PROVIDENCE — Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design have long been known for the academic rigor and creative spirit of their programs, as well as their beautiful campuses on the tree-lined avenues of the city’s East Side. For many students, along with the intellectual engagement of college comes a need to explore or confirm their religious faith. Students of both institutions find a spiritual home in the Brown-RISD Catholic Community, which serves the liturgical needs of its members in the heart of College Hill.
“It’s an amazing place that’s full of diversity and full of the manifestations of the human spirit,” said Angela Howard-McParland, community director, who organizes Catholic campus ministry for the two schools alongside Chaplain Father Albert Duggan, O.P., and the student pastoral council. “I really love this campus and I really love the people here.”
The Brown-RISD Catholic Community serves as the center of the Catholic faith on the two campuses, offering liturgical services like Sunday Mass as well as community activities that allow students to engage socially and intellectually with their faith. According to Howard-McParland, nearly 100 students participate actively and more than twice that number attend Mass, making the Catholic Community one of the largest ministries on the two campuses.
“We’re no different than a parish,” she said. “Everything that we do is basically in the spirit of trying to have a parish on the campus.”
In addition to Sunday liturgy, Eucharistic adoration and daily Mass four times during the week, the Catholic Community sponsors lectures, coordinates social activities, participates in service in the community and organizes prayer groups and retreats. Many students participate in immersion trips to explore social issues relevant to the Catholic faith, and the group offers an RCIA program for students wishing to become Catholic or seeking full initiation into the Church. This year, six individuals will receive their sacraments following their return from spring break, during which the Easter Vigil falls.
“They’re a very motivated group of young people,” said Father Duggan. “They’re very passionate about what they believe and about integrating that with the life of study.”
Funding for the Catholic Community derives from a variety of sources that collaborate to offer students the spiritual and material resources they need. Brown University provides office space and use of historic Manning Chapel. Student collections and contributions offered through the Thomas Beckett Association, an organization of alumni dedicated to supporting Catholic ministry on campus, provide for programs like immersion trips, community outreach and social activities. The appointment of a chaplain is supported by the Diocese of Providence through the use of funds donated to the annual Catholic Charity Appeal.
Outside the formal liturgy, many of the activities offered by the Brown-RISD Catholic Community are student-driven and arise from the diversity of interests members express in different aspects of the faith. Father Duggan used the example of one student who had a devotion to the Devotion Mercy and started a group to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
“If there wasn’t that energy from the students, I think that some of these things could never get off the ground, but when they have the energy and the drive to do it, it makes all the difference,” he said. “We find that when they run with something, they do amazing things on campus.”
On Sunday, Feb. 28, the community celebrated its first Alumni Mass, an event they plan to continue annually. Among the alumni who returned to celebrate with current students was Erin Butler, a 2014 Brown University graduate currently living in Boston.
“I grew up Catholic,” she said. “It definitely guided a lot of my decision-making. Being here drove me to find a similar community.”
Sonia Geba, a Brown University junior, came from a similar background in her home in New Jersey. “Church was an important part of my life before coming to Brown,” she said. “It was a community that was familiar to me.”
After arriving at the university, Geba joined the Catholic Community and participated in activities like the liturgical choir and serving as a class representative. For her, engaging with her faith was part of the university experience.
“Coming to college is a time when you’re independent and have time to think about things,” she said. “I wanted to explore my faith more.”
Baxter DiFabrizio, a 2015 Brown University graduate who continues to work on campus as a research assistant, said the community’s social component plays an important role. Though the university is known for its efforts to welcome students of all backgrounds and faiths, DiFabrizio said he was surprised as a freshman to find that some communities were less welcoming than others, and relieved at the Catholic Community’s efforts to welcome all students.
“It’s the only social community I’ve been a part of at Brown that’s totally supportive no matter who you are,” he said. “The Catholic Community’s willing to listen.”
Another Brown University alumnus present at Sunday’s Mass was the celebrant, Father Duggan. Father Duggan received his bachelor’s degree in 2003 and participated in Catholic Community events when Father Henry Bodah was chaplain. Last August, he returned to his undergraduate home to guide and support a community that once provided him with spiritual nourishment.
“As a Dominican, we’ve always had since our founding a strong drive to work in the universities and intellectual settings where we have something to contribute to the world,” he said. “I see myself following in the footsteps of the earliest Dominicans.”
During the celebration of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has encouraged Catholics to be particularly attentive to ways they may exhibit God’s mercy by serving the needs of those in their communities and around the world. To offer a donation to help the numerous ministries served by the annual diocesan Catholic Charity Appeal, please visit: