Exploring the universality of the Church

Kemerly Grau, a native of Peru, came to the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 2005 in an exchange for scholars, and worked with the Spanish program that academic year. Four years later, she was hired by the university to open the Office of Global Studies. Rome was one of the destinations, along with the Holy Land, Poland and, of course, Peru.

The university partners with the Universidad Catolica San Pablo in Arequipa, Peru, for a full semester in which students study art, theology, philosophy and Spanish.

“They welcome other international students, so our students get a chance to meet people from other countries,” Grau said. “They also live with host families, which is a cultural part of the program.”

Machu Picchu
Students from the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D., pose after hiking up to the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Courtesy photo

There are many tourist opportunities, like the grandeur of the Andes Mountains and an excursion to Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Inca site that was built nearly 8,000 feet above sea level.

Catholic social justice is put into action when students serve the poorest of the poor in the remote town of Ayaviri.

“We partner with a clinic in Peru, so students from our occupational and physical therapy majors can do clinicals there and at a small school for kids with disabilities next to the clinic,” Grau said. “We take care of the spiritual life of our students as well when they are abroad. In Peru, we have community nights every Wednesday and Mass in English. The chaplain speaks English well, and is there to support them in their faith and spiritual guidance.”

Junior social work major James Ferguson, 20, of Turtle Lake, North Dakota, went to Peru because he wanted to see Machu Picchu, and he experienced so much more. His host family, Jaimie and Guilaina Gordillo, were warm and welcoming, and in his travels around the city and the beautiful countryside, the language and cultural barriers were overcome by what he found in common with the people. Catholicism was one of the bonds.

“Just to see a different culture and how important faith is to everyone down there made me realize that it’s really an important aspect of our lives,” he said. “It was spectacular to see that it’s universal, that we have something so simple in common. It brought me home to my faith a little bit more. I had kind of strayed a bit, and it brought me back.”


Seriann Birchem has gone abroad three times with groups from the University of Mary. The first was a 10-day mission trip to Peru that was related to her major in athletic training, with a goal to become a physical therapist.

“We went to a clinic and then to villages where we would see patients and note their symptoms and send them to doctors,” she said. “We also had medications, and there were donations like candy, bouncy balls and toys to give to the children.”

Her next trip was a credit course in Rome last May that focused on Benedictine life and values. “It’s such a Catholic-based community, and seeing the pope is unreal,” she said. “You actually see him close. There he is, in front of you. And we were walking where the saints walked.”


Birchem, 20, a junior from Wahpeton, North Dakota, then went to France for three weeks in June, for two classes in the theology and philosophy of France.

“That was a mixture of everything,” she said. “We took daytrips to towns, went hiking, saw the culture — like where philosophers studied; we went to parks and other places,” she said. “There really wasn’t a classroom.”

Katie Steffl, left, a graduate student at the College of St. Scholastica, poses with a friend during her trip to Ireland. Courtesy photo

Caldwell University in Caldwell, New Jersey, also has a study abroad program in France, based in Franjeaux, a small medieval village where St. Dominic had his vision to found the Order of Preachers.

“It’s a wonderful experience for students to see how Catholicism was brought to the people where they were,” university president Nancy Blattner said.

Students live in simple accommodations, eat together and interact in many ways.

“This allows for a fabulous community experience,” said Sister Kathleen Tuite, a sister of St. Dominic of Caldwell and vice president of student life. “There’s opportunity for prayer, to attend liturgy and to interact with the sisters at the Church of Sainte Maria de Prouilhe. What’s most powerful is that this is the foundation of the Dominican family. It’s meaningful for students to see that St. Dominic was not far out there. He was a normal person among the people.”

Birchem’s faith was strengthened by her experiences abroad, immersion in Catholic roots in Rome, and interactions with people.

“I really wasn’t very oriented toward my faith before that,” she said. “I went to church every Sunday without actually thinking about it. It was just something that I did. Then, being in Rome where people were just amazing, so close to God, was a good thing.”

The trips abroad also helped her to “kind of grow up,” she added. “When you take trips by yourself or with other people, you have to figure things out — what to do, where to go.”


Katie Steffl, 22, of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, is a second-year graduate student in the occupational therapy program at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota. She traveled to Wales, England, India and Guatemala before spending a semester at the college’s campus in Louisburgh on the west coast of Ireland. The four classes incorporated Irish history and culture.

“It was easy to feel at home in Louisburgh,” she said. “Since CSS students have been coming each spring for 35 years, the people there look forward to our arrival and are eager to meet us.”

Steffl made weekend trips to Germany, Italy, Spain and Latvia during the semester. She also took advantage of excursions around Ireland, including climbing Croagh Patrick, Ireland’s holy mountain that attracts pilgrims who want to reenact the travels of St. Patrick.

“There were scattered storms as I was climbing the mountain, and a rainbow appeared,” she said. “It was a very moving experience and a spiritual journey I will never forget.”

Steffl had two suitcases of possessions in Ireland.

“Coming home, I was overwhelmed with what I thought I needed,” she said. “I have since tried to simplify my life in an attempt to mimic how free and alive I felt while I was Ireland. I have reflected on finding myself in Ireland, and I’ve been trying to continue to be the happiest and best version of myself.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

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