How Duchesne House leads students to reflection

How Duchesne House leads students to reflection

By Sr. Mary Patricia White R.S.C.J., c

I’ve come to realize that our service trip has been as much about helping to rebuild people’s lives as it is rebuilding houses.

This was how a high school student articulated a valuable insight after completing a service and immersion experience in New Orleans. She and her 12 companions were staying with the Religious of the Sacred Heart at Duchesne House, a house for college and high school student volunteers who come to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding of the city.

Duchesne House is sponsored by the United States Province of the Society of the Sacred Heart. It was established in the fall of 2007 in response to the need for housing for the thousands of young people who hastened here to assist victims of hurricane Katrina. But the four religious of the Sacred Heart who live in and staff Duchesne House wanted to do more than simply provide a roof over the heads of these young people. We envisioned a four-point program that would offer to the students not only a meaningful service opportunity but also an immersion experience that would help them probe the relationship between their faith and the work they do.

Perhaps the story of how Duchesne House functions will offer insights to vocation ministers who want to encourage theological reflection among candidates. All of us are seeking to make the Scriptures come alive for those with whom we work, helping them to create links between their quiet times with God and living the call of Christ in the world.

The four-point program that we provide at Duchesne House includes a “reality/hope tour,” service projects, evening presentations and daily reflection.

1) Tour examines reality

This tour of New Orleans is meant to help students:

• First, see how Katrina was “an equal opportunity” disaster, flooding 80 percent of the city;

• Second, draw hope from realizing how much has been accomplished in bringing New Orleans back, particularly in more affluent and commercial areas.

• Third, see first-hand areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish which were hard hit by the surge that followed the hurricane and are nowhere near being rebuilt. These neighborhoods are where volunteers often focus their energies.

• Finally, help students become aware of the reality that for the working poor moving back into their homes is an agonizingly slow process.

We think of all of this as being a part of the social analysis aspect of our program. We want the students to see the bigger picture; to see clearly the discrepancies in the city in terms of race, class and economy. At the same time we want to introduce them to the variety of cultures represented in the city by visiting the French Quarter, the Garden District and the Treme, an old African American neighborhood that has had a significant influence on the history, architecture and music of the area.

2) Service provides aid, experience

We make sure that the students have meaningful service opportunities under the auspices of local volunteer agencies: Catholic Charities, “Helping Hands,” and Habitat for Humanity, for example. It is this work in the homes of the working poor that becomes the focus for the reflection and sharing that takes place each evening. If they have had the joy of forming a relationship with their family, if the work was more or less challenging than they expected, if they grew somehow by working with others in their group, invariably, this is what the students draw on as they express their insights, questioning and soul-searching.

3) Evening presentations for education

Evening presentations include guest speakers and DVDs on various Katrina-related issues: racial, socio-economic, cultural and environmental. In this segment of the program the students are invited to look at causes, consequences, structures and assumptions that have influenced both pre-Katrina and post-Katrina realities. The evening presentations have included stories by Katrina survivors; a talk by a lawyer who spoke about the pro bono work being done, especially for the elderly poor who were taken advantage of by unethical contractors; and a talk by a doctor accused of euthanasia while aiding the hospitalized elderly during the storm. The students have also learned about the need for healthy wetlands, which provide a sort of “hurricane speed bump.” Wetlands in healthy condition could have protected New Orleans from the 18-foot surge that flooded the city. After each presentation, the students take part in a question/ answer discussion period.

4) Daily reflection for spiritual growth

Essential to the strength of the experience are the evening reflections when the thoughts and experiences of the day are gathered and reflected on in light of the Gospel message.

Hiba Ahmad of Creighton University wields a paint roller during a service trip to help New Orleans rebuild. Every evening Ahmad and other participants reflected on the day’s events in light of Scripture.

The evening of their arrival, each group is welcomed during what we have come to refer to as a “Ceremony of Light.” Through music and the reading of Scripture students are invited to quietly gather their thoughts and reflect on the real purpose of their coming. Basic questions that help to guide this sharing are: What light do I want to bring to the family for whom we will work? The people we will meet? My peers while here at Duchesne House? What light do I want to take back home with me? And how will I shed that light upon the “Katrina” I will find in my own backyard?

The student, mentioned earlier, who came to realize the importance of building relationships as well as building houses, was a member of a high school group that was particularly well prepared for its stay in New Orleans. Group members had read articles; discussed attitudes of humility, openness and acceptance of diversity; and prayed and reflected on the Scriptures before they arrived. Thus, their evening sharing was amazingly mature and characterized by some depth. Many were able to clearly articulate their values of living simply, building community, and being willing to be stretched beyond their comfort level.

They were working in a house where the family was already living. They were doing interior painting and small but necessary jobs. Sometimes, when youth come to work, they expect to take on a large project and, in a sense, have something to show for their time and labor at the end of the week. This group had to work through this and came to realize how important it was to talk to the family and build a relationship with them. What a great insight for one of the students to actually be able to articulate this by the last evening!

An important piece of this story is that the father of the family was deeply depressed. Not only had the family been reeling from the impact of Katrina and the stress of moving back into their house, by degrees, for 3 years, they also had lost their teenage son who died suddenly of an unknown heart condition. This outstanding young man had been at the dad’s right hand in the rebuilding of the house. He was an athlete and the eldest son. The father could not be consoled.

Yet having all these young people in his house seemed to have lifted his spirits. He was touched by their generosity and their joyful, fun-filled presence. One day he gave them $20 to have “the sisters” light a candle and pray for his intentions. The students took this very seriously and gathered together one morning before going to the work site to light the candle and to pray for the family and in particular for the father who was in such mental distress.

From the thoughtful and caring way the students dealt with this situation it makes me think that they truly arrived at a very important realization about the works of justice: that indeed their work was about helping to rebuild this man’s life. I believe that they came to this understanding by drawing the connections between their service and the meaning it holds in their lives, seen in the light of the Gospel message.

Another evening a group was sharing under the guidance of their student leadership. They had brought along some prayers and readings and were asking excellent questions that helped the group to look at the day in a meaningful way. However what seemed lacking was a Scriptural foundation for their discussion. Because I felt that I had gotten to know the leaders well enough, I whispered: “Do you think you could read the parable of the Good Samaritan?” What flowed was an in-depth reflection that incorporated social analysis, Scripture and the events of their day in a unique and beautiful way. They were able to weave their knowledge of the Katrina reality with their own experiences and relate all this to the Gospel passage.

Following are some of their comments that I loved: “The neglected and ignored in this city, (the man set upon by robbers) were neglected before Katrina; Katrina showed this to all the world.” Another stated: “Government—city, state and federal—were like the ones who passed by (the Levite and the priest) without helping, ignoring those in need.” One student observed: “It is for us to be the Good Samaritans. Katrina, and other crises, bring out the best and the worst in us. Let us pray that we can learn to bring out the best in ourselves.”

And one chaperone added: “There are in us both the Good Samaritan and the priest and Levite. Through our life choices, we can bring the Good Samaritan forward.”

What this might mean in vocation ministry

How do these reflections upon students’ experiences at Duchesne House contribute to a concern that many vocation ministers voice: that there seems to be a disconnect between what candidates say they believe and their ability to articulate connections between faith and life? How can people considering religious life interpret their lives in light of the Scriptures? In light of our Catholic tradition?

In what way do the immersion and service experiences of youth at Duchesne House apply to vocation ministry in relation to this dilemma?

We who serve at Duchesne House have been keenly aware that students who are adept at making these life/ Scripture connections are those who have been trained in this prior to their arrival. So, in this regard, I would suggest, that perhaps an important thrust for vocation ministers might be to provide frequent opportunities for service and reflection as a part of the vocation discernment process.

Some congregations are finding it helpful to offer days or weekends of service and contemplation in which candidates can share in a service program with others and then share their experiences in the context of a Scripture passage. Sometimes it is helpful to be taken out of one’s normal routine and beyond one’s level of comfort and be invited to stretch to a new level of thinking and doing. This is a role appropriate to a vocation minister: assisting candidates who have done service work to integrate this new learning in the light of faith. In the Society of the Sacred Heart we articulate this as being called to be “wholly contemplative and wholly apostolic.” Perhaps we can think of this as a universal call.


Creighton Center for Service and Justice. Coordinator’s Manual. Creighton University, 2007.

The New Testament. New York: American Bible Society, 1995.


Ceremony of Light
This prayer service is held on the night that students arrive to set a prayerful tone and encourage students to begin practicing theological reflection (although we don’t call it that).

Opening Song
“Sweets for my Sweet,” C. J. Lewis

“Hard to beat the system, standing at a distance… but we keep waiting, waiting on the world to change.”

Opening Prayer
Oh God in Heaven, our hearts desire the warmth of your love, and our minds are searching for the Light of your Word. Increase our longing for the Christ our Savior, and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the Light of his truth. We ask this in the name of Jesus, our brother and friend. Amen.

Gospel Reading
The Visitation, Luke: 1:39 - 45

Questions to Ponder
How does this Gospel passage relate to your life? Think of your time here as a Visitation. How can you be like Mary and bring great joy to those you meet in New Orleans? How can you be like Elizabeth and be receptive and so give a blessing? How will you bring light into the world this Advent? And specifically, how will you bring light into the lives of your peers? Your work site? What will be the hardest thing? What will bring you most joy—that will make something “leap inside you”? What will you do to bring light back home with you?

Quiet Reflection, Group Sharing and Lighting of Candles Closing: Prayer to St. Rose Philippine Duchesne


Sister Mary Patricia White, RSCJ coordinates the Duchesne House Student Service and Immersion Program. Before that she served for 17 years in campus ministry at several state universities in California. Her early years in religious life were devoted to the administration of schools run by the Society of the Sacred Heart in Missouri and Texas. See for more about Duchesne House.



This article has no comments or are under review. Be the first to leave a comment.

Please Log-in to comment this article

Fall Institute ...
Orientation Program, Behavioral Assessment 1 and 2 offered this year. Register ...  More
Ordinations increase again ...
The 2017 USCCB/CARA Ordination Class Report states the number of ordinands ...  More
Sister Sharon Dillon interviewed ...
In an in-depth interview with the website Catholic Profiles, the NRVC ...  More
July newsletter ...
Our publications win awards; new vocation ambassadors are talking up religious ...  More
National Catholic Youth Conference ...
In collaboration with NFCYM, NRVC invites you to be part of ...  More
HORIZON Spring 2017 ...
Vow of poverty | Church teaching on vocation | Intercultural communities ...  More
NRVC Member Area


July 2017

NRVC Office Closed

July 3-4

NRVC Summer Institute

July 10-25

Member Area Meetings

No NRVC Member Area Meetings in July



Renew your NRVC membership