written by Declan Foley ’15
“Come into my office, I have something for you!” Nancy beamed, as she eased herself into her padded chair slowly but surely, anticipating her chronic leg pain – an artifact of 83 years of robust life experience. As she moved from the kitchen to her private office, I could see Nancy knowingly smirk the entire way, thinking about her upcoming surprise. “It’s the one I told you about last week,” she hinted, finally handing over a sealed envelope. As if the situation did not already possess enough mystery, she playfully asserted not only that I must keep the contents a secret, but that only four copies of them were in existence. My mind jumped from one idea to the next, searching for context clues that might hint at what was inside. Perplexed yet full of curious intrigue, I slowly opened the envelope and pulled out a small photograph of Nancy in the recognizable kitchen we spent many Sunday nights in, the back inscribed with the month, year, and a personalized “Love, Nancy.”
Nancy is the director of the Salvation Army Meals Soup Kitchen SPUD site. More than just a service figurehead, she is the woman who has not missed providing a single Sunday dinner at the Soup Kitchen in the past 25 years. Well-respected by all and resolute with the disrespectful minority, she is the woman who finds a way to feed the members of the Worcester community that need it most. She is the woman who served as a reference of mine for a volunteer opportunity, and aptly wrote “best friend” next to “role to applicant.” Most importantly, it was Nancy that helped me realize that the relationship between intellectual pursuits and social justice is not dichotomous but complimentary.
This significant duality pervades Jesuit institutions of higher learning; Holy Cross is no exception. It was Nancy and my growing role in SPUD over my sophomore, junior, and senior years where I found the most inspiration for understanding the goals of Jesuit higher education, incorporating them into my personal set of values that I uphold today.
When I joined SPUD as a sophomore volunteer, I performed acts of social charity: I set tables, prepared and served the food, and cleaned up after members of the Worcester community finished eating. As my comfort level rose, I began to have small conversations with those who attended the dinners on Sunday who appreciated Holy Cross’ presence. Though I appreciated their interest and still value these conversations today, their statements provoked feelings of dissonance; frustrated, I wondered what was the larger, institutional and structural reason for my presence at the site, and why did it exist? Why did the same folks come and have the same conversations with me week after week, year after year? What had I done to alleviate the social stratification that exists in the Worcester community that I was a part of?
I was fortunate SPUD did not occur in a vacuum; as the years progressed on campus, I bore witness to the internal and external pressures students carry with them throughout the day, humbly striving to be their best self and doing so with a quiet confidence – a trait I firmly believe makes the Holy Cross student unique. This culture of humble achievement persisted through all four years, but another fold was added with senior year, when I observed an increasingly intense focus on establishing a successful career upon graduation among my peers, and I began to question how I should define success.
It was at a SPUD Intern meeting where Marty Kelly, chaplain at Holy Cross and staff leader of SPUD, had us reflect on Fr. Michael Himes’ “Three Key Questions” – “What brings me joy?” “What am I good at?” and “What does the world need me to be?” – which held particular significance for an intern team largely comprised of seniors. It was at this moment, informed by the confluence of all things SPUD, when I realized that the real measure of a successful Jesuit education lies not in individual success but in how the individual uses their personal strengths to better others. It was that night in Campion where I realized that I need to use my strengths in a vocation that affords the opportunity to be in solidarity with others.
My involvement in SPUD, under the guidance of Nancy, helped me realize that being in solidarity with others is what gives me joy, that my strength lies in others, and that my best way to serve this world is to uplift those around me as best I can. The experience helped me realize that with each opportunity I have to interact with members of my communities, I am confirming the development of a moral responsibility. It is this solidarity with others that paves my future as a “man for others.” Importantly, I am simply the lucky one of truly countless Holy Cross students who could write about such profound experience if prompted – the reach of SPUD is remarkably profound. SPUD is a defining volunteer activity for more than six-hundred Holy Cross students across forty different sites, every single year.
I strongly implore those reading this to volunteer and meet your own Nancy, to have those conversations that bring you closer to others and complicate your perspective. You will not regret it, and in this process of discernment you will find out what brings you joy, where your strengths lie, and how you can incorporate these joys and strengths into a life defined by personal fulfillment and service to others.