St. Ben’s, St. John’s students pave way for World Youth Day

Ellie Vanasse, a senior at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, imagines herself looking out over a sea of 2 million young people immersed in prayer at World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, this July — a trip she and three other leaders from St. Ben’s and St. John’s University in Collegeville have spent more than two years organizing.

“If this many people are able to come to Poland at this time in July, how powerful can that be to come together as a global community?” she said. “One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the universality of the Catholic Church. I am so excited to be in a place with 2 million other people who share those same core values of Catholicism that I do and are really there to learn and become part of a larger community.”

As part of their preparation for World Youth Day, pilgrims from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University made a “mini-pilgrimage” to the Stella Maris Chapel at St. John’s Abbey last fall.
As part of their preparation for World Youth Day, pilgrims from the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University made a “mini-pilgrimage” to the Stella Maris Chapel at St. John’s Abbey last fall.

Two years ago, Vanasse was approached by her friend and fellow nursing major, Mary Franz, who was surprised to learn that St. Ben’s didn’t have an organized trip scheduled to attend World Youth Day.

“I just figured as a Catholic college there would be a group going,” Franz said. “When I found out there wasn’t, I thought, ‘Hey, I can organize one.’”

It was a college experience Franz always dreamed of having — to attend World Youth Day with her peers, who shared her Catholic faith and her values. Little did she know the breadth of her decision to start the process of organizing a trip this big. She found herself up to her elbows in research, policies and meetings — in addition to her studies, volunteering and being part of the Blazer volleyball team.

World Youth Day 2016 logo
World Youth Day 2016 logo

Yet, when she started talking to people, she found support, not only in Vanasse but in other leaders on the two campuses, including Molly Minnerath and Marcus Vievering. The four of them comprise the leadership team for the trip, along with spiritual leaders Benedictine Father Michael Peterson and Benedictine Sister Nina Lasceski. Seven other students from the colleges will join them on the trek to Krakow.

As they began their planning, they received the support of campus ministry, student development and other campus offices and encouraged pilgrims to go back to their home parishes to seek both prayerful and financial support. They also found a strong ally in Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of St. Benedict.

“I was just really impressed by the work that Mary and Ellie had done to plan for a group pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Poland,” Hinton said.

“They had thoughtfully considered the mission and structure of the trip, and the ways that it would incorporate our Benedictine values of prayer and community,” she said. “They had planned for the safety and security of participants, and they were realistic about the costs of the experience they were proposing. World Youth Day seeks to enhance the spiritual lives of young people, and Mary and Ellie proposed a trip that would allow College of St. Benedict participants to get the most out of their participation.”

The team developed a mission statement, a vision statement and a manifesto that includes core statements like “We will be fully present,” “We will be guided by the Benedictine values” and “We will invite and welcome.”

Bringing the message home

Even though Franz and Vanasse will have graduated before the trip takes place, it is still important to them to share what they experience with others back on campus.

“One of the pillars that is important to us at St. Ben’s we call ‘intentional living.’ How do we come back and use what we’ve learned in our own community?” Vanasse said.

Franz, who waded through mounds of paperwork to plan the trip, said she hopes to put systems in place for WYD pilgrims to share their experiences. She has worked with the public relations and campus ministry offices and has started a blog,, for people back home to follow.

“This is an experience that changes lives and we would really like to see that happen for this group from St. Ben’s and St. John’s who are part of that Catholic heritage who want to go abroad and experience the universality of the church,” Franz said.

The group will be together for 12 days at the end of July and will visit holy sites as well as Auschwitz, the German Nazi concentration camp. Sister Nina, who is of Polish descent, and Father Peterson have been helping pilgrims spiritually prepare for the trip. The group has been meeting throughout the past year for prayer and mini-pilgrimages, including a walk out to the Stella Maris Chapel at St. John’s Abbey.

“All of this serves two reasons,” Father Peterson said, “One, to prepare ourselves for the pilgrimage both in simple planning, but more importantly, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the trip. We do this by prayer and learning as much as we can about the spiritual heritage of Poland, Pope John Paul II, the theme of mercy, Auschwitz and the other sites we will be visiting. Second, to grow together as a group, getting to know each other and bond. To be sure, the whole experience of being Catholic and being members of the Universal Church will be very powerful to our pilgrims.”

Franz and Vanasse see the work they’ve done over the last few years to bring this trip to fruition as something they can leave as a legacy for other CSB/SJU students to participate in future years.

“We compiled all of our research into one big binder,” Vanasse said. “Anyone who takes the initiative in future years will have all the research we did, the mistakes we’ve made, the things that were successful. They can use that to their advantage when planning the next trip.”

Hinton said the work the team has completed is a “gift to the college.”

“Logistically, Mary and Ellie have established trip guidelines that could be replicated by groups in future years,” she said. “And, they have established relationships with various areas across the college that can support similar trips in future years. But even more, they have demonstrated what confidence, planning and a commitment to a project can yield, not just for the individuals involved but for the community as a whole.”

Author: Kristi Anderson

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