Faith amid closure: why Mass attendance is dwindling

By Emily Shultz
February 7, 2024

The Bruckmann Memorial Chapel of Saint Joseph. Photo by Cabrini University Flickr.
The Bruckmann Memorial Chapel of Saint Joseph. Photo by Cabrini University Flickr.

Every Wednesday afternoon, a Mass is held at Cabrini’s Bruckmann Memorial Chapel of Saint Joseph. On this particular Mass, the crowd is small. In total, there are only five attendees; all staff. There’s no pianist, singer, or lector. Director of Campus Ministry Antoinette Reaves sits in the front row; filling in as a lector and lead singer. A standard Mass usually lasts around 45 minutes, but due to the lack of volunteers, this one only lasts 20 minutes. 

Students pressed for time 

In the midst of a school closure, many students are rushing to get transferable credits for their next institution. Naydelyn Villanueva-Contreras, a freshman digital communications and social media major and commuting, explained, “This semester, my schedule is kind of stacked like crazy. So that’s the only reason why I haven’t been able to [attend Mass], but it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while.” 

Director of Campus Ministry Antoinette Reaves recalled, “Rarely do we get a student to drop in. They maybe come once every two months or so, which is very sad, but it’s understandable during the week because of their schedule.” 

Potential underlying issues

Reaves became director of campus ministry in February 2023. When she started, she noticed a pianist and singer only participated at Sunday Mass, which made weekday service exceptionally short. She volunteered to fill in the silence by singing in the crowd. However, these absences were just a symptom of a larger issue.

Reaves highlighted a few reasons why student turnout is so unsatisfactory. First, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students became commuters; this weakened campus life. Second, student enrollment has dropped significantly since the closure announcement. Reaves also believes some students may have been guilted into faith, possibly making them hesitant to partake in faith. 

Director of Campus Ministry Antoinette Reaves next to a cutout of Pope Francis. Photo by Emily Shultz.

Reaves sought to reframe what faith meant for students and worked to improve Cabrini’s religious scene by adopting peer ministers. Peer ministers are students who collaborate with Reaves to boost community involvement and spread awareness about ministry events such as faith sharing and bible study.

Erin Speak, a freshman digital communications and social media major, explained how she believes there’s a strong religious community here at Cabrini. However, she said, “I don’t think it’s made known to people.” 

Priest shortage

Last year, Cabrini saw two chaplains leave: Father David Driesch and Father Frank Chambers. According to Sister Christine Marie Baltas, a campus minister associate and volunteer, Dreisch’s order transferred him to another parish in Delaware. Not long after, Cabrini hired Chambers to take his place, but only for the rest of the year. Chambers did not return for the 2023-2024 school year. Father Fidelis Olokunboro, Cabrini professor of religious studies and priest, volunteered to run Mass on the days Chambers wasn’t available.

Olokunboro continues to volunteer this year, but it isn’t enough to cover every Mass. As a result, Reaves must ask local priests to run Mass. 

Baltas explained that a priest shortage was to blame for the lack of Mass scheduling availability for students. “What do you do when you can’t get a priest?” She asked. “Like, if the students would just say ‘it would really be great if we could have Mass at 10:00 at night? Oh, they have it at Villanova.’ I’m making this up but I know they have something like that. We don’t have that option.”

Ultimately, Mass scheduling depends upon the availability of priests outside Cabrini who also volunteer.

Similarly, she noted many parishes in the area only have one or two priests to cover all Masses, which makes it especially difficult to host multiple services almost every day.

The final message

Reaves said, “I’m not here to convert anyone. I’m here to appreciate everyone: their gifts and their talents. You know, if you are a Catholic, and you want to talk about faith, I’m here for you. But also if you’re Jewish, I’m here for you. If you’re Muslim, I’m here for everyone.“

Inside the Bruckmann Memorial Chapel of Saint Joseph. Photo by Emily Shultz.

Mass is held Monday through Wednesday at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Rosary prayer is held right before Tuesday’s mass at 12:05 p.m.

If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Director of Campus Ministry Antoinette Reaves at ar7035@cabrini.edu.

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Emily Shultz

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