During a five-day stretch in June 2016, 23 high school students took up residence at Cardinal Stritch University as part of the San Damiano Encounter, a faith and leadership immersion experience made possible by a four-year grant from Lilly Endowment, Inc. One of two Wisconsin universities to receive the grant, Stritch developed the program as part of a nationwide effort to support the Endowment’s “commitment to identify and cultivate a cadre of theologically minded youth who will become leaders in church and society.”

“These colleges and universities [that received grants] are well-positioned to reach out to high school students in this way,” said Dr. Christopher L. Coble, vice president for religion at the Lilly Endowment. “They have outstanding faculty in theology and religion who know how to help young people explore the wisdom of religious traditions and apply these insights to contemporary challenges.”

San Damiano Encounter students spent their days in classrooms, at community sites, and in the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel exploring and deepening their faith, learning about their personal gifts and callings, engaging in prayer, sharing insights, and opening themselves to the ways they could take the week’s lessons into everyday life as the next generation of leaders. Stritch’s Religious Studies Department and the Saint Clare Center for Catholic Life collaborated to create lessons and experiences designed to develop connections between participants’ questions, current issues and the Catholic faith tradition, incorporating stories from the life of St. Francis.

“I think there are a lot of teens who are open to being more deeply spiritual if someone can show them a way that fits their unique personality,” said Michael Taylor, director of the Saint Clare Center for Catholic Life, who along with Religious Studies Chair Dr. Michelle Gilgannon, ’04, and Program Coordinator Paul Schweigl, partnered on the program’s implementation. “Teenagers are ready for the light to go on, for that spark to be fanned into flame, and I think that’s what happened for a lot of them. We sent them out at the end of the week as leaders, as people of faith.” 

Watch a Life Productions video of the 2016 experience and visit the San Damiano Encounter application page, which will open for 2017 applicants in early January.

From interested to inspired

by Charlotte Utschig

When I first heard about the San Damiano Encounter, I thought it could be fun, that it would be a nice way to break up the summer and maybe learn a little more about my faith. I already had a mild interest in theology because my sister majored in it and thought, “Hey, why not?” I was not expecting this experience to have such an impact on my life.

From the very first afternoon, we were thrown into a world of knowledge and discovery. The first lesson seemed so fantastically deep, but, as the week went on, I learned we had barely scratched the surface that day. There was a universe of discussion waiting to be explored, and we were all so eager to do so. That was the truly special part of the program: everyone who was there was just as keen on the subject as the person standing next to them.

That deeply shared interest brought us so closely together that it felt as if we had known each other for years. That was one of the most safe and trusting environments I have ever been a part of, which is especially remarkable considering we were there for less than a week. We melded seamlessly and that connection was so amazingly special. Whether it was at breakfast, or running club, or evening prayer, I felt so comfortable with that group. I doubt anyone would say otherwise. The other participants, the counselors, the professors all made this a truly incredible experience. Their passion was infectious and continues to inspire me long after I have returned home. That may sound as if it is only in reference to our theology sessions or our discussions, but, in fact, it applies to everything we did.

After just a few days, we started to form clubs, simply extra opportunities for us to get together. I joined both running and yoga club despite a complete and utter lack of skill, and everyone was fully supportive. It was great!

It also applied to more serious occasions, though. Evening prayer was amazingly spiritual. Everything in our lives is so rushed nowadays. It’s difficult to find the time to pray and it’s difficult to focus. Oftentimes, even Communion prayer is distracted for me because of everything else that’s going on. And, honestly, I was a little intimidated by the thought of a half hour of prayer, sitting in a silent group of people and baring my soul to God. It ended up being my favorite part of the day. To be with others, feel their energy without speaking, and establish a direct connection to Him is like nothing I had ever experienced before. My faith was deepened greatly by that week.

Everything about this experience has inspired me. It has inspired me to think. It has inspired me to love. It has inspired me to open myself up, to be vulnerable, to let God lead my life, and for that, I am so grateful.


Charlotte Utschig is a senior at Wauwatosa East High School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. She is a member of Saints Peter and Paul Parish in Milwaukee.