The Catholic University of America

Sept. 21, 2012

Largest Freshman Retreat to Date Inspires Students

  Freshman Retreat

President Garvey joins students for dinner at the retreat center.

Several curious commuters couldn’t help staring out their car windows on a recent Friday afternoon earlier this month as a caravan of 10 school buses snaked onto Michigan Avenue from the entrance to Catholic University.

The train of yellow was taking the largest group of freshmen to date on the University’s annual Freshman Retreat. With 284 freshmen in attendance this year, nearly a third of the class of 2016 experienced the weekend of prayer, sacrament, and friendship at Sandy Hill Camp and Retreat Center in North East Maryland.

“I was amazed at how many people not only signed up but actually came,” said sophomore Reanna Sealey of M.D., a biomedical engineering major and member of the retreat’s leadership team. “The freshmen definitely got some great advice on life and school, as well as bonding time with others who are working toward the same goals.”

The weekend began for freshmen on Sept. 7 at 5 p.m. when students gathered on the lawn of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to be divided into discussion groups. But for the retreat leadership team, a group of 10 sophomores selected during their freshman year, the weekend was the culmination of a process begun five months ago.

The retreat leadership team gathers on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay.


“We were a motley crew,” said sophomore psychology and philosophy major John Matera of Monroe, N.J. about the team dynamic when they first came together in April. “Those people are now my closest friends. By the grace of God, he brought us together…I think the team itself set the tone for the entire retreat.”

Arriving to campus a week before freshman move-in day, the retreat team began promoting the retreat during freshman Orientation. They staffed sign-in tables, gave out fliers, and went door-to-door in freshman residence halls.

According to Luke Hlavin, associate campus minister for retreats and men's ministry in the Office of Campus Ministry, the record attendance was due largely to the retreat team’s efforts in those early days of the semester. Their goal was to register 300 freshmen, and they exceeded that goal by 35 students. Most of those sign-ups took place within the first four days of Orientation.

The team selected the theme “The Journey Begins” for the event, held for the second year at the retreat center on the Chesapeake Bay.

The focal points of the event were talks by the retreat team on topics that included prayer, the faith journey, chastity, the freshman experience, and confession. After most talks the students were broken into 33 small groups led by student leaders for discussion and reflection.

  Members of a small discussion group wearing their retreat T-shirts.


“It was an inspiration to watch the freshmen participate and take advantage of all the opportunities available to them,” said sophomore nursing major Nicole Michaud of Concord, N.H., who worked during the retreat weekend as a volunteer.

President John Garvey and his wife, Jeanne, traveled two hours on Sept. 8, braving a severe weather storm, to address the freshmen on retreat, a tradition they established in their first year at the University.

They talked about the role of faith in their lives and about their love story. Joining them to greet the freshmen was Sarah Daniels, senior associate dean of students and director of residence life; Amy Kerr, assistant dean of students; and Katie Jennings, director of campus activities.

A highlight for many freshmen and student leaders was evening eucharistic adoration, during which students were offered the opportunity to go to confession. The 17 priests who had travelled to the retreat center heard confessions for two hours.

“It was very inspiring. It was kind of moving seeing them all there,” said freshman vocal performance major Joe Thordarson. “Since then I’ve developed more prayer habits.”

A dance party followed adoration and confession. For Hlavin, the dance is an important way of showing that practicing one’s faith can be fun.

Of the retreat as a whole he said, “I hope that in some sense the Catholic life was shown to be more attractive…I would hope it showed them that contact with Jesus Christ, as opposed to their previous misconceptions that it’s somehow limiting, is rather freeing and brings life.”

The ladies of Regan and Ryan halls meet with their resident minister.


Sophomore Peter Clemente, a mechanical engineering major from Warren, N.J. and a discussion group leader, said he had similar hopes for freshmen who experienced the retreat.

“I would hope they could realize that they are profoundly loved by God and that they grow in unity with other people,” Clemente said.

Freshman exploratory major Allison Gliat said bonding with her peers in the freshman class was a rewarding aspect of the retreat.

“Now when I see [students] from the retreat I have a connection with them I didn’t have before,” she said.

Campus Ministry records of the freshman retreat go back to 2005, though the retreat has been a University tradition for much longer, according to University Chaplain and Director of Campus Ministry, Rev. Jude DeAngelo, O.F.M. Conv.

Why the attendance increase this year? For leadership team member Matera the answer is simple: “The grace of God and open hearts.”

“We couldn’t have done it without every single person involved,” he added.

Hlavin, still only in his first month as a member of the Campus Ministry pastoral staff called the numbers “unreal…The team did incredible things and the Holy Spirit did incredible things.”



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