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Students protest minister’s removal

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bellingham, Wash.

Students involved in the Catholic Campus Ministry program at Western Washington University and others in the surrounding Bellingham community are upset and angered at the news that Shirley Osterhaus, ministry director for more than 15 years, is being replaced by a priest.

In a departure from the Seattle archdiocese’s original plan, Osterhaus, 53, who was to continue in her position until July 1, moved out of her office at the university’s Shalom Center April 14. The Shalom Center houses the Catholic Campus Ministry program, in addition to Lutheran and Jewish student ministries at the university, located 90 miles north of Seattle, near the Canadian border.

“This came as a complete shock to all of us,” said Laura Gill, who graduated in March and is one of about 250 Catholic students active at the Shalom Center. “This is completely disrespectful to Shirley. And the fact that it was done by a church is just wrong. This is such an un-Christian thing to do. ... We just expected Shirley would always be here. Our voices weren’t even considered.”

Church officials said they were surprised by the reaction, claiming that the change of leadership at the center was not sudden and had been discussed over a period of months with Osterhaus. They also said Osterhaus is receiving a generous severance package.

Stephen Miles, a university senior and student peer minister at the Shalom Center, thinks the archdiocese overlooked the needs of the center. “I want to bring awareness to the injustice of this decision. Shirley was doing wonderful work for 15 years with no problems. Our community here is extremely healthy. The archbishop [Alex J. Brunett] didn’t contact the community to ask our opinion.”

Osterhaus has refused to speak to the media. Negotiations over her severance package, recently completed, including a requirement that Osterhaus sign a statement of non-disclosure, said Bill Gallant, communications director for the Seattle archdiocese. “This is very standard practice,” Gallant said of the non-disclosure statement. “It protects everybody.”

Gallant would not discuss details of the package, saying only, “In light of her many years of service, this was a very generous, unprecedented transition package in terms of what people are normally given.”

In the letter she read to students after Sunday services on April 2, Osterhaus stated, “Archbishop Brunett has decided to have a priest fill the position of director of Catholic Campus Ministry. I want you to know that I am not choosing to leave. To be honest with you, I am saddened and disturbed that the position of director of Catholic Campus Ministry, which has been held by qualified, certified and experienced laywomen for over 20 years, now necessitates a priest. There is a dying. But I also choose to remember the risings and believe in new life.”

Gallant said Osterhaus’ early departure had nothing to do with the statements she made in her letter, as had been suggested by some in the close-knit Bellingham community. He said the July date had not been set in stone.

“We were trying to work around people’s schedules. Once a decision like this has been made, it sometimes becomes uncomfortable for the people involved [to remain],” he said.

News of Osterhaus’ replacement came just weeks after her nomination and induction into the Northwest Women’s Hall of Fame for her work in the areas of social justice and human rights.

“Shirley has given 30 years of her life working for social justice issues,” said community activist Betsy Pernotto, who has volunteered with Osterhaus over the past 15 years on issues ranging from immigrant and worker rights to fighting racism, sexism and homelessness. “To throw away her efforts is a disgrace. It’s total hypocrisy for the Catholic church to talk about social justice for workers and then to treat someone who is working for the church in this way.”

Richard Lindsay, a retired professor and a member of the Shalom Center board of trustees, which oversees maintenance of the facility, said he is also puzzled and unhappy with the decision to replace Osterhaus.

“I’m not saying it is unreasonable to have a priest or that the archdiocese doesn’t have the authority to do that,” Lindsay said. “However, they are digging into a successful program that is very popular with students.”

Gallant said the archdiocese has been surprised by the reaction. “This is simply a local personnel matter. She [Osterhaus] has been in this job for 15 years. Priests are evaluated every six years and changed around. This was a procedural thing done with due process and with every care and consideration for the person involved. She’s received plenty of time, plenty of notice. Our concern is the long-term health and vitality and care of that ministry.”

Meanwhile, students and faculty worry that a priest will be unable to fill Osterhaus’ shoes.

“Shirley brings issues to the table that I don’t think a priest would,” said Miles. “Issues like gays and lesbians in the Catholic community, sexism, the environment, women’s roles in the church, injustices in life, in our community, in our church.”

Students cited examples such as an annual trip to Tijuana, Mexico. Students raise money to pay their way and give up spring break to learn about conditions along the Mexico-U.S. border. In addition, they have helped poor communities build medical clinics and homes.

Professor Larry Estrada, director of American Cultural Studies, worked with Osterhaus this year to make the annual Tijuana trip a learning experience worthy of two academic credits. In addition, he said they have worked together over the past 10 years with the Rainbow Coalition, Whatcom County Human Rights Taskforce and for numerous other agencies and causes.

“The entire faculty and community are upset about this,” said Estrada. “We will stand strong with the students. This is their community and they should have been talked to.”

Osterhaus, a former Franciscan nun, created a peer ministry program at the Shalom Center that has been used as a model in other areas of the country. Students are hired part-time and are put in charge of liturgy, retreats and service and justice projects, such as volunteering at the local food bank, organizing letter-writing campaigns, visiting the elderly and restoring Whatcom Creek after a gas pipeline explosion.

“Shirley brings real social justice to the program here,” said Charles Brown, a senior student active at the Shalom Center. “For a lot of students here, that’s what keeps them in the church. ... She’s very welcoming to gay and lesbian Catholics and very supportive of women.”

The archdiocese will assist Osterhaus and will listen to the needs of the community, archdiocesan representative Stephen Hueffed assured a packed congregation of about 150 students, faculty and community members after Sunday Mass at the Shalom Center April 9. Hueffed works with communities in transition through the Office of Parishes and Faith Communities.

“She [Osterhaus] has not been terminated,” Hueffed said. “This is a restructuring. There is significant transition assistance being offered because she is in good standing with the archdiocese.”

Lindsay disagreed. “To leave someone out in the cold who’s been doing a job for 15 years. ... Shirley’s got to find a new job. It’s not like a priest who’s already got a job lined up. This is very painful. We’re going to help her.”

Estrada and Lindsay both say they worry about the message Osterhaus’ dismissal sends to students.

“This is a time when we should be fostering more female leadership within the church and it does bother me,” said Estrada. “What kind of message does this send, especially to young women who aspire for leadership positions within the church?”

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000