After interviewing three priests in January who were students at CU Boulder, we spoke to the men and women behind the ministry to figure out their “secret sauce.” What is the St. Thomas Aquinas Center doing to turn out great apostles?
“It’s Boulder,” said Father Peter Mussett, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas parish in Boulder. “The secret sauce that we have is that we get to do ministry in Boulder, which is on one hand, two steps ahead of the culture in its progressivism and on another hand, it actually facilitates this strange openness of exploration.”
“There’s oddly an openness to Boulder too, there’s a curiosity,” said Megan Dillon director of Advancement for St. Thomas Aquinas. “It’s a tough environment but also there’s a genuine curiosity.”
The St. Thomas Aquinas Center (St. Tom’s), serves the University of Colorado-Boulder community through its Catholic Center for students, and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. Father Mussett has been at St. Tom’s since 2006. During his time, he’s seen 10 Buffs become priests and has a count of 21 priests who have come from Boulder over the years.
“If you really want to know the strength of the hero in any story, it’s going to be directly in relationship to the antagonist,” Father Mussett said. “The antagonistic parts of Boulder, the parts that are hostile towards Christianity, hostile towards any sort of living in a traditional way drive our student life here to really have a magnanimity and a strength of character.”
“We’ve been very intentional in structuring this ministry in creating missionaries,” Dillon said. “We are intentional with the students throughout their time here, even so much so that at graduation Father Peter prays the blessing of missionaries over our students and says, ‘I’m sending you out.’”
Their goal is to form the minds of the students in the truths of the faith and also have a whole Catholic culture to surround them. Bible studies, intramural games, socials, liturgies and more make up a typical week at St. Tom’s.
But the St. Tom’s Center is not just a club, Dillon said.
One way the Catholic center keeps itself open to new people is the coffee shop located within St. Tom’s: Drogo’s Coffee Bar. Named for St. Drogo, the patron saint of coffee and coffee shop owners, Drogo’s serves not only the Catholic students at the center, but the wider Boulder community.
“The coffee shop serves as kind of a bridge between the Catholic culture that we’re creating and also just the secular culture that we’re immersed in,” Father Mussett said.
At any moment you might find professors, construction workers, moms who live in the neighborhood and students frequenting the cafe. And with drip coffee priced at $1.75, and a latte for $3.00, it might be the most reasonably priced coffee in town.
That’s intentional, Father Mussett said.
“Everybody knows that a cup of coffee is a ticket to sit in a chair at a table for as long as you possibly want,” he said. “If I can make that ticket cheaper than any other ticket in town, now all of a sudden I have somebody who’s sitting there, who wouldn’t have sat there for the next six hours, observing what the culture of Catholic Church is.”
“[It’s] a place for us to engage the community,” Father Mussett said. “We all know that it’s so easy to get trapped in the Catholic bubble. The world’s a little scary.”
Drogo’s gives students a chance to live out their faith and extend an invitation to someone new, while still being in a familiar environment.
“Invitation is the most powerful gift that we have been given by God, and teaching other people to invite into the light is the great joy of our work here,” Father Mussett said.
Amidst the temptation to be insular in the harsh environment of Boulder, St. Tom’s stays outwardly focused, said Hilary Draftz, former student and FOCUS missionary at CU. Draftz is now the West Area Director for FOCUS, meaning she oversees 46 teams of missionaries, including the team at CU.
“It is a light in the darkness,” said Draftz. “The cultural opposition makes faith shine all the brighter.”
FOCUS has had a presence on campus for the last 24 years, said Draftz. The vibrancy of the center complements the work of the FOCUS missionaries.
“It frees up the missionaries to be the hands and feet on campus,” she said. Instead of spending time planning the events, the missionaries can concentrate on outreach while always having something to invite students to.
The parish has six students who are in the process of becoming Catholic this year.
Father Mussett is also a key part of the center’s success, Draftz said.
“He’s a very human priest,” she said. “He’s so confident being himself.”
She described some of his quirky hobbies: jeeping, art and jiu jitsu — where he even brought his sensei through RCIA.
“God wants to do amazing things through us,” Father Mussett said. “He’s not limited to us, but he loves working with us and doing great things. We are here to both foster and to catch those who experience grace.”
Father Mussett and St. Tom’s make an impact on young men opening their lives to vocation, but it’s more than that.
“There are on-fire disciples coming out of St. Tom’s,” Draftz said. Dynamic families and lay people having an impact on the archdiocese are among the fruits from Boulder — not just priestly vocations.
To date, 56 FOCUS missionaries have come out of St. Tom’s. And seven women alum have discovered religious vocations, said Dillon.
“None of this is inaccessible to anybody else,” said Father Mussett of their work at the center. “Inviting new people, risking ourselves, being personal, creating opportunities for grace. It’s just that God has asked us to do it in a place where it takes courage to do it. And courage always yields great results.”
“If you’re willing to listen to what God is asking of you — that’s the secret sauce,” Father Musset said. “Having the courage to listen to the voice of God and not resisting what God is asking you to do. That’s the only real way.”