All College
The 22 members of the project pose together for a photo

How many college students spend their summers acquiring proficiency building with traditional adobe? That’s just what the past months taught five Thomas Aquinas College students from both coasts. Paul Dinan (NE ’23), Casey Kirk (NE ’23), Paul Lessard (CA ’24), Jack Haggard (CA ’24), and Christopher McCann (NE ’24) were among 22 young Catholic men who traveled to Gallup, New Mexico, to volunteer their labor for the Saint Kateri Rosary Walk.

“New Mexico as a whole has a really cool, old blend of cultures,” says Mr. Lessard, “with strong Catholic roots that are intertwined with the Pueblo Indians.” While life has been difficult for Native Americans in the Southwest, those Catholic roots have blossomed anew in response to Christ’s admonition that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The Southwest Indian Foundation, founded by a Franciscan priest in 1968, is committed to helping Native communities develop with dignity. Such dignity demands more than economic assistance, however: Prayer, and the beauty that refreshes the soul, are crucial factors. Recognizing these deeper needs, the Foundation, together with the Diocese of Gallup and the Knights of Columbus, sponsored the Saint Kateri Rosary Walk project. With a design provided by TAC alumnus architect Erik Bootsma (’01), and named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the “Lily of the Mohawks,” the Rosary walk and accompanying Shrine will be a locus of prayer and pilgrimage for Native American Catholics — that is, when it is finished.

 “We were building a garden with small shrines called nichos along a path, one for each mystery of the Rosary,” says Mr. Lessard. Volunteers in summers past had focused on landscaping, but this year they began building the nichos themselves. “It was mostly bricklaying with old-fashioned adobe — the real thing, which lasts around 500 years, longer with care,” says Mr. Lessard. “The work was hard in the best sense,” adds Mr. Dinan. “Along with the sweat and grime came a great thrill, knowing that we would all come back in 20 years and show our families the same spots we worked and the same structures we built.”

But for these young men, the Rosary Walk was no ordinary building project. Just as the completed Shrine will provide a profound spiritual experience for pilgrims, the construction itself was an occasion for spiritual growth. The volunteers — or “missionaries,” as they called themselves — lived together in a diocesan retreat center, united by personal discipline and a shared spiritual life. “It felt surreal at times,” Mr. Dinan admits, “everyone from a different part of the country together in the stark, barren desert of New Mexico, trying to find Christ and to show Him to others.”

For the missionaries — most of whom are college students, and prone to see summer as a time for relaxation — this lifestyle posed a challenge. But they were pleased to meet that challenge directly. “What stuck with me is that it’s a good skill to let go of your individual agenda and what you want to do. I had to learn patience,” says Mr. Lessard. “By the time I left, I had accepted it and was having a better time — you just have to surrender.”

Thanks to this common lifestyle, the missionaries found themselves opening up to each other in new ways. “It fostered good conversation,” Mr. Lessard recalls. “You could see the differences in the kinds of education people had, and it was refreshing to talk to other young Catholic men who were serious about the Faith and masculinity, but who see things in different ways.”

Of course, the missionaries at Saint Kateri Rosary Walk also availed themselves of the vast and rugged American Southwest. “When we weren't on top of a nicho laying bricks or layering stucco,” Mr. Dinan says, “we were traveling to the beautiful mountains and ridges for a weekend hike, or in downtown Gallup at the Cathedral for adoration or Mass.” On their hikes, they ascended some of the sacred Navajo peaks, including Mts. Taylor and Hesperus, as well as a grueling 18 miles in the Grand Canyon — down and back up in the course of a single day!

Work continues on the Saint Kateri Rosary Walk and Shrine, and will likely extend into next summer. God willing, some of this year’s missionaries may get the chance to pray and work beneath the big sky once again.