Students reflect on serving different communities during midterm break

Fall break is a week for students to leave behind their schoolwork and experience life beyond campus. For many students, this is an opportunity to live out the Christian call to service. The Rover interviewed five of these students who spent their breaks serving others. 

Paul Gates, a sophomore and seminarian with the Congregation of Holy Cross, traveled to Phoenix, AZ with six other students to serve at André House of Hospitality, a Holy Cross apostolate that serves the poor and homeless. André House is located in a six-block area of Phoenix where 700 to 900 people live without homes. Due to limited space, the local homeless shelter must turn away a majority of people who seek refuge there each night, resulting in the formation of tent cities in this area known as “the Zone.”  

Gates described his experience at André House to the Rover, “Most of our work was aimed at meeting the immediate needs of the community each day. Our main services are dinner and providing the guests with access to laundry and showers.” 

One aspect of the work that Gates enjoyed was working as “the porter,” a role named for Holy Cross’s St. André Bessette, who was himself a porter—a role that is traditionally thought to be very lowly. Gates said, “As the porter, I would spend time with the guests in the parking lot. We would exchange funny stories, and I think many people would leave with hope.” Gates especially appreciated the way André House emphasized receiving each guest as an individual: “We would ask each person’s name and get to know them.” 

When asked his favorite part of his time at André House, Gates said, “There was a moment after a few days when the guests began to learn my name in return. Being called by name by the poor was like being called by name by Christ.” 

Anne Dunn, a junior, spent her fall break at the Saint Gianna and Pietro Molla Maternity Home, a home for women facing unexpected pregnancies located in rural North Dakota. Dunn lived in community with the mothers and children who reside there, and some of her many duties included babysitting, cooking, cleaning, and driving the residents to appointments and school. 

She told the Rover, “At the home, I had the blessing of supporting women who chose life for their babies, and loving them when they have previously felt that no one cared for them. A lot of women who come to the home don’t have anyone to tell them that carrying life inside of them is a beautiful thing. They truly are the strongest women I’ve met in my life.” 

Dunn shared her favorite part of fall break with the Rover, “One of the last nights of break I spent time with the baby I cared for this summer. I got to give her a bottle and rock her to sleep in my arms. During this time, I felt a special connection to the Blessed Mother and the way she would’ve cared for the Child Jesus. This gave me a whole new perspective on the unique and beautiful call women have to be mothers, both physically and spiritually.”

Kevin Heil also spent his fall break in North Dakota, living with Fr. Joseph Christensen, a Franciscan of Mary Immaculate and the spiritual director of the Maternity Home. Heil summed up his break as “prayer, work, and community.” He told the Rover, “I definitely gained a much deeper appreciation for the simple life. At school, I am worried about so many things, but there I was able to focus on the needs of the immediate community.”

When asked about his experience with this religious community, Heil said, “Living with Fr. Joseph for the week was eye-opening to the Franciscan life and how devout and joyful this priest is. He has great dedication, resilience, and positivity even as the only member of his order. He is the closest person to a saint I’ve ever met.”

Heil told the Rover how his service over break impacted him: “I’ve already noticed increased discipline in my prayer life, which was not something regular in my life before break.” He continued, “I’ve been really trying to take more pride in what I’m doing. Everything that happened when I was there was so intentional, and I’ve been trying to incorporate that into my schoolwork—doing everything for the glory of God.”

Mark Van Kirk, a junior, went to Bethlehem Farm with the Center for Social Concerns’ Appalachia Seminar. Van Kirk described Bethlehem Farm as a “wonderful little community” founded upon “prayer, simplicity, community, and service.” He experienced this simplicity of life during an electricity fast one night: “We used only oil lamps for lighting and water pitchers for water. We showered using bucket showers, which were about five gallons of water compared to the average 18 gallon shower. I saw how little we actually needed for our lives to be full.”

He continued, “Every time people get back to the farm from the various job sites or even when we first arrived, everyone is greeted with hugs, and all the people say ‘welcome home.’” Van Kirk was especially touched by his experience on the last day, when the staff of Bethlehem Farm washed the feet of all the students who had worked there that week. 

Austin Brezina, a sophomore and Holy Cross seminarian, spent fall break in the Bronx at The Saint Anthony Shelter, a homeless shelter run by the Franscican Friars of the Renewal. He said, “It was important for me to escape the Notre Dame bubble and spend time with men who have experienced homelessness and are in the process of rehabilitating their lives.” 

Brezina emphasized the importance of community life at the shelter: “I was able to get to know the men living there by eating and praying with them. It was incredible to see how they all came from different walks of life but were all working to a common goal.”

When asked what she would say to someone hesitant to get involved in service, Dunn said, “If you’re not serving others, there’s a good chance you are lost in a world full of confusion. If you’re trying to live out the life of Christ, it is most important to love him by seeing him in the most vulnerable.” 

Gates echoed this sentiment, “When you love someone and serve those in need, you see the face of Christ. Meeting someone’s bodily needs is an essential step to serving their spiritual needs.” 

More than 80% of Notre Dame students participate in service before they graduate, and about 5% go on to do a year of service after graduation. Every person interviewed for this article said that the places where they served over fall break are desperately looking for people to serve, whether over the summer or after graduation. As the Gospel of Matthew says, “The harvest is abundant, the laborers are few.”

Viana Schlapp is a junior with a great passion for Christ’s call to give our whole lives in service of our neighbor. If you or someone you know is interested in any of the above service opportunities, please contact her at, and she will get you connected with the right people!

Photo Credit: Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown, Wikimedia Commons

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