First years dig deep, find refreshment at service sites

by Breanna Mekuly, Stritch assistant director of Campus Ministry

While planning orientation this year, our team decided we wanted to focus on introducing our students to Stritch’s Franciscan values. We sent about 75 students to two select sites this year—the Motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, who are the foundresses of Stritch, and the Victory Garden Initiative, a Milwaukee community garden that enables people to grow their own food.

Before they left campus, we encouraged the students not only to focus on the physical tasks, but more so on relationships. We prepared the students to be open to and aware of the ways they encountered everything around them as they entered into relationship with the Sisters, the earth, the plants, the animals, and their peers. In doing so, we hoped that students would better understand the unity of all of creation, recognize the Franciscan charism as one of community, compassion, and just care, and realize that, in so many ways they might not even recognize, they are already connected to the Franciscan tradition.

Cloudy skies, rain and mud did nothing to dampen the zest the students brought to their projects, which involved working on the grounds at the Motherhouse, visiting and sharing stories with the Sisters, and weeding, mulching and planting flowers at the Victory Garden. When later asked to submit photos of their day together, they collectively shared nearly 500 images they took that day and each photo provides a glimpse of their new friendships, sense of discovery, service spirit and deep-down joy. Enjoy a sampling of those images here. 

“I felt incredibly blessed when I received the opportunity to work with the Victory Garden Initiative. Situated in one of the most unlikely neighborhoods in Milwaukee, this bountiful garden provides free, nutritious produce for people in need. But, of course, gardens don’t tend themselves. That’s where Cardinal Stritch University comes in. Stritch’s mission is to serve others, and that’s exactly what we did. Unfortunately, it began to rain soon after we arrived, but we spent the whole afternoon weeding and mulching the gardens anyway. Sure, stooping in the mud for three hours isn’t exactly the most pleasant thing ever, but I will say this: knowing that you helped someone in need is one of the best feelings in the world.”

– freshman psychology major Rachel Henry


“The Franciscan value of this academic year at Cardinal Stritch University is caring for creation and I had the opportunity to go with the new students to the Victory Garden Initiative. The experience was eye opening. I grew up around the neighborhood where it’s located and I never even knew it existed. As we walked up to the garden to meet our guide, Alex, I was taken aback by how in the middle of this large, residential, urban community was this hidden treasure of a garden that was bigger than I had imagined. During introductions we got to learn all about the Victory Garden Initiative and all that they do. We learned that they build gardens around the Milwaukee area with the purpose of trying to teach people in urban neighborhoods, who don’t always have access to grocery stores or stores with healthy foods, how to plan and grow their own food. They also do lots of other things such as teaching garden and cooking classes as well as providing youth with the opportunity to harvest and sell. During our visit we helped Alex clear weeds, put down fresh mulch, and plant flowers near their main entrance. Everyone was on board as we worked as a team to pull up the tough roots and sung songs from our favorite teen movies. We worked on building community amongst ourselves as well as with Alex as we learned more about him and even suggested he come help us build a garden at Stritch. That’s the great thing about Stritch: the fact that they have connections in the community so that we as students get to learn about the community around us and not just the Stritch community we are immersed in every day. As a senior, one thing I’ve noticed is that before new students even reach the classroom, we give them many opportunities to learn the values that Stritch was built on through service and community building.”  – senior orientation leader and English/Writing major Jasmine Buck

“Service day was a great experience!  I went to the Motherhouse where we got to meet some of the Sisters and help them with a few projects. I worked in part of the garden where we planted different plants which were to eventually make up a small prairie. We also helped to put up a statue of St. Francis in the garden in order to give it a more sacred look. After working, the Sisters were ever so kind to give us snacks while they told us the background and history of the Motherhouse. It was a great experience for all and we got to meet a lot of amazing people, including some of our future classmates and friends.” 

- freshman Ben Briselden

“I had the wonderful opportunity to go to the Motherhouse with the incoming class. I worked outside in the yard with a group of students. Since we were outside, it was more of a direct service experience. We did not really have the opportunity to talk to the Sisters. But both kinds of service are extremely important. It is great for the Sisters at the Motherhouse to have people to talk to share their stories with and hear the stories of others. However, the service I was able to do was very labor based. It was great being able to help out that way because I know how much it made a difference to the Sisters because many of them are not able to do such labor. Not only did I have the opportunity to personally experience the Franciscan value of reverencing creation, but I was able to see this value lived out so beautifully by one of the staff members at the Motherhouse. One of his jobs is to take care of the bee hives. He talked to many of us about the life of a bee, their purpose, and their behaviors. It was amazing to hear all about bees and why we should not be afraid of them. He talked about them in a way that really touched me. Everyone could tell he really cared about the bees and had a deep connection to them. It really changed my perspective as I’m sure it did the same for others. Through him, I was able to see how beautiful our world really is!” – senior orientation leader and education major Rebecca Meleski

“My favorite part of the Motherhouse visit was meeting the nuns. They were such wonderful and wise women. My group had the chance to talk to them and learn about the kinds of lives they led. I was amazed at the amount of service these women did and the sacrifices they made in the name of God.” – freshman biology major River Thomas

“At first, I was less than thrilled to go to the Victory Garden. Once I heard that we’d be in the city of Milwaukee and that none of the people I had met at orientation so far would be there, I regretted my decision to sign up. My opinion quickly changed and I ended up being really glad I went along. It was an all-around fun and enjoyable experience. Sure the rainy weather wasn’t the best, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered is that we were all enjoying ourselves while simultaneously helping out. Everyone at the garden was joined together with a mission to help out, whether it was by planting new flowers, spreading mulch, or weeding the area as a whole. The workers at the garden were joined in this mission and turned out to be both kind and interesting to talk to. In fact, they offered everyone various foods grown from the garden itself. Even if you didn’t know anyone at all or just kept to yourself there was no way to have a bad experience there. Spontaneous sing-alongs of High School Musical and Taylor Swift songs kept everyone upbeat right up until we stepped back on the bus to Stritch. All in all what I originally thought would be an unenjoyable ordeal turned out to be a wonderful experience. The time we spent at the Victory Garden was a chance to learn about the positive effect gardens can have on a community while also helping us reconnect with nature.” – freshman psychology and sociology major Aaron Weichart

“During orientation, I had the privilege of going to the Motherhouse. When we first got there, we were split up into groups to get a tour of the building with one of the Sisters as our guide. One thing I distinctly remember was a beautiful mural that covered two walls. The mural was basically a painting of the history of the Motherhouse and Cardinal Stritch University. As she told the story, she had plenty of emotion which, to me, showed how much she valued the history. Another important stop on the tour was visiting the chapel. It was beautiful to hear her explain the different parts of it including the historic figures important to them pictured on the stained glass windows. After the tour, we had a chance to sit down with a Sister almost one-on-one to hear her personal story. It was a blessing to hear how devoted she has been to the Word of God her whole life. It was interesting hearing about how young she was before she basically put her life in God’s hands and devoted herself to doing His work whether that was through teaching or something else. I could never see myself doing something like that especially at such a young age. I could not imagine doing something like that in this day and age. It just goes to show how much times have changed. Another very interesting thing I noticed is that everything she said, she related it to one of the Franciscan values. She really lives by them and reflects on them and, to me, that was inspiring. After my few hours at the Motherhouse, I was much more appreciative of choosing a lifestyle that reflects what I believe just like all the women in the Motherhouse. I feel that it was a really great place to go before school starts because these women inspired me to focus on what was important to me, which is my faith. It was also a great place to go during orientation because I now know that I have the opportunity to go back there and talk with more Sisters throughout my years here at Stritch.” – freshman early childhood education major Alison Aalpoel

“Within minutes of introductions, students and Sisters were smiling, laughing, and enjoying each other’s stories. The Sisters expressed happiness at meeting the new students and welcomed them to our Franciscan university. Sisters shared their life stories. Some have served as Stritch faculty and presidents. Others have served in grade and high schools as teachers and principals. Some have been musicians, music teachers, organists and choir directors. One was a missionary to China for 40 years and just recently returned. Students showed interest and listened with attention. Sisters showed interest and support of the students and some offered prayer support as they begin this new chapter of life. At the conclusion of the hour, enjoying lemonade and cookies, some students promised to come and visit again. In all, 20 Sisters took part in the planning and participation of the event.” - Sister Adele Thibaudeau, OSF, who served as Stritch’s Director of Campus Ministry for many years and now heads the Sisters’ Office of Franciscan Call and Response.


Senior Sarah Rose Werner, a three-time orientation leader, reflected on her experience working with the first-year students at the service sites and throughout Welcome Week. 

Photo essay group 2