Immersive Franciscan experience leads student to Stritch
by Emily Czaplewski, Class of 2021
Each summer, the Saint Clare Center for Ministry and Leadership at Cardinal Stritch University hosts the San Damiano Encounter (SDE), a week-long retreat experience for high school students finishing their sophomore, junior or senior years. It takes place at Stritch’s Fox Point campus and offers students the chance to grow in faith and develop as leaders as they become immersed in the life of St. Francis of Assisi through learning, service, prayer, community, and reflection. The community of SDE has had a powerful impact on many students over the years, including Grace Dow, whose experience at SDE deepened her faith and led her to discover God’s calling for the next season of her life.
Grace attended SDE in 2018, the summer before her junior year of high school, and she learned about the program in a very unexpected way. Grace’s first encounter with Stritch was a 2017 campus tour, which she really enjoyed. The experience stayed with her, and she found herself looking around the Stritch website one day, which is how she stumbled upon the Saint Clare Center and learned about the San Damiano Encounter.
It sparked Grace’s interest because it offered her the chance to spend a week on campus and “really get to know Stritch and learn about Stritch,” and because it would allow her to meet new people and make new friends.
Although the excitement was there, her decision was not immediate.
“I took about a week to sit and reflect, and God was like, ‘Go do this, you’ll have a great time,’ so I did!”
Grace had hoped to make a few new friends at SDE. Now, nearly three years later, she has kept in contact with almost every single person she met through the program. The community she found through the San Damiano Encounter was huge, but Grace emphasized the importance of the spiritual formation she received that week, too.
“It deepened my understanding that I really need to follow Christ.”
To Grace, following Christ means listening to him and trusting him, and she continues to lean on him to find that place of peace in the midst of life’s uncertainties.
Grace also noted that the San Damiano Encounter fostered her personal growth, sharing that the experience “helped me grow into more myself.”
Through the San Damiano Encounter, Grace found her independence and a greater confidence in who she is and who she was created to be. While personal growth was certainly an important part of her experience, the community of SDE was transformational for her, too.
Often, one of the most meaningful parts of high school retreats are the friendships formed through close proximity and the trust built through vulnerability and shared experiences. For Grace, the friendship she built with her roommate and the deep conversations they got to share were a truly memorable part of her SDE experience.
As Grace put it, there is nothing quite like “the bonds you make after midnight!”
Those bonds and the deep friendships she formed are just two of the many reasons why Grace would recommend the San Damiano Encounter to high school students.
“You will make those lifelong friends you never thought you would have, and you’ll grow closer to Christ, whether you thought you would or you wouldn’t.”
Her biggest advice to San Damiano Encounter participants? Be open.
“If I go into an experience with a lot of expectations, I know I won’t be happy.”
But, when she embraced the adventure of the San Damiano Encounter with an openness to receive whatever God had for her, she was blown away.
“Let the experience be the experience it needs to be.”
Through her openness to receiving the gifts God wanted to offer her at SDE, Grace also discovered that she was being led back to Stritch after high school.
“I fell in love with campus when I first toured, and the San Damiano Encounter confirmed that this was where I needed to be.”
Three years after Grace’s San Damiano Encounter experience, she is a proud member of Stritch’s class of 2024. She works with the admissions department to welcome other prospective students to campus, helping them find their own place in the Stritch community, just as she found hers, and she loves sharing about her journey of faith.
Through the San Damiano Encounter, Grace learned how to deepen her faith, become herself, and heal the world. If you or a high school student you know are ready to dive into a transformative journey of faith, community, and growth.