St. Norbert College’s prayer hour brings campus to a standstill

By Jeff Kurowski | The Compass | November 30, 2011

“Our faculty was looking at course schedules,” explained Julie Massey, director of campus ministry at St. Norbert. “The Norbertine order was aware of that and put forth a voice that said, ‘In our life together, contemplation is a strong value. The opportunity to pray in common is a strong value. We would like to encourage that the college honor that importance.'”


Debra Faase, director of field experience in teacher education at St. Norbert College in De Pere, lights a candle during sacred song Nov. 2 at Old St. Joseph Church. The college observes sacred hour every Wednesday morning. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)


Highlighting Sacred Hour the first nine years was common prayer, an ecumenical gathering including prayer, song, Scripture and reflections by members of the college community, held at Old St. Joseph Church. Common prayer continues today, but unlike past years when it was the sole community gathering, three new offerings were introduced this fall.

“We looked at formats designed to reach more members of the community,” said Massey. “We added last lectures to the rotation. Last lectures have been around on college campuses for decades and address, with students in mind, ‘if you thought it was your last chance to speak to the world, what message would you share?'”

Sacred song in Old St. Joseph Church was also added. The program offers prayer through music — congregational singing or listening — and showcases the talents of music ministry at Old St. Joseph and vocalists and musicians from the college.

The remaining offering in this pilot year is small-group experiences. Four small groups were formed to explore contemplation and action. One looks through the lens of Buddhism. Another considers Norbertine perspectives on action and contemplation. The third focuses on personal contemplation with regard to obstacles one may encounter, tools one can use and gifts one may receive. Massey leads a group that looks at women and men who model commitment to contemplation and action.

“The informal feedback we are getting back is ‘I love the new format, I love the different kind of opportunities.’ I know we are seeing people at the last lectures, at sacred song, that we weren’t necessarily seeing at common prayer,” said Massey. “Overall, when we do our evaluations, I think we will discover that we’ve touched a broader segment of the community.”

Sarah Griffiths, director of International Student and Scholar Services at the college, served as the first last lecture speaker. She had presented at common prayer four years ago. Griffths said that she was familiar with the focus of the talk and had read the book “The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch.

“I really wanted it to resonate with students,” she said. “It coincided with my tendency to save things, to hang on to things. Over the summer, I was trying to get a little bit of a handle on some of the clutter in my own home. I really felt that it was taking shape as a memoir piece.”

The lecture provided an opportunity to open up to the audience, which included members of her family. Griffiths grew up in Manitowoc as the youngest of 12 children.

“I was very moved by the feedback I received from people,” she said. “What I had hoped to do was share a narrative that had some universal themes. It was very affirming to be received in such a warm and supportive way.”

Following her lecture, Griffths was stopped on campus by two religious sisters from Vietnam who are in the English as a Second Language program at St. Norbert.


Members of the St. Norbert College community sing a hymn during Sacred Hour held Nov. 2 at Old St. Joseph Church. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)


“One of them said, ‘I didn’t understand everything, but I just listened with my heart.’ For me, that was enough,” said Griffiths.

Griffths’ last lecture is included among the Sacred Hour video archives on the campus ministry webpage. Each week, through an electronic newsletter, a member of the college community also shares how they observe Sacred Hour. Community gatherings are only a part of Sacred Hour observation. Personal forms of reflection are encouraged for those who don’t wish to come together in a larger group.

“One of our colleagues, a couple years back, had recently lost her spouse and she used Sacred Hour to go to the cemetery every week to be with him and to pray,” said Massey. “I thought, how lovely is that? A student said, ‘I write my friends actual letters on paper.’ What we are asking for is contemplation in this moment. I’m at the common gathering every week. I would like to see as many people there as possible, but I respect that there are other ways to be contemplative.”

Griffiths said that she has often observed Sacred Hour more privately in recent years.

“I’m still a letter writer, so I may write a card or note,” she said. “I enjoy going for coffee with a friend or colleague to talk about things outside of work and reconnect our relationship. While it’s not a prescribed way, we are really called to reflect in a way that is intentional.”

Students serving as presenters have been a staple of Sacred Hour since its inception. Senior Jake DeMarais of Winona, Minn., led October’s common prayer. He was recruited by Norbertine Fr. Sal Cuccia. DeMarais invited friends to join him. His presentation focused on his experience studying abroad in Ireland in the fall of 2010. He explored three themes: affirming the goodness in creation, stepping outside your comfort zone and acceptance of all.

“Our study abroad challenged us to do all those things, so we looked at how we can relate that back now to life here on campus and into the future,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity, because I wanted to share about how different parts of my experience in life have related to my faith.”

DeMarais, an education major who is active in campus ministry, shared his support for the expansion the Sacred Hour offerings beyond common prayer.

“Common prayer was good, but I think people saw it losing momentum because it was being done very similarly every single time, just by a different group,” he said. “I think it was good to change it up.”

The only campus offices that remain open during Sacred Hour are those that serve visitors who are likely not familiar with the observance. Last lectures, held in Fort Howard Theater, are open to the public as well as common prayer and sacred song.

Sacred Hour is observed on campus 52 weeks a year. Massey said it’s important that faculty and staff set a good example at all times.

“Let’s model for our students,” she said. “Let our students see that we observe it. Our lives are meant to be grounded in reflection. This is a value that comes out of our Norbertine heritage and it matters that we respect this.”

For more information, including a schedule of Sacred Hour gatherings, visit


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