Emily Dickson (photo courtesy of Rockhurst University)  

The story of St. Ignatius Loyola’s conversion from soldier to saint begins with a moment, and not a particularly quiet one. St. Ignatius was wounded gravely on the battlefield in Pamplona, Spain by a cannonball: an event that kickstarted the long recovery during which he would read, reflect, and eventually put down his sword to start the Society of Jesus.

It was in that moment of crisis that St. Ignatius felt compelled to devote his life to serve others. And while the moment was devoid of booming sounds, for one Rockhurst University student, the realization to serve others similarly hit her like a cannonball.

Raised as a Unitarian Universalist in St. Louis, MO, Emily Dickson had an interest in exploring and learning about religious traditions outside of her own, finding herself especially drawn to Jesuit institutions for their values and approach to education as she was making her college decision.

“I applied to tons of Jesuit schools but ended up choosing Rockhurst because I received an athletic scholarship to run cross country, and I love Kansas City,” she said. “I also met so many great students and staff on my visits—I could tell Rockhurst was a close-knit community.”

Upon arrival Dickson, a nursing major, became deeply interested in the Jesuit mission and core values. She said the Catholic social teaching course taught by President Rev. Thomas B. Curran, S.J., was particularly instrumental in helping her understand how the Catholic, Jesuit tradition was steeped in care for one another and our shared home — and how it was about more than prayer.

“Rev. James Martin, S.J. talks about how Ignatian spirituality invites us to become contemplatives in action,” Dickson said. “Being contemplative is to live a life of immersion in prayer, reflection and discernment — something I thought was only for cloistered monks and nuns. St. Ignatius was revolutionary in that he called regular Christians to do both — be contemplatives, but live lives of action too.”

She soon became an indelible part of that campus community that had so impressed her during her college search, with participation in campus organizations including Voices for Justice, campus ambassadors and Gamma Phi Beta. Cross country provided even more connections, including a close friendship with teammate Samantha Zech. They motivated each other to perform and together coached a track team at a local school through the national organization, Girls on the Run. They even successfully secured grant funding and sponsorships to pay for the team’s uniforms together.

But in October 2020, Zech was diagnosed with cancer. The moment was one that would change Dickson’s life. “I doubted God’s existence,” she said. “I was angry at God for the first time in my life.”

It was a realization that could send one hurtling toward desolation — a fate that Dickson herself feared at the time. She turned, as she often did, to prayer. In a quiet moment on an early morning in March 2021, she said, it brought her to her own “cannonball moment.”

“It was 2:00AM and I was praying for my patients in the dark, as I often do. As a nurse intern and as a person from a multi-faith background, I also pray for God to light my way,” she explained. “That night, I was moved in an instant to convert to Catholicism, as I received a revelation of Christ’s life, passion, and death for me and all humanity. It was at that point, after tentatively asking for the intercession of Mary and St. Agatha (a patron saint of nurses), that I believe God came to prepare me for great loss.”

It would come two months later in May 2021, when Zech would pass away, with Dickson holding her hand. She turned, once again, to her faith and to her community as she continued to grieve and to complete her conversion to the Catholic faith. During the Easter Vigil Mass this spring at St. Francis Xavier Church (the Jesuit parish across the street from the Rockhurst campus), Dickson and another student completed the rite of confirmation.

For a journey that began in a moment of sorrow, it was a joyous occasion. “I was surrounded by other Catholic students and supportive staff at both Rockhurst and St. Francis Xavier parish,” Dickson said. “My friends of all faiths were so excited for my confirmation, and people I don’t even know have come up to congratulate me! I think Rockhurst is such a spiritually welcoming place to students of all faiths; what is important here is that you feel comfortable connecting to something bigger than yourself to help you through life’s challenges and joys.”

But it’s far from the end of the story. Like St. Ignatius and the Jesuits who followed, Dickson said that she believes her Catholic identity calls her to action. Alongside her epiphany of faith, she said, was a revelation that she is called to teach. So, while she will be working as a bone marrow transplant nurse at Nebraska Medical Center and living in Omaha, NE, following graduation, she will also participate in a nursing program sponsored by the GIVEN Catholic Women’s Leadership Forum. And Dickson said she hopes to one day use her experience as a caregiver to prepare nurses in a way that is sensitive to and reflects the needs of the communities that they will be serving.

“We need change,” she said.

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