DE PERE —The logo for St. Norbert College Parish features the steeple of Old St. Joseph Church standing tall above the trees. If a secondary logo is ever designed, Deacon Kevin DeCleene, pastoral leader at the parish, may suggest that it include images of parish members.
“We’ve got really good people. My mantra here is ‘It’s all about the people, not the steeple,’” said Deacon DeCleene. “A lot of the branding we do is the steeple, but there are so many people involved making this parish what it is today.”
St. Norbert College Parish will mark a milestone anniversary in the fall of 2019. On Sept. 20, 1969, it was established as the first college parish in the United States following a move in the early 1960s to build a new St. Joseph Parish community on the far west side of De Pere.
“A college parish means you are going to serve the students, faculty and staff,” explained Deacon DeCleene. “When you look at the past 50 years, every two to three years a different Norbertine became the priest of the church.”
Some served longer, including Norbertine Frs. Conrad Kratz, Gery Meehan and Jim Baraniak, who each led the college parish for more than seven years. A couple years ago, the Norbertines engaged in discussions about the parish moving forward, said Deacon DeCleene.
“There was some deep discernment,” he explained. “Are we a parish? Are we a chapel? What are we going to be and do? They brought the diocese into it. The recommendation was made to look at the pastoral leader position opportunity.”
This month, Deacon DeCleene is celebrating his two-year anniversary as pastoral leader at St. Norbert College Parish. His transition to full-time parish ministry began in 2014. He was asked to serve full-time at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Ashwaubenon, but was not yet ready to leave his career at Schneider National.
“I put together a plan where I could remain on full-time at Schneider and work 20 hours a week paid at Nativity and bridge the gap,” he said. “I did that for about a year and then I flipped it, part-time at Schneider and full-time at Nativity.”
One day, following morning prayer at St. Norbert Abbey, Deacon DeCleene was asked by Norbertine Fr. Jay Fostner to consider serving at the college parish. He was happy with the direction at Nativity, so he initially dismissed the invitation.
“Fr. Jay told me, ‘Why don’t you think about it,’” said Deacon DeCleene. “I graduated from (St. Norbert College) with a master’s in theology in 2012. My twin boys graduated from here in 2011. I really loved the college, so I thought about it and decided, ‘Let’s get serious about this.’ So I applied and went through the process and it all came together.”
The commitment was made to continue to operate as a parish church, but St. Norbert College Parish is unique in the diocese in that its membership is a blend of students and people from the community referred to as “year rounders.”
Deacon DeCleene explained that the parish is working on a census recommitment to find out which members are active and involved. The parish has 425 registered families, of which 200 are active, he said.
Approximately 250 St. Norbert College students regularly attend weekend Mass at Old St. Joseph Church.
“When you think about (Bishop David Ricken’s) call for missionary discipleship, our missionary discipleship is working with those who are coming to church and helping prepare them,” said Deacon DeCleene. “How do you walk through your residence hall and invite people into our mission, our outreach and faith formation? We invite them to be a part of our parish life.”
Students serve the parish in a variety of ministries. Seven students make up half of the parish council. Fourteen paid college students teach in the faith formation program.
“As part of our education night, we also hire students who want to get involved in babysitting,” said Deacon DeCleene. “We have college babysitters we pay while K-12 students and their parents stay here for an evening of learning.
“We start with a meal and make it a family night,” he added. “We use eight classrooms in Boyle Hall (on campus). It’s a blessing to have the faculty here to educate the students, teaching faith formation and to talk about various topics to educate our adults.”
St. Norbert College students also serve the parish in bookkeeping, communications, recordkeeping, at worship, in outreach, on the finance council and on numerous committees.
“I hope when we send the students back into the world not only is it going to help them in their careers, but maybe they will feel a little bit more comfortable going to a parish in their community and becoming involved,” said Deacon DeCleene. “They have experience.”
Students are recruited for parish involvement at orientation in June and at the campus Involvement Fair in the fall. Deacon DeCleene also has a presence in the classroom. First-year St. Norbert students are required to take a noncredit course designed to help them adjust to their new lives and network on campus. Deacon DeCleene is part of a team that teaches one of the classes.
Weekend Masses at Old St. Joseph Church are celebrated by a core group of four Norbertine priests who rotate. Deacon DeCleene can also call on other Norbertines for weekday Masses and the sacraments. Old St. Joseph Church is one of two churches in the diocese owned by the Norbertines, along with St. Willebrord Church in Green Bay. Deacon DeCleene explained that in his position he serves the bishop’s mission, but also the mission of the abbey and the college.
“I have a lot of bosses,” he said with a laugh. “Bishop (Ricken) comes here twice a year — once each semester — to get some time with the students. It’s been great working with everyone.”
There is one more important benefit in his position, added Deacon DeCleene.
“One of the best parts of the job is I can kayak into work when the weather is nice,” he said. “I’m not right on the (Fox) river, but I’m on the east side (of De Pere). I can throw the kayak into the car and go to the boat landing. There is nothing more peaceful.”