By Michael Gresham
The Texas Catholic
Hearing a talk about diversity in the Catholic Church inspired one student to find ways to highlight those groups underrepresented in her college community. With a little from her friends, Marisa Nieto’s inspiration evolved into something special: a project highlighting a group of Black saints and designating them as patrons for SMU Catholic Campus Ministry.
“I want people to see that these Black men and women had such a beautiful impact on our world and to recognize the beauty within diversity and inclusion of all people within the Church,” Nieto said. “I really want people to take that step toward being more inclusive.”
Nieto, a graduate of Bishop Dunne Catholic School and a junior at SMU studying civil engineering, said the idea came to her while watching a talk from a Fellowship of Catholic University Students conference.
“A priest was talking about recognizing which groups of people aren’t represented in a campus ministry or a parish in general,” Nieto said. “That got me thinking about what groups I see that are not represented in our campus ministry and how we can bring to light those different groups of people.”
A diverse church
Initially, Nieto sought to find a way to honor Black History Month in February by recognizing a group of Black saints and the way they lived out their faith in Christ. In particular, she chose St. Josephine Bakhita, Sister Thea Bowman, St. Monica, St. Augustine, St. Martin de Porres, St. Felicity, and St. Perpetua. She then presented the idea to Father Wade Bass, chaplain of the SMU Catholic Campus Ministry, who encouraged her to move forward with the project.
“My reaction when approached with this idea was positive,” Father Bass said. “These holy Catholics whom the students wished to highlight all come from African or African-American backgrounds, which resonated well with our wider culture’s notable desire to shine more light on the countless positive contributions of ethnic minorities in society.”
Growing in faith
Moving forward with the project, Nieto enlisted the help of Leanne Dange, her friend and classmate at SMU, and Anna Musich, an SMU sophomore marketing student with graphic design abilities.
“Originally, the idea was to create a banner displaying the various saints,” said Nieto, who along with her family is a parishioner at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Duncanville. “The idea, though, grew from there with help from my friends and Olivia Arratia, SMU Catholic Campus Ministry communications director, who encouraged us to also create a brochure, stickers and prayer cards.”
Father Bass said his contribution was to help draw out how every saint’s primary identity, meaning and fulfillment is rooted in Jesus Christ.
“Our vocation as Catholics is conformity to Jesus Christ, and everything we do as Christians must be directed to that mission,” he said.
The project’s impact led organizers to take it beyond a month-long celebration, implementing long-term strategies.
“It’s not just defined to one month of celebrating — we are going to continually have these saints as our patrons to help us through our college ministry,” Arratia said. “It’s more that they are our friends, our patrons, who are going to help us not just through one month but throughout the whole year as we go to school here.”
Response among students involved with the campus ministry has been positive.
“Of course, this is just a starting point,” said Arratia, noting that during February’s Jericho night, a time set aside for adoration, reconciliation and praise and worship, students heard a reflection from Father Jonathan Demma about “Christian Dignity and Modern Culture” that touched on issues of race and diversity. “We’re starting to implement those topics and discussions into our ministry and our Catholic community.”
Demma, a priest of the Diocese of Fort Worth, is the pastoral administrator of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Wichita Falls.
For Nieto, as the project has evolved and grown, it’s become much more than she ever envisioned.
“I was just thinking a banner with saints on it for that month, but everyone has really helped me bring much more life into it,” she said.
Father Bass agreed, praising those involved for helping the campus ministry act upon its mission.
“Humanity’s deepest unity and fulfillment are found in Christ alone, and my hope is that this project will contribute to the goal of our campus ministry and of the Catholic Church as a whole: helping men and women of every background discover that Christ alone fully answers the questions of who they are, where they came from, and where they are going,” Father Bass said.
The banner is on display while the brochures, stickers and prayer cards are available at the Neuhoff Catholic Student Center on the SMU campus.