SMITHFIELD — Students at a recent Sunday evening Mass celebrated in Bryant University’s Interfaith Center chapel were eager to share stories about spring break. However, unlike most of their peers, the group of 15 students had spent their spring break not on the beach, but in Washington D.C., where they participated in community service with a number of nonprofit ministries. The students were part of an alternative spring break trip, one of several new opportunities made possible by a recent donation to Catholic and Christian ministry at the university.
“I wanted to do more community service, and not just for a resume,” said sophomore Catherine Bennetti, who spoke about her experiences on the trip at a reception following the Mass. “It made me really appreciate the work that I was doing. It made me feel very small, and that was a good thing.”
Bennetti and other students were able to participate in the trip due to a generous donation to campus ministry by George and Mary Agostini, parishioners of Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Parish, Seekonk. Among other initiatives, the donation will fund the hiring of a part-time Catholic campus minister to coordinate religious programs and community service, including future alternative spring break trips.
“This ensures, with a shortage of priests, there will be a Catholic presence for the students on campus,” said Father Michael McMahon, who coordinates the team of priests who celebrate Mass on campus on a rotating schedule.
Though the Agostinis live within the Diocese of Fall River, where they are closely involved with parish and diocesan ministry, they have strong Rhode Island roots. Both husband and wife grew up in Pawtucket, where Mr. Agostini attended the former St. Joseph Elementary School and later graduated from St. Raphael Academy. When considering a donation, he said, it was important that he and his wife do something to reach students and encourage them in their religious faith.
“We wanted to do something that would have an impact on youth,” he said. “We have good young people, all they need is someone to open the door for them, and that’s what happened here.”
Students at Bryant University already had the opportunity to attend weekly Mass at the Interfaith Center chapel and participate in community service through various campus programs. However, the donation will allow the university to significantly expand its campus ministry programs, with special emphasis on Catholic ministry and service opportunities that allow young people to live out Christian values. Among the opportunities currently being planned for students are educational retreats, pilgrimages to local shrines and lectures about the faith.
“This is truly a great night for Bryant University, especially for Catholic and Christian ministry here,” said Father Robert Marciano, one of the priests who regularly celebrates Mass on campus.
A major component of the new campus ministry programming is the alternative spring break trip, which allows students to learn about social issues through community service. According to Kevin Martins, assistant director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which oversees campus ministry, administrators have attempted to organize this kind of opportunity in the past, but students have struggled with the cost of the trip. Thanks to the Agostinis’ donation, this year’s trip was offered free of charge, and students responded enthusiastically.
“I think giving students the opportunity to learn through service is a huge opportunity,” said Martins. “Opportunities like this give students a different lens on how they’re learning through service.”
Bennetti, a parishioner of St. Rocco’s Church, Johnston, and graduate of St. Mary Academy – Bay View, explained how the students visited the elderly at a Little Sisters of the Poor residence, helped with an after school program at St. Anthony School and delivered food to the ill with the Food and Friends ministry. She said the opportunity to reflect on some of the root causes of suffering in the community was beneficial to both the students and those they served.
“I’m a big believer in grassroots causes. [The Agostinis] could’ve just donated money, but spreading the word about what’s at stake goes a longer way than just an immediate solution,” she said.
As a token of thanks, students who participated in the trip presented Mr. and Mrs. Agostini with a group photo and postcards detailing their experiences. Mr. Agostini, visibly moved by the presentation, said he was very impressed with the students’ response to the opportunity to serve those in need.
“I did not expect the impact that it had on the students,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely spectacular. Just about every one of them said, ‘I know I can have an impact on the world.’”
He encouraged the young people to continue to participate in community service and assured them that their example would in turn encourage those they served to give back.
“If everybody takes care of one another, it’s a good world,” he said. “What I saw tonight gives me a lot of hope. That these young people get involved.”