By Tim Linn, Assistant Director of University Relations, Rockhurst University

Student residents of the Kateri Community and Rockhurst Leaders, including President Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., gathered for a blessing at the community’s opening in September 2019 (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Student residents of the Kateri Community and Rockhurst Leaders, including President Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., gathered for a blessing at the community’s opening in September 2019 (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)

Last fall, Rockhurst University embarked on an experiment of sorts.

The very first cohort of students moved into the Kateri Community, opening up not only a whole new housing option, but a new range of possibilities of what residential living on the University campus could look like, and what it could allow students to do.

Kateri Community consists of two floors, each with its own distinct mission. On one floor, residents are encouraged to explore Ignatian spirituality more deeply. On the other, students strive to live out “care for our common home” as exemplified in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which called attention to the need for the Church to care for the environment.

Kateri Community is a place where, each year, students can work to fulfill that promise of sustainability on a small scale, “care for our common home” together, and maybe even change their surrounding culture for the better.

Gianna Carleo, assistant director of campus ministry, said the idea of creating an intentional community was an important part of the project from the start, underscoring the extent to which care for the planet we share is an act rooted in solidarity.

“I think any opportunity to come into contact with the environment or ‘our common home’ is an opportunity for the lesson that we belong to one another, and are a part of something much larger than ourselves,” she said. “The environment doesn’t have one lesson to teach—it has billions everywhere we look. This community expresses care for our common home through a practice of receptivity of all that is happening and all that we can bring ourselves into awareness of when being a companion to the environment.”

Sophomore biology and Spanish major Kayla Donjuan said she learned about Kateri shortly after it was announced in December 2018, looking at first for a change of pace from the typical residence hall experience.

But almost immediately upon moving in, she said Kateri became more than a convenient option — it became a close-knit community in its own right, despite the busy schedules the residents keep as students. “I wanted to move in there because I thought the rooms looked nice. But now, I think we all think of it as a house,” she said. “I’ve definitely met some of my best friends since moving in here.”

The community’s namesake is St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first American Indian to be canonized by the Catholic Church, and the patroness of ecology and the environment. A devout Catholic and member of the Mohawk tribe, St. Kateri is recognized in the Church as a symbol of “care for our common home.”

In the spirit of that legacy, the residents of the floor dedicated to sustainability receive ongoing guidance, ideas and opportunities from the campus ministry team. To kick off the year, they took part in an environmental-themed retreat led by Carleo that helped set the tone for how they might approach their work as a community.

Other activities have included regular meetings and meals as a community, where residents share their “spiritual autobiographies,” as well as regular service projects, which have helped connect the residents not only to each other, but to similar-minded organizations in the Kansas City area. Behind the building, garden beds allow residents to grow their own food.

All of these things help underscore for the residents the spirit of Laudato Si’. “All the little things — having light and the plants that give us oxygen — you can’t take that for granted,” said Donjuan.

For Donjuan, the importance of caring for the Earth was made apparent when her father had a heart attack. It was a wake-up call not only for her parents, but for everyone else in the family — health was important, and having a planet able to offer fresh food was critical. “Before that, we didn’t really eat healthy or exercise,” she said. “And that flipped a switch – we started using more fresh ingredients and started our own garden.”

Emily Duff, a senior studying organismal biology and English literature, said that her interest in “care for our common home” was stoked when she was at an academic crossroads. After deciding that she didn’t want to be a physician assistant anymore, she spent a summer with the Maine Conservation Corps. As part of this Americorps program, Duff was part of a team that helped with recreation and conservation projects, including some on the Appalachian Trail. She said, “I learned a lot of useful skills like tree identification, stone staircase building, and tree maintenance.”

Through spending so much time in that beauty, Duff also developed an appreciation for why it’s important to care for the environment and how she demonstrates that with her fellow residents at Kateri. “As a community, we’ve been practicing more sustainable habits, like composting and making our own cleaning products.”

Both Duff and Donjuan said that their experience as part of the Kateri Community has been powerful, influencing both their academic and career goals, and helping them to forge new relationships with like-minded students. Donjuan has long aspired to be a dentist, but now hopes to one day open her own practice based in sustainable “green” practices. For Duff, being steeped in the culture of sustainability at Kateri has motivated her to pursue environmental science as a career.

As part of the first group of residents to call Kateri home, the students both hope that they helped to give this community a life of its own, something that Duff hopes they can pass on to the next group of passionate students to build on.

“I think Kateri has started to create an identity,” she said. “And I hope that Kateri’s residents can learn more about being better stewards of the Earth through their residence.”