For decades Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa has prepared young men for global service as Divine Word Missionary priests and brothers. This month Sister Ana Julita Bele Bau, a 39-year-old member of the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters (the women’s community cofounded by the Saint Arnold Janssens, who established the Divine Word Missionaries), will become the first female graduate since the school refocused its mission to include new coeducational and lay formation opportunities.
SISTER JULITA walks the halls
Facing declining enrollment—"we were at a critical point for student enrollment and we had a wealth of resources to share," said college president Father Mike Hutchins, S.V.D.—the school allowed Catholic sisters to enroll in its English classes and undergraduate degree programs four years ago. As of next month, 35 of the 122 students at the college will be women. Though the women are all Catholic sisters, in January two lay leaders from Society of the Divine Word parishes in Jamaica will begin undergraduate work.
"Our beginnings were low-key to see how it would work out," Hutchins told Mary Nevans-Pederson of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald. "Now I don't think anyone would go back." The new students bring "new life and vitality" as well as maturity and experience to the campus. “The women religious set a really good standard for the guys—they out-study and outwork them," Hutchins said.
Sister Julita, who has taught in Indonesia and Antigua, completed four years of cross-cultural studies and will return to her community in Anitgua to accept her next assignment on the island of St. Kitts in the Caribbean.
"I don't too much feel like a pioneer," she said, even though she was often the only woman in her classes and was 15-20 years older than most of her classmates. "They helped me with my math and I brought life experience and someone to talk to," she said. She says fellow students or staff never made her feel unwelcome.
Hutchins confronted the possibility of romantic male-female relationships head-on, calling a general assembly to discuss it. "It's something natural that can happen, falling in love, and there is nothing to be ashamed of," he said. "I urged them to be up-front and talk about it to our spiritual directors if it happens.
"The common denominator here is mission,” Hutchins said. “Everyone is committed to missionary service."
There has, however, been a previous female graduate of Divine Word. In 1994 Pat Cline, a working mother from Dubuque, Iowa, entered the college as the sole recipient of a scholarship designed to promote diversity. She completed her degree in 1998.