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Holy Names sister serves as the chaplain for basketball teams at Gonzaga

By Shannon St. Hilaire

Each day as Sister Laura Michels, SNJM, walks the three blocks from her home to her work at Gonzaga University, she thanks God for her vocation of sharing faith with people on the threshold of adulthood.

Sister Laura Michels, SNJM

Sister Laura Michels, SNJM, seeks to show students
on sports teams that they are loved.

She is both the coordinator of liturgy and the chaplain for two sports teams at Gonzaga University.

Through her words and actions, she seeks to show students they are loved.

“No two days are alike,” she said. “I never know where I will find God.”

Education in the faith is the charism, or gift, of Sister Laura’s order, the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

“I try to be the reed through which God plays music,” she said. “I want to connect the students to their faiths.”

Sister Laura attended Holy Names Academy in Spokane. When she graduated, she entered that community.

She taught for 19 years in the Seattle area after she finished her degree. She worked at Gonzaga in a liturgy position from 1986 to 2000. Then she served on the Holy Names leadership team for six years. She came back to Gonzaga in 2006.

“I was drawn back to Gonzaga because I loved it and there was an opening,” she said.

As coordinator of liturgy, Sister Laura finds and shares God through her interactions with students to plan the campus Masses and teach confirmation classes.

She works with three student sacristans and about 100 student liturgical ministers to coordinate the Masses. She educates the students on the meaning of the liturgy.

“I take the students’ advice as well,” said Sister Laura, “because they know what their classmates need.”

Sometimes the students help Sister Laura learn more about the liturgy. She had always thought that it was correct to replace holy water with sand during Lent. This year, her students inspired her to research it, and she discovered that the practice was not correct.

“Although it is a desert time, we keep the water in anticipation of Easter,” she said.

Sister Laura attends the daily student Mass and the Sunday Masses, and helps plan larger liturgies, such as the Mass of the Holy Spirit and the Baccalaureate Mass.  She sometimes takes the sacristans to lunch at the dining hall after Mass.

“It is a way to develop relationships with the students and create community,” she said.

Sister Laura is also the chaplain for the men’s baseball and women’s basketball teams.

“I call it the dessert part of my job,” she said. “It’s another place I go to do ministry.”

Sister Laura did not start out as chaplain when she came to Gonzaga. She is distantly related to the coach of the baseball team. She told him that she always kept his team in her prayers. One day he asked her to make it official, and she became the chaplain in 2007. Two years later, she became chaplain for the women’s basketball team as well.

Sister Laura’s work reflects both the athletic and faith values that are prominent parts of Gonzaga’s identity. The chaplaincy provides an opportunity for the athletes to connect with University Ministry.

 “Many athletes have isolated lives with demanding schedules,” she said. “They aren’t able at times to be ordinary students.”

Sister Laura has always been interested in sports, and her enjoyment of sports makes her job easier.  Her goal, however, is to put the sport into perspective for the athletes.

“Athletic gifts are important, but who athletes become because of them is more important,” she said.

She prays that the athletes do their best and are not injured. She says the same prayer for the opposing team, as well. She asks God to take care of everybody on the court.

Sister Laura tells the teams that “winning is nice because they are using their skills well,” but she believes that not winning can teach them important lessons as well.

“It is good because you recognize that you are not perfect, but you can be better,” she said.

Sister Laura and the coaches give the athletes the tools for growth.  She meets with the teams before they play home games. Sometimes she travels with them to away games.  She prays, talks and reads a poem before they play.

“They like my poems,” she said, “but I had to tell them that they are permitted to laugh at the humor in them.”

Some athletes are not at first sure how to behave around her as a nun. Eventually they learn that they can laugh with her.

“I am who I am.  I’m just an ordinary person,” she said.

Sister Laura learns the names and numbers of the players.  Every year, there are several new members on the baseball team and on the women’s basketball team.

“Names are important,” she said.

She has different relationships with the men’s and the women’s teams.  

For example, after she says the Lord’s Prayer with the women, they sing the “Lilies of the Valley Amen” and kick up their legs before going out on the court.  That would not be appreciated by the men.

 “Both teams are gracious and wonderful in different ways,” she said.

She describes the men as gentlemen. They thank her both as a group and individually.  The women express their gratitude through their energy and presence during prayer.

Being a chaplain has allowed Sister Laura and the athletes to connect one-on-one.  The athletes at times interview her for class projects.  She has been invited to speak at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes three times. 

When she had eye surgery in February, she told the baseball team that she would be missing one of their games.  She was surprised and pleased when one of the athletes came to her office to see how she was doing.

“I didn’t think they would remember,” she said.

Sister Laura hopes that her relationships with the athletes will have an impact on them later in life. She reminds them that their experiences are opportunities for growth.

“When we stop growing, we die,” she said. “We must be open, because through openness we find joy.”

Sister Laura has learned much from her role at Gonzaga as a liturgy coordinator and as a chaplain.

“Everything I try to teach the students, I have to teach myself first,” she said. 

She is happy to do God’s work in any way she is needed.

 “What I do opens me up to seeing the beauty in people,” she said. 

For information, call 313-4241 or email michels@gonzaga.edu.