Catholic college dedicates sacred space as place for all faiths to pray

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gerry Serrano, courtesy St. Mary’s College

By Michele Jurich

MORAGA, Calif. (CNS) — The small
space has served over the years as the pastor’s office, a reconciliation room
and the office of an Episcopal parish-without-walls whose members worship on
the St. Mary’s College of California campus in Moraga.

Now it has a new purpose as the Interfaith
Sacred Space. It provides a place of prayer for students, faculty and staff
members who might have otherwise sought out the rare, vacant classroom for
prayer at the Catholic college.

The college’s Office of Mission
and Ministry shepherded the project with input from students. The cozy space, dedicated
this fall, can be entered through the back of St. Mary’s Chapel or through a
door on the arcade facing the front of the campus.

It is simply furnished, with a
small chest to hold texts; a basket, which, on a recent visit, held three
prayer rugs; and another rug and pillows that soften the space. The lighting is
low. A digital clock in the corner displays the times Muslims are called to
prayer; the clock is a gift from a faculty family. A small water fountain
provides a backdrop. It’s a tranquil spot on a bustling campus.

The room is intentionally minimalist,
said Karin McClellan, director of the Office of Mission and Ministry, to make
it welcoming and appropriate for various faith traditions.

While the enrollment at the 153-year-old
St. Mary’s College once might have been close to 100 percent Catholic, today’s
student body defines itself as more diverse in religious beliefs and practices.
At the dedication of the Interfaith Sacred Space, for example, blessings were
offered by representatives of seven faith traditions.

It’s just the sort of space
that student Roshun Rahimi has been seeking during her years at St. Mary’s.

Rahimi came to St. Mary’s as a
transfer student two years ago. “I wear a head scarf,” she said.
“You stick out like a sore thumb.” It led her to question whether St.
Mary’s was the right environment for her.

“My first year I came close
to dropping out,” she told The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of
Oakland. “I stayed because I was past the deadline to get a refund. I figured I
would come on campus, go to class and leave.”

As a transfer student, she had
missed out on some of the traditions that connect first-year students.

A flight to Washington to
respond to a family emergency had been particularly difficult for Rahimi, her
aunt and young cousins. They had been subjected to several searches.

She came back to school at a low
point, she said, as she questioned why she had to “jump around from empty
classroom to empty classroom” to pray as her faith requires.

In her email, she found an
invitation from Christian Brother Charles Hilken, a St. Mary’s history
professor. In it he expressed support for “our Muslim brothers and
sisters” in the wake of the shootings in San Bernardino and invited them
to dinner.

“I was skeptical,”
Rahimi said. She told her mother about the event, and received encouragement to

Rahimi was sitting with Michael
McAlpin, interim assistant vice provost and director of media relations, who
asked her if there was one thing she had an issue with on campus.

“It’s challenging to pray
on campus,” she told him. “I go find a classroom but then if a class
comes in, I have to go reset that prayer.”

McAlpin introduced her to
McClelland, of the Office of Mission and Ministry, who was dining there with
her children.

McClelland recalled the
conversation, with Rahimi asking, “Where can I pray on campus?”

Her reply: “We’re working
on it.”

Rahimi’s answer might have
surprised even herself. “I’d like to help.”

McClelland saw her as
“exactly who I need.”

McClelland said St. Mary’s
College professor Barbara McGraw had offered her office key to Muslim students
seeking a place to pray. But the campus needed something bigger. It also needed
to be close to the heart of the campus, McClelland said.

In addition to finding a space —
which was furnished with a grant from the Bishop John S. Cummins Institute for
Catholic Thought, Culture and Action — the work of the group of students,
faculty and staff members is not finished.

The hope is that in addition to
sacred space, there will be opportunities for people of various faith
traditions to “gather around issues of social justice,” McClelland

– – –

Jurich is on the staff of The
Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Oakland.

– – –

Copyright © 2016 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at

Original Article