A place of welcome, and really good coffee
Elizabeth Harrison reflects on her first few days of starting university and what she learned from her time as a Catholic student
A friend of mine was packing to go to university recently, and immediately memories flooded back of my own first weeks at university in London. That was fifteen years ago.
Unlike most people I stayed at the same university for ten years because I went on to do an MA and a PhD. My nostalgia is therefore mingled with the knowledge that I wouldn’t want to go back to studying again. My older sister and some of my friends have gone back to studying on undergraduate courses in the last few years in order to requalify, and I’m impressed by their fortitude. I wouldn’t fancy sharing a kitchen with ten strangers again.
University for a young Christian is in some ways a test of our faiths. It is at university that many young people may stop going to church, although others may find their faith there too. That is why the work of Catholic chaplaincies is so important, helping bridge the divide between childhood and adulthood.
I was the youngest of four, which meant that there was now a well-worn path to tread and my parents knew exactly where to place the boundaries. They would come up to help me move my belongings in, but they told me not to come back home until at least half term, no matter how homesick I felt. They bought me cooking equipment and bedding and stationery, but some of the saucepans were hand-me-downs from my older siblings. I could share various stories about fire alarms going off so often that I slept with my clothes readily available and my keys in my pockets, or about the young man next door who had loud all-night parties even during the exam period, spells of feeling really home sick, and the rest – but I don’t think my story is much different than that of anyone else.
Lost in Camden
What is perhaps different was my faith. I arrived on a Saturday in my new halls of residence, and the next thing that had to happen was that I’d have to find my way to Mass the next day. I have a memory of setting off on foot and ending up on somewhere in Camden, having my first experience of being offered directions by a friendly local café owner, who saw me standing with an A-Z in my hand. (This was before the days of Google maps.) The university chaplaincy is on the other side of the Euston Road, but I ended up in North Gower Street, which is the wrong side of the road. Still, I’d left enough time and I did get there sure enough. Newman House has for many years had a large Vatican flag outside to help it stand out from adjoining buildings. I arrived at reception and headed into the chapel. After Mass the priest announced (as he would do so every Freshers Week for all the time I was at university) that there was ‘really good coffee’ after Mass, and I soon found out there was also the option of a hot lunch, lots of social events planned. I joined the choir almost immediately, and also decided to go to Catholic Society, which that year was a very small but friendly group of people. In other words, the chaplaincy became a home from home, always a place of great warm and welcome and really good coffee. There were some of the previous year’s students who were great at welcoming the new faces. In the years that followed it would be my turn to talk to the new arrivals.
Opportunities to deepen my faith
Towards the end of my second year I began to think about where to live in the next year, and since most of my friends were living in London and therefore staying at home for their second year, I applied to live in Newman House. It was one of the best years of my life. It taught me a lot about community life and working with others and helped me be more outgoing. I met people from all over the world. I did some volunteer work with the less privileged. More than anything, I had some wonderful opportunities to deepen my faith. There were lots of types of event, from social events (including a pub crawl!) to invited speakers like politicians and writers (particularly via Cath Soc). Morning prayer was held on weekdays and I started to pray with a breviary. Once or twice a year we had a period of Eucharistic adoration and I chose to take part in night shifts, getting up at 4 or 5 AM to pray, and later help prepare the cooked breakfast which followed. I could pop into the chapel at any time to pray during the day or night. In my second year I was part of a choir trip to Rome and we sang in St Peter’s Basilica at Mass with St John Paul II (he died not long after). When I continued on at university to do my PhD, and no longer lived there, I always felt welcome when I returned, and in times of sadness or worry would return to the chapel to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. I made some really good friends, some of whom I’ve stayed in touch with, others I’ve lost touch with but really miss. One of the good things about it was also that we had young Catholics of all different kinds, from all different places, and we got along really well. Without this formation I would not have had the supportive structure in place to go from being a Catholic teenager to a Catholic adult. There were times when my faith was challenged by my secular friends, although I’m thankful for the fact that they were never rude, but I knew I was in the right place to find good ways to talk about my faith and find answers if I needed them to the questions I had.
The importance of welcome
My time at university as a Catholic changed me and the way I relate to other people. I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned that day as the eighteen-year-old me walked from Camden to Euston and got lost on the way. Nor the importance of welcoming other people. Nor how much having a fixed point of Sunday morning Mass in my weekly schedule would help me structure my life around my faith, and not the other way round. It broadened my horizons in so many ways and gave me the confidence to speak to others.
I was fortunate to be the fourth child, and my other siblings had already found chaplaincies places of welcome at other universities, which meant I had been sent off with this strong advice: make sure you go to the chaplaincy! Next year my niece will go to university, and if I am going to give her one piece of advice (I can think of a few more!) I will say exactly the same.