived a faithful life in Oxford, Ohio for 40 years. From his time as a Miami student to his current role as Pastor at St. Mary Church, Father Silver has worked to integrate a faithful practice into the lives of college students.

Silver said integration of faith into college life can be a challenge for students, but he believes St. Mary and other religious institutions in Oxford all do a great job of reaching out to students and making religious life accessible to them.

"We work a lot with Hillel, the center for Jewish students, as well as with Faith Lutheran Church, as well as many others and they have all been wonderful partners for us," Silver said.

When some people picture college, parties, drinking and drugs might easily come to mind. Those are images that for most people don't mix easily with the idea of going to religious services each week.

For Miami senior Meghan McGuff, St. Mary accommodations helped her to integrate religion into a college atmosphere.

"Many people struggle with keeping up with going to church because they are used to the routine of going with their family and weekends often get busy," McGuff said. "St. Mary's makes it easier because they have so many different mass options."

McGuff said the amount of student programs also helps to make religious life more easily accessible, even outside of traditional mass.

Fellow St. Mary parishioner, Miami senior Hailey Holman also agrees the variety of mass times helps with her ability to attend services. Holman chooses to keep her college life and faith life more separated, though she finds each one equally important.

"I enjoy the social aspects that accompany both being affiliated with a Greek organization and Miami in general," Holman said. "I have never let my faith deter me from partaking in the activities that are crucial to the college experience."

Silver said he shares Holman's opinion that college life is integral to the overall college journey of each student.

"I think the most important thing, learning from my own university experience, is the experience itself," Silver said. "It's not about one major or one way of living for everyone."

Miami junior Alissa Pollack, a member of the Jewish faith, takes a similar approach to Holman in that her faith and her school are kept apart from each other.

"I think college and religion are two totally separate things," Pollack said. "I have many friends who have found a great balance of having a fantastic social life, while also being extremely involved with their religion."

Pollack connects with her faith while in Oxford at Hillel, which is not a synagogue, but is a center for Jewish students to have religious resources and celebrate high holidays such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana together.

Hillel serves approximately 1,000 students at Miami each year and will provide services all year long for anyone who needs them.

Miami senior Ally Kohler views religion as something that can be completely intertwined with college life. As a practicing non-denominational Christian, Kohler participates in Cru on campus, attends services at Oxford Bible Fellowship and started her own Bible study this year in her sorority.

"I think that college is the perfect time to really find who you are in terms of your faith walk because college is where you set your habits for the rest of your life," Kohler said. "If you hold tight to your values and are comfortable in your faith, mixing college and faith can actually be very encouraging."

Kohler said her Bible study has shown her even more than in previous years how school and a social life can mix with a religious life. As part of a Greek organization, Kohler said she wants to show people that being Greek doesn't mean a life only filled with partying.

Silver said there are problems he would consider to be "college problems" but overall each member of a faith community has to decide their role in it for themselves.

"It's about helping that person to realize who they want to be, and more than that, who they are supposed to be," Silver said.

For McGuff, attendance at church every Sunday is essential for her to recharge and center herself after stressful weeks at school.

St. Mary averages about 800 families who live in Oxford and come to church full time throughout the year. About 2,000 Miami students newly register at St. Mary each year, and it is estimated that about 500 from each class regularly attend mass during the school year, according to Silver.

Silver has the unique challenge of leading a parish that is not made up by mostly families with children, but rather by college students, a demographic not known for active religious practice.

Silver said further challenges arise because the differences in population from the students to full-time Oxford residents can make it difficult to address the needs and wants of his parishioners.

Silver said to address discrepancies in needs for his parishioners, he tries to address something that will apply to each type of churchgoer during his homily, the point in church when he addresses attendees about the mass's readings from the Bible.

"I try to say a little something for everybody," Silver said. "I also rely a lot on humor. I think if you can get everybody smiling and laughing they're going to be doing a better job of being kind in life."

Silver said his main concern is showing the importance of religion at school, and that anyone with any lifestyle is welcome to learn at church, something Kohler definitely agrees with.

"You do not have to be a 'perfect' person to come to God. I think it is just about having faith in his goodness and showing that love to others," Kohler said.

Holman said personal friendships have helped to strengthen her faith in a college environment. "I was lucky enough to fall into a group of friends that had similar beliefs and a desire to continue building them and this common ground was something that I feel really fueled the development and maintenance of these friendships," Holman said.

Despite differences in lifestyles, Silver said most of his parishioners are happy to listen to the message each week and can adapt it to their own life.

"The message has to be the same, the gospel is different for each group, how they apply it and at what stage of their life can be very different, but the ultimate goal remains the same." Silver said.

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