PLATTEVILLE — When Dee Bernhardt began as a pastoral associate and campus minister at UW–Platteville’s St. Augustine University Parish, the parish had five active students and 100 registered students.
When Bernhardt leaves after nine years at St. Augustine Sunday, the parish will have 200 active students and nearly 600 registered students.
“It’s a fabulous job; I love campus ministry,” said Bernhardt. “I’ve been doing it for 33 years. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Bernhardt is leaving to join Purdue University’s St. Thomas Aquinas Center, which serves Purdue’s 13,000 Roman Catholic students, 7,000 of whom are members of St. Thomas.
“At this point it’s now a matter of maintaining the program, and I’m not a maintenance person; I’m more of a creating person,” said Bernhardt. “I’m going to a bigger university parish at another engineering/agriculture school. It’s time to go for me.”
St. Augustine’s is a university parish that also has a large number of adult parishioners.
“The resident parishioners of this parish deserve super-high accolades — I cannot say enough good about them,” said Bernhardt. “My first seven years here, I really challenged them. It seemed like it was a more alternative parish than a Catholic university parish. We wrote a document, ‘Our Future State,’ and within four years we accomplished everything we had listed.
“The students say they’re here because they enjoy the interactions with the resident parishioners. That really matters to students; they don’t want to be an island — they enjoy the resident parishioners.”
Bernhardt, who came to UW–Platteville from St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn., is a lay ecclesial minister, which she describes as a “full-time credentialed lay person who works for the church.” She describes her job as providing “a lot of spiritual direction, which is helping students find their faith. There’s a lot of leadership component, helping students see their gifts, where they fit in the world. And I think I do the leadership component as well at a parish, helping people realize their gifts.
“You do a lot of everything, and it seems like nothing. The object of being a campus minister is to bring Jesus Christ and his Gospel to campus. The problem is the Gospel doesn’t mean a lot to students, or they had a bad experience in high school. So how do you recruit students? You run a program and it utilizes a six-part model, and the object is to keep all six parts moving at the same time, so students can learn whatever Jesus Christ is telling them through the Gospel.”
Bernhardt’s six-part model involves a ministry of welcome, Christian service, an outreach ministry (service projects and trips), peace and justice, theological education and retreats and liturgical ministries. The goal is for students to reach what Bernhardt calls the “Aha!” moment.
“The Aha! moment is when you realize Jesus Christ and his gospel makes a difference in your personal life,” said Bernhardt. “There are some students who come to us who are already there. But a lot of students come in at the top, which is purely social — I want to meet other students, I came from a Catholic household, I have Catholic values. A lot of students who come here aren’t Catholic; they’re here for the good food.”
St. Augustine has a long list of activities. Mass is said in Latin Sundays at 7:30 a.m. and in English at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., in addition to Tuesdays through Fridays at 5 p.m. The Sunday 6 p.m. Mass features St. Augustine’s Contemporary Music Group.
The Catholic Newman Community, the student organization based at St. Augustine, bakes cookies once a month during the academic year for UW–Platteville freshmen. CNC hosts a Simple Supper each Wednesday during the academic year. Parishioners and CNC students serve a meal to the homeless at Hope House in Dubuque the first Monday of each month. CNC and resident parishioners host socials in November, February, March and May.
CNC members who are confirmed Catholics teach religious education Sunday mornings. Several retreats are scheduled each year.
“I’m a big proponent of staff-facilitated student-run ministry,” said Bernhardt. “We give students authority to go with the responsibility we give them.”
In her 33 years in campus ministry, Bernhardt has worked with 30 different priests.
“Every new priest, you adjust to what the priest considers to be important,” she said.
During winter break, students do a mission trip to the northern delta of Mississippi, which Bernhardt describes as “very, very poor there, and not many people will go there.” Fifty-eight people, including 49 UWP students, went on January’s trip.
Just getting to Mississippi has been an adventure on some trips. One previous priest, Rev. Jim Murphy, would drive a school bus on the mission trip, “and it always broke down — one-third of the Mississippi stories were about fixing the bus,” said Bernhardt.
The weekly Simple Suppers have grown in her nine years from three students to 50.
“Some students are very equipped to cook for 50 students, and some are not,” said Bernhardt. “It’s to their great credit that they step up to try.”
In her nine years, Bernhardt has overseen reworking of every room of St. Augustine’s. The kitchen has been expanded with a dishwasher. Furnishings have been updated. Bernhardt also taught an Introduction to the New Testament class for UWP’s Philosophy department.
Bernhardt’s personal reward comes from watching students progress in their faith.
“You see students asking people questions, you see them participate in church at Mass and catching up on their sacraments; maybe they skipped out before Confirmation,” she said. “I get letters from students years later after they get out of college, saying how much they learned. But it’s not quantifiable. It’s not a numbers game, campus ministry; it’s a mission of the heart.”
One CNC student went to seminary with the Franciscan friars. Another started doing youth ministry in Lodi. Another volunteered in Chicago.
“I have students in this ministry that I would trust in just about anything,” said Bernhardt. “Students rise to your least expectations of them, and my least expectations of them are rather high.
“If you’re a student, you’ve been at school since you were six years old, and everybody always tells you what to do. And it’s the first time in your adult life that you’ve been allowed to run something in your own way. Quality people have always come out for me.”
To succeed in campus ministry, said Bernhardt, “you have to have a lot of patience. You have to have a strong faith life. You have to be able to be present and allow students to make their mistakes. You have to be able to manage a lot of different things at the same time.”