Sharing the faith journey of young people: Religious as University Chaplains

Sr Blanaid McCauley with students

Sr Blanaid McCauley with students

As the academic year closes, members of religious congregations who are University Chaplains have sent in reflections on their role:

Sr Anouska Robinson-Biggin

Sr Anouska Robinson-Biggin

Sr Anouska Robinson-Biggin FCJ

Goldsmiths University & LSBU Twitter:  @anouskafcj

Being a University Chaplain is a role I love, feel passionate about and have grown into.  Professional Development at Newman University, Birmingham has helped this no end! As Chaplain I feel I have the chance to meet people who may never make it into our institutional buildings, or having been in them feel it is not for them, but who are as much in need of a listening ear and a faithful presence as those who do.   I see one of my roles to be the gentle human face of the God who is a companion on their journey.  As a Religious working in a completely non-religious setting I am very much on the ‘edge’ and oftentimes ‘invisible’. Yet for the people (both staff and students) who seek me out or whom I encounter and walk alongside, I know it makes a difference.


One of my regular activities includes working with the Anglican Chaplain preparing, cooking and hosting a lunch each week for students in the Catholic Chaplaincy House.  This attracts between 30 and 40 students a week and is just one way we try to build community in this setting. 

The Scripture passage that really speaks to me as a University Chaplain is the Road to Emmaus. Like on pilgrimage you walk lightly in this ministry, like pilgrims on the way, not arriving with all the answers etc. but in walking along you become more aware of the questions, and therefore more open to the answers you may discover about the setting and yourself.  Ongoing personal reflection is a must in this ministry as each day you consider anew what is the best way to be and do for that moment in time.  In walking lightly, I am open to meet fellow travellers whether they be staff or students, walk with them, listen to their stories and at their invitation have the privilege of breaking open the bread of their lives.  These eucharistic moments are blessed and go far beyond what any term card can say and speak to about the privilege of University Chaplaincy.


As a religious sister in University Chaplaincy ministry I often ponder the words from my Final Vows Ceremony: ‘Be faithful to the ministry the Church entrusts to you to be carried out in its name’. These words speak to me because I know that in my role in the two universities I serve, I am an FCJ Sister (Faithful Companion of Jesus) and as an employee of the Archdiocese, the face of the Church in that place.  I therefore feel like the apostles sent out on mission and even if unsure of how it will unfold, believe in the importance of the journey. 

For more information about Chaplaincy training at Newman University visit their website:

Sister Mary Kenefick SMG

UCL & Brunel Twitter: @kenefick_mary 

My introduction to University Chaplaincy Ministry happened many years ago.  No one event, rather a whole collection of life gathering skills enabled me to respond to an opening which arose at Newman House in 2006. 

Sr Mary Kenefick

Sr Mary Kenefick

I have served the University College London (UCL) Chaplaincy for 13 years, while I spent 7 years at London Metropolitan University and six years at Brunel London University. Both UCL and Brunel London have been in existence for fifty- two years both founded by Mgr Bruce Kent.

I endeavour to enable the students to have fun activities, eg., outreach to others, faith sessions to discover more about themselves and come to know more about the scriptures and the Church; to be firm friends with each other as this bonds them to seek and to deepen their faith - not only knowledge of the faith but to live it joyfully with each other. Awareness of challenges and differences has been the seedbed for deepening their prayer life which has been nurtured through times of Guided Prayer, Retreat days and Pilgrimages and the daily praying The Prayer of the Church. 

The latest new initiative for UCL Catholic Society (CathSoc) is to take part in the Bloomsbury Festival 2019 with the theme ‘Small steps, Giant leaps’.  Here they will invite Bloomsbury Festival goers into Newman House to savour a display of posters highlighting the main events of Cardinal Newman’s life.  There will also be a walk in Venerable Mother Magdalen Taylor’s footsteps around the Bloomsbury area to illustrate ‘Small steps, Giant leaps’. 

Each year has its differences and its blessings. While for Brunel CathSoc their latest new initiative was when one of the students played her musical instrument at the Church in order to raise funds for the Medaille Trust, Hayes.  So impressed were the parish of Uxbridge, with this initiative, they donated some money to this cause as well.

I believe all our CathSoc students continue to have lasting memories of deep friendships formed in these precious years.  They are eager to give something back to make the world a better place and to act as conduits of God’s mercy and love for his creatures and creation.

Fr Matthew Power SJ: Oxford University

The Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy year came to a close with a retreat at the Jesuit Villa House in Barmouth in Wales for eight students and two of the Chaplains. For the students, it was a chance to become better acquainted with the Ignatian Examen and to use it as a way of looking back over the year and to give thanks to God for its blessings. For the Chaplains too, the days away provided time and space to review a year that had been particularly rich, and it is good to evoke some of that here.

Fr Matthew Power, 2nd right

Fr Matthew Power, 2nd right

There have been major liturgical celebrations eg., a Mass commemorating the Oxford Catholic students who died in World War I;  three residential retreats (two at Barmouth and one at Stanbrook Abbey);  some well attended talks (Fr Nick Austin SJ on ‘The Good Life’, Michael Wee, from the Anscombe Centre and Becky Short, Assistant Chaplain, on Bioethics, and a series of excellent speakers on Bl. John Henry Newman); and a number of social events, fostering the sense of community within the Chaplaincy, most enjoyably, a variety show in which even the chaplains were willing to send themselves up in a version of ‘Favourite Things,’ to the delight of the audience.

In January the Chaplaincy hosted ten or so organisations including Jesuit Missions, the Jesuit Refugee Service and MAGIS, to make students more aware of summer and longer-term volunteering at an all-day Vacations Project Fair (hopefully to become an annual event). OxUnboxed, an eco-pop-up supermarket, also came on a Sunday in the Easter and Summer terms. There is no doubt more to be done in the area of engagement in pressing social issues, but with a good number of students helping rough sleepers through the Order of Malta Volunteers, there is already much to be grateful for.

Also a cause for encouragement, the fact that once again the Week of Guided Prayer, led this year by Iona Dalglish-Reid, attracted a good number of participants, 38, and that in the course of the year the Ignatian Examen has been offered on a series of Fridays rotating through four different Oxford Colleges.

We are hugely helped by the engagement of students, in the flourishing Newman CathSoc, in the various areas of Chaplaincy life: serving and choir, for example; helped too by the support that we receive from the Jesuits at Campion Hall,  the Anglican College Chaplains, and the Newman Trust, who keep the roof over our heads and do so much more. A good year, for which we give thanks to God.

Sr Dr Una Coogan IBVM

Birmingham University Twitter: @coogan_una

Being a religious sister in a multi-faith University Chaplaincy is an interesting place to be.  As the only non-ordained or equivalent full time chaplain, the role of the Religious is interesting. I find the relationship with students and staff very personality based rather than sacramental. This often means that I am the one sought out to solve practical issues that occur. It takes time to establish yourself as a chaplain, time to build up those relationships.

Sr Una Coogan, centre

Sr Una Coogan, centre

One way I found useful is to find something to do in the university that is not based around religion, for me this has been ‘management and leadership coaching’ as part of the University’s coaching academy. It has opened doors for me to get to know members of staff that I would have never met otherwise and allows the work of chaplaincy to be known around the university.

I was asked recently during a talk I was giving to our Catholic Society, ‘what’s  the best thing about your work as a religious sister?’  My instance reply was ‘you are’ -  as cheesy it sounds-  but this job has given me the privilege of accompanying these young adults during their University lives. We sometimes forget how wonderful our young adults are, how their faith is developing and what a strong desire they have both to follow Jesus and to put their faith into action. I became a Religious to follow my path to God, accompanying others to do so is a joy.

Sr Valentina Stilo FMVD
Southampton University

Through the team at the Chaplaincy we try to provide students with a family environment at the Faith and Reflection Centre, offering them the opportunity to meet new friends, to experience community life, to be nourished by God through the Sacraments, companionship, spiritual and sacramental formation, catechesis and experience of prayer. We also try to reach out into the non-Catholic students through social events and through friendship.  

Every morning I meet with my sisters in our little chapel to pray. At the beginning of term,  an old American song came to my mind :

 “As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way!

O sisters, let's go down,
Let's go down, come on down
O sisters, let's go down
Down in the river to pray”

I felt that this song was an invitation to remember who is the centre of my mission at the University: it is the Lord and I want to walk with Him, once more to this field of mission as going “down to the river to pray”.

Sr Valentina, centre (grey top) at World Youth Day

Sr Valentina, centre (grey top) at World Youth Day

Walking across Highfield Campus, I swim in a river of people: young lives, full of dreams and desires, adults who do their best to provide a good service to the students, thinkers, researchers, the yeast of development and culture. I swim in this river of knowledge and human growth, knowing that in this place I’m going to meet Jesus today ['Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40)]; this is the place He wants to enlighten with the Word He gave me this morning and nourish with the food he offers me at every Eucharist.

At the start of an academic year, my deep desire is simple: to introduce students and staff of the University to His beautiful face… This face that we never know enough, but it’s always new. I  hope for the University Catholic Chaplaincy team at the University of Southampton to  provide a space in which the students are enabled to express their questions, offer their gifts and integrate their intellectual growth with their spiritual, emotional and, finally, human growth. I hope we can, together with the Catholic students and staff of the University, be a missionary community, being to the University – place of “teaching universal knowledge” (Newman) – the Catholic (which means universa!) colourful people of God, house of prayer for all (Is 56:7), connection with God and humanity:   living memory of the beauty of the Truth.

Sr Blanaid McCauley SSL

Brighton University & Sussex University (recently retired)

I will always be thankful that my first experience of Chaplaincy  was based in Brighton. Its diverse culture in terms of ethnicity, sexual orientation and internationalism taught me much and above all challenged me to recognise the richness and dignity of all peoples.

This I knew could only be done by having an attitude of unconditional acceptance and respect for everyone, regardless of religion, belief, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and colour, and always operating from an ‘open door’ chaplaincy that welcomed all. The open door policy brought many students in, many searching for their ‘god’, others  disillusioned , some traumatised by previous life experiences of bereavement, rejection and mental health issues.

The ‘open door’ also brought in a number of vibrant young Christian / Catholic students who were instrumental in developing and nurturing a strong and active praying Christian community. I never ceased to be amazed by the generosity and good will of the students volunteering with the Soup Run, Night Shelter and Age UK. and their strong sense for social justice in taking part in demonstrations both within the university campus and further afield. Retreats and time away from it all at Worth Abbey, Taize and Student Cross provided tremendous experience for nurturing prayer and faith.

Sr Blanaid, on pilgrimage to Canterbury with students

Sr Blanaid, on pilgrimage to Canterbury with students

Last October I returned to the University of Brighton to volunteer with the ‘Momentum Programme’ to support and mentor Black Asian Minority Ethnic students, students who have a disability, students in need of a confidence boost.

Having been a Chaplain for seventeen years, I still hold a strong sense of deep fulfilment for having had the opportunity and privilege to work in partnership with chaplains of other faiths in the accompaniment of both students and staff in their life - faith journeys.

Regardless of the support and influence of ‘good’ chaplains, I firmly believe in the effectiveness of students, strong in their faith who by their Christian example lead their vulnerable peers back to their faith.

Fr Brendan Callaghan SJ

Fr Brendan Callaghan

Fr Brendan Callaghan

Manchester University

The Manchester Universities Catholic Chaplaincy has the three university institutions on Manchester’s Oxford Road as its main area of work. The University of Manchester, the Royal Northern College of Music, and Manchester Metropolitan University have 80,000+ students between them, with a high proportion of international students.

The Universities themselves are increasingly supportive of Chaplaincy ministry, recognising that the counselling and other support services that they can provide do not necessarily engage with the life issues or existential questions with which many students are dealing.

The Chaplaincy Team includes four Jesuits, two fcJ Sisters, an all-essential and all-welcoming Administrative Assistant and the most recent addition to the team, a two-year-old border collie called Penny (who more than earns her keep, de-stressing exam-ridden students).

Penny !

Penny !

A year or so ago, the team came up with the following description of our mission, which appears as a reminder in each edition of our weekly newsletter:

“The Catholic Chaplaincy is an oasis on the pilgrimage of life where we make friends, build community, volunteer to serve others, and find accompaniment & guidance in exploring and deepening our faith, especially through prayer, liturgy and the sacraments. We are a thriving community from all over the world. With study space, free food, & free Wi-Fi,  consider us to be your family - your home from home while you study.”

What we set out as our “mission” works itself out in a number of ways, most of which will be familiar to anyone involved in Chaplaincy ministry. The context of a very high proportion of international students gives a particular “feel” to much of what happens here, and it is clear that underlying all of the specific ministries is the foundation of a living community of prayer, service, and celebration.

“What am I grateful for in these last months?” said one of our student members in the course of shared prayer and reflection: “I’m grateful for the welcoming community, where I can be myself without having to conform to rigid sets of rules, and where I’m accepted. That’s why I spend so much time with the chaplaincy.”

As our Salford diocesan prayer says: Stay with us Lord, on our journey!