Ministry Institute closes, but continues legacy
Staff reminisced about empowering global and intercultural interactions that occurred over 40 years at the Mater Dei Ministry Institute at Gonzaga University, a center for spiritual renewal.
The 21-unit residential building at 405 E. Sinto, which housed the institute's offices until May 31, was sold to the Bishop White Seminary as a pre-seminary for candidates for the priesthood to discern their vocation. It will be renamed McGivney Hall.
Six other buildings, including single-family and duplex houses in the 400 blocks of E. Sinto and E. Mission, went to four other buyers.
The Ministry Institute's executive director Nate Greene, program director Shonna Bartlett and administrative director Diane Imes reflected on the ministry that had taken place there since Fr. Armand Nigro, SJ, founded the institute in 1981.
It was originally a canonical seminary approved by the Vatican to train men who entered the priesthood as a second career after turning 30 and some after being widowed or divorced.
"He saw it as a way to address the shortage of priests," said Shonna. "Over 15 years, bishops around the world sent seminarians," said Diane. "About 75 priests studied there and were ordained.
By the mid-1990s, the late-in-life vocation program's success led other seminaries to offer similar programs, attendance diminished and a papal team decided it would no longer be a canonical seminary, she said.
It then became The Ministry Institute (TMI) to support Gonzaga's Religious Studies students who planned to enter various types of ministry.
By the end of the 1990s, it incorporated Gonzaga's two sabbatical programs, CREDO and FOCUS.
Then The Ministry Institute began offering housing and services to priests and nuns on sabbatical from around the world, as well as to international students from Gonzaga, Whitworth and Eastern Washington universities, and Spokane Community College.
Until this past year, the buildings housed about 70 international students, including priests and nuns on sabbatical and working on advanced degrees.
With the decline and aging of the donor base in recent years, Gonzaga University closing the sabbatical programs in preference for degree programs, the difficulty of arranging visas and finally with COVID-19 cutting the number of students in fall 2020 to two, The Ministry Institute decided to close.
Funds from the sales will be used to establish a foundation to carry on Fr. Nigro's mission.
As a master's degree student in pastoral ministry, Shonna, who previously worked as a medical transcriptionist, began preparing liturgies with sabbatical students in the 1990s. She graduated in 2002 and began working at TMI in 2005.
Leaving her home in Wyoming, she earned a bachelor's degree at the Colorado College, where she met her husband, Bob. They moved to Pullman in 1984. After he completed graduate school in 1989, they moved to Spokane when he began working with Unity House at Gonzaga. They attend St. Ann's Catholic parish.
Diane grew up in Kendrick, Idaho, and moved to Spokane in 1981. With a certificate from Kinman College in accounting, she started as TMI's bookkeeper in 1983, learning the administrative role on the job, working with 39 different staff members—directors, program directors to maintenance staff—over the years. She and her husband Dale did women's and men's ministry in previous churches and now attend His Place Church in Post Falls.
Her intersection with the changing international village made her work more than just an administrative job.
"I've been like a second mother to the students," she said.
Scholars came from Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Cameroon and Congo in Africa, as well as from Turkey, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, China, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Belize, Italy, England, Ireland, Australia and Canada.
While they ate common meals in the early years, later each prepared their own meals.
Shonna liked hearing students in the hall speaking in different languages and smelling the dishes they were cooking.
She and Diane often taught priests from other countries to cook and do laundry, which they didn't have to do at home.
Once a week they ate a meal together and had a prayer time. In free time, they joined in educational, social and spiritual outings Shonna arranged.
Diane said the students valued living in community in an environment of cross-racial and cross-culture respect, learning of each other's lives, countries and cultures.
Some students stayed nine years for graduate degree programs. Most sabbatical students came for two semesters.
"Many came from some of the poorest areas of the world. The first semester they settled in to adjust to life in the new culture. The second semester, they learned as much as they could, auditing classes to gain knowledge and renew skills before going back to their vocations," said Shonna, who recruited students.
Recruitment was not hard because former students referred people.
"I was impressed by their deep faith," she commented. "One African sister unable to get Gonzaga's medical insurance said, 'God will take care of me. I will have no medical problems,' and she didn't.
"They came from places in the world where they placed their lives in God's hands, which is not a normal experience for Americans," she said.
"I learned more from their difficult experiences as they communicated their different opinions and dealt with their different personalities," she said. "For example, some of the Chinese students were in the state sanctioned church and some were in the underground churches. They learned to manage their political differences."
The endowment they are establishing will continue the ministry and vision of Fr. Nigro.
Nate, who was hired in 2009 as executive director because of his background in finance, will set up the endowment, which will also be used for scholarships for Gonzaga ministry students, sabbatical renewal programs and ministries around the globe—such as alums like a Nigerian sister who runs a women's center or a Kenyan who teaches servant leadership.
Nate grew up in Charleston, S.C., earned a bachelor's degree in economics in 1965 from Tallegeda College in Alabama, served four years in the Air Force, and earned a master's in economics in 1972 at St. Mary's College in San Antonio.
He worked with Ford Motor Co. in Buffalo and established a car leasing company at the Charlotte airport before coming to Spokane in 1986 to purchase Empire Ford. It closed in 2008.
Impressed by the students' faith commitment, Nate said he learned from them about different cultures and human interactions.
"I increased my faith and service here, renewing my understanding of faith," said Nate, who grew up Catholic and attends St. Ann's, St. Aloysius and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal.
"The hearts of the African students were on fire for the Lord. They have a servant heart I don't see often in American people. They strengthened my faith, opening me to be more loving and less judgmental," said Diane.
Shonna enjoyed the multicultural liturgies students led in the chapel and at St. Ann's—singing in Chinese, dancing in with the gifts and carrying a Bible in on their heads.
"I now judge worship by whether it is joyful, rooted in faith and sends people out to do God's work," she said.
Diane said African celebrations were joyful, with tambourines, ululating and colorful garb.
"Their joy was overwhelming. They were filled with gratitude for the simplest things," she said.
Muslim students would go into the chapel and pray to the East. Rabbi Elizabeth Goldstein came to Taizé services and taught Hebrew chants.
Remembering the students, former staff and retreatants who shared "this sacred space," the three are grateful for supporters who made it possible.
I gained a broad understanding of faith," said Shonna, who will continue Taizé services on Zoom through July, take August off and look for a permanent meeting place near Gonzaga in the fall.
"We do Taizé on Zoom with 15 to 18 people joining locally and from Kansas, Korea, Minnesota and Georgia. This summer, we will meet in homes once a month," she said
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree,June, 2021