The call from home brought bad news to a popular Farley Hall student: Her father, a man in his mid-40s, had died of a heart attack. The shocked young woman packed quickly and flew home to her family, leaving behind a stunned, numb and devastated residence hall community.
The second call came late in the evening. It was from the grieving young woman to her roommates; that very morning, she told them, she had received two letters her dad had written, as he always did, while he was on a business trip. She had read them, welcomed his words, then thrown them away. She begged her friends to try to retrieve the letters.
Somehow they did, wearing boots and carrying flashlights and digging their way through all that day’s trash in the giant garbage bin behind Farley Hall and not giving up until the letters were recovered. I distinctly remember the resident assistant on duty that evening remarking, “I think everyone in this hall called their dads today.”
When students call a hall home for four years, they grow close. They share their pain and grief — but also their joy and celebrations. As I recall my years as rector of Farley, I think of that sharing and, curiously it’s always Farley’s ivy, especially those tiniest leaves at the end of long, sturdy vines running deep into the earth, that reminds me of the ongoing life of the place. My fingers first touched Farley’s ivy in the summer of ’73; it was crawling across the south-entrance doors to a spot where it slipped around a corner and into the building. I followed it, as anxious as the ivy to get into this residence hall so recently designated for undergraduate women. I was about to begin a cherished Notre Dame tradition, the ministry of rectoring.
Veteran male rectors had made it clear to me that a rector is not a “manager” or “director” but a person who is expected to move in and share life fully with some 250 young people. At the outset, a friend presented me with a poster whose legend captures what happened to me during 11 years in Farley: “I can believe anything as long as it’s incredible.” I came to believe deeply in residence-hall ministry because it was filled with an incredible mystery of life and with all the growth patterns one can imagine — a bit like the ivy twining itself forever around the building.
On a hot night each August, I would stand up and welcome the freshmen. Despite attempts to put a new twist on my talk, year after year my words came back to the same simple message: “You are now Notre Dame.” I’d remind them that they were the newest recipients of all of Notre Dame’s history, handed down by many of their grandfathers, fathers, uncles and brothers — and, more recently, their aunts and sisters. Amazingly, some were assigned to live in rooms their fathers had occupied.
Challenging them not just to grow up but to grow deep as well, I wondered to myself what these August freshmen really heard me say. I think I actually gave that talk each year to myself; it refreshed me to remind myself what rectoring was all about.
Before their homesickness became a memory, something remarkable happened to these young women. In high school most had been known for their brains, but here everyone was smart. And all of a sudden they encountered new acquaintances wanting to know them for who they were, with no grades showing. New worlds appeared on their horizons, and the freshmen started discovering brand-new pieces of themselves — and recognizing the wonders in others. As one co-ed put it, “I felt as though I was being turned inside out.”
Without a doubt, it is in the area of relationships that Notre Dame students grow up and deep at dizzying rates. Eighty-five percent of my rectoring time was spent talking to students about roommate problems, romances and friendship. I also gave great doses of conversational energy to stressful relationships involving parents, professors and, on occasion, an administrator or two. While there were times when I felt “pickled” in such late-adolescent struggles, most of the time I viewed it as having a front-row seat at an award-winning Broadway drama.
I certainly refereed my share of shouting matches between roommates who, having left their private rooms at home, had to learn to talk over such things as whose turn it was to clean up the daily mess in the room. Everyday life had a way of getting terribly tangled — with, of all people, their peers. After hours or even days of not speaking to each other, they would finally take time to reflect on some basic approaches to successful roommate relations.
Best of all, these struggles were often the beginning of lasting friendships. I’ve watched a parade of Farley women walk into each other’s lives for a lifetime.
Always a front-burner topic were man-woman relationships. From the moment I opened my rector’s door, I listened to students string ideas together like popcorn about what Notre Dame “absolutely had to do” to make this a place where male-female relationships could flourish. Though some of the suggestions had merit, most were a cover-up for the fear of taking the risk of talking to the fellow or girl sitting beside them in class or at the dining hall.
On serious reflection, students agreed it takes a healthy dose of courage to step out of yourself and let another person come to know you — to accept or reject you. I remember lots of delightful evening talks and walks around the lake with someone discovering that age-old truth and beginning to understand that it’s those who accept you who change you the most.
Of course there were romances and there were romances. A Farley freshman or sophomore would fall so much “in love” with a young man, and he with her, that she’d soon imagine herself walking down the aisle, “probably a year after graduation.” Then, after a semester or so, a phone call or a note brought devastating news: Suddenly this man of her fine-tuned fantasy needed “space in his life.” There were always precious pieces of life to pick up then. We would put our heads together and look closely at the fact that intense relationships do not stand still and wait for “a year after graduation” to come around; they go forward or backward at a pretty healthy pace, and a person has to be ready for all that gets involved.
Though I often counseled students that “people get you ready for other people,” some found it hard to learn from the experience of limping relationships, and harder still to turn away from them, smarter and stronger.
As time went on I grew more uneasy about couples who met here, became engaged, and got married before the ink on their diplomas was dry. It seemed to me crucial that couples take the time to know each other beyond their undergraduate years together. My experience with graduates told me that ND romances and engagements need the impact of the workaday world to stand them up straight on their “four feet” and prepare them for the journey into life.
As students learned from their new peer relationships, most of them also kept one foot at home. On any given day Farley Hall reverberated with long-distance communication. It was usually between 10 p.m. and midnight, any day of the week, that familial life got put together — or taken apart. The results could be heard in any corridor: “I’m so glad I called. It was the best conversation I ever had with my mom.” Or, “Yuk, my dad was so mad, he just hung up; I can’t go to Florida.”
Sometimes, there was terribly hard news to hear that touched on divorce or illness or death. Always it was the real stuff of life that daily came from “home” somewhere across the world.
On any day, I could find myself in the midst of a healthy family crisis. I recall a freshman who had struggled valiantly for six or eight weeks to stay on campus even though she claimed she didn’t want to be here. Whenever we met she reinforced her simple message: “I want to go home.” One night I knew she meant it; she was ready to tell her father she had most definitely decided to leave his alma mater, even though he had made a special trip to the campus to be sure neither his daughter nor I would give up, so convinced was he that the young woman belonged here.
Now, in the midst of a bit of hysteria, she phoned her folks and got her message across. Her dad told her he was proud that she had given it a good try, but he agreed that it was time for her to come home. There was an affectionate exchange of words between them and a thank-you to me before we hung up our phones. Her heavy sobs tapered off into normal breathing as we began to make final plans for her to pack and move.
Five days passed. I met her going to class “to see friends before I leave.” But she never did stop going to class. On that night of the cathartic tears, it turned out, she had put aside her father’s decision that she be here and replaced it with her own.
As rector, I always had someone on my heels asking questions about religion. Although I never took a survey of the students, religious attitudes or practices, I knew from some very lively conversations that they were at various points of development in the life of the spirit. Many had “dialogued” — and argued endlessly — with high school religion teachers and CCD instructors about what the church teaches. Some described classic scenes with parents at their kitchen tables. As a result, many were able to couple their intellectual pursuits with a consistent practice of faith. Yet a number of underclassmen openly stated that they had stopped going to church in high school. Many of these found themselves “back around the altars” at Notre Dame.
I gradually began to think of a good portion of the student body as catechumens, in the very best sense of the word. They had known little cultivation of their faith life, and they unabashedly initiated conversations that drew them into asking the deepest and simplest questions about spiritual things. When I first came to Farley and taught theology, I was often asked to explain the changes that had resulted from Vatican II: By the ‘80s, “change talk” gave way to precious ignorance. I remember a sophomore coming to me from the sacristy with the large red Sacramentary used by the priest for Mass; she flopped on my couch and asked, without batting an eyelash, “Would you help me with this book? I want to know what the Eucharist is and what all the parts of the Mass are about.” She went on to become hall liturgy commissioner and today is finishing her Ph.D. in systematic theology.
I’m convinced that one of the most profound things that happens to students here is that they watch people, including their peers, simply kneel down and pray. This occurs in the residence-hall chapels, at the well-attended Sunday-evening Eucharists, in the smaller daily celebrations, at the Grotto, on retreats. They grow startlingly still and reflective during a good homily that gets them in touch with the spiritual side of their daily dealings. Our students are not strangers to prayer. In addition, they are a real grace in one anothers’ lives, and I suspect many of them realize it — or will in time.
I found myself central to a bizarre variety of student needs. I remember a young woman rushing into my room in hysterics after hearing shocking news from home; a moment later someone else stood in the doorway looking for a paper plate. There were times when sorrow and joy collided in my soul head-on. One summer Saturday I found myself walking back from Cedar Grove cemetery following the burial of a lovely Farley sophomore who suffered an aneurysm. My next stop was in Sacred Heart Church for the wedding of the young woman who lived across the hall from her. I never got used to such emotional collisions.
Being rector made me conscious of my emotions, especially those of anger and grief. I never knew so much anger could rise so suddenly in the face of conflict or confrontation; nor did I anticipate experiencing so much grief in the midst of student tragedies that became my own. Like other human beings, I’ve been tired in my life but tried to carry on without giving others too much occasion to notice. That was hard in Farley, where the residents read me very well and knew when the need for sleep had penetrated my bones. I got used to their knowing: With a yawn I could introduce myself as “Jean Farley,” wear two unrelated shoes, fall asleep during a phone call, and insist to others that I was just fine.
Living in the rectors’ quarters was living in a fishbowl but I gradually became adept at finding free times and secret places to serve my solitude and sanity. Often a long, quiet walk around the lakes made all the difference in a day. I’ve corrected theology exams hidden away in Farley’s sacristy or perched on a pile of pillows next to my shower stall or seated in a shadowy pew of Sacred Heart Church.
But my days in Farley brought me some of the deepest living experiences I have known in a lifetime. As a member of the generation ahead of Farley’s students, I simply moved into their midst and opened my door. They came in, questioned me incessantly on endless topics, picked my brain and searched my heart and asked me to share whatever wisdom I had gained. They let me confront them with strong words and congratulate them with deep joy.
We laughed and cried and discussed and danced and argued and ate and cheered together. We prayed together and forgave one another. They let me worry about them. Best of all, they let me believe in them.
The late Sr. Jean Lenz was rector of Farley Hall from 1973 to 1983. When this article was originally published, she was the University's assistant vice president for student affairs.