Part II of our series, "Twenty Years Ago: Residence Halls Usher in a New Era for St. John’s"
Photo Credit: Vision Vocation Network
In the Fall of 1999, St. John’s opened the doors to its new residence village—the most dramatic change in the University since it broke ground on the Queens, NY, campus in 1954. Now, in a three-part series, we look back at the impact the residence village has made on the University, the community, and the lives of students who have called St. John’s their home away from home.
Since 1999, when St. John’s first opened the doors to its residence halls, there have been countless changes made to the halls themselves, academic buildings, and other facilities at the University. One constant, however, has been the presence of Residence Ministry—and the impact it has made on the lives of the tens of thousands of students who have lived on campus during that 20-year span.
“Residence Life and Residence Ministry have always been woven into the fabric of the residence halls,” said Victoria Santangelo ’98C, ’01GEd, ’11G, Associate Vice President for University Ministry. “Since the beginning, Residence Life has supported the efforts of Residence Ministry in building a community of faith, service, social justice, and leadership. The ultimate goal is to ensure the success of every resident.”
While University Ministry serves the entire St. John’s community, and Campus Ministry focuses on “building a community of faith, service, and friendship” on campus, Residence Ministry refers to the members of the Campus Ministry team who live and work with students in the University’s residence halls.
Among those Residence Ministers is Br. Michael Sheerin, F.M.S., who started working at St. John’s in 2000—a year after the first residence halls opened on campus. “It was the second phase of residence halls at the University, and St. John’s was just completing Briarwood (now DaSilva) Hall,” he said. “It was exciting, with lots of young energy all over the place. In some ways, we were all learning as a group as we experienced this new life together.”
“Brother Mike,” as he is known on campus, was only the second full-time resident minister at the University.
The responsibilities of Residence Ministry have always been diverse, but ministers primarily help guide students on a personal, spiritual, and professional level. Over the course of 20 years, this means being there for students in times of great joy, as well as deep sorrow.
“September 11, 2001, was quite sad and painful,” he recalled. “From campus, we could see the smoke billowing from the towers.” He noted that on the day following the attacks, the wind shifted, and the smell of smoke was prevalent. “It was a constant, horrible reminder of a tragedy still unfolding at that time.”
St. John’s Manhattan, NY, campus was only a few blocks away from Ground Zero. Students who resided there walked from lower Manhattan to the Queens campus, where they were welcomed and comforted by the St. John’s community.
Michelle McCullers, Associate Director of Residence Life, remembers that day well. “The students entered our office covered with dust,” recalled Ms. McCullers, who has been a member of the Residence Life team since 1999. “They were in need of housing, food, and communication with loved ones. It was a blessing we had our residential community to provide prayer, comfort, support, food, and a place to stay.”
In tragedy, one often finds purpose. While the events of 9/11 certainly had a lasting effect on Br. Mike, he prefers to focus on the affirmative outcomes of those days.
“Being ‘chosen’ by a student in crisis is a remarkable gift,” he said. “What a privilege it was—and still is—for that to happen. A student sees something in you that lets them know it is okay to trust you.”
One of Br. Mike’s fondest memories as a Residence Minister took place just prior to his departure from the University in 2007, when he encountered a student near Montgoris Hall. “She screamed ‘Brother Mike!’ and started running down the stairs toward me,” he recalled. “Even though she had never really spoken to me before, she said she knew I was always there in case she needed me. I filled up with tears and realized she understood what I am all about.”
While Residence Ministry has been changing lives in the Residence Village for 20 years, the team has also been instrumental in helping those not fortunate enough to have a place to call home each night. In fact, St. John’s involvement with the Midnight Run organization began as a Residence Ministry program.
“For 20 years, residence students have been leaving their homes on campus to provide food, refreshments, clothing, and company to those who call the streets of Manhattan their homes,” said James R. Walters ’04C, ’06GEd, ’09G, ’14Ed.D., Director of Residence Ministry and Catholic Scholars. “As students return to campus each night, they are inspired to be a part of a solution that can end homelessness and other issues of injustice.”
Today, there are five Residence Ministers who live on the Queens campus. Br. Mike, who returned to the University in 2015 as a Campus Minister, lives off campus and maintains an office in Hollis Hall, a first-year student residence.
“Having my office in a first-year student hall means students get to know me from the beginning of the school year,” he said. “I am going into my fifth year back here at St. John’s, and I love it very much.”
As they have done for two decades, each year when a new first-year class arrives in the residence halls, Residence Ministry helps to provide a home away from home for students.
“We take a special role in their spiritual development, while also supporting their academic, emotional, psychological, and physical health and growth,” said Dr. Walters. “We are blessed that the University supports and values the presence of our mission within the residence halls.”