Sunday, October 1, 2006
A couple of guys yelled, "Padre!" when they saw the Rev. Robert Schlageter barreling into the dorm in his black friar's robes cinched with rope.
"You getting your rooms blessed, you little pagans?" he hollered back.
Every September, Father Bob makes the rounds, teasing, badgering, laughing and blessing his way through Catholic University's student housing. In almost every room he says a quick prayer with the students, sprinkles holy water and tapes up a paper crucifix and small yellow sign over the door that says: "Peace to all who enter here. This Room has been Blessed."
Most important: He gets in the door and lets them know he's there.
The beginning of freshman year is the time some student-life officials worry about most; about one in five freshmen at a four-year school doesn't make it to sophomore year. Some flunk out, but some just walk away, said Gwendolyn Dungy of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. Studies suggest that giving new students a connection, a sense of home, is crucial.
"If you can't help to do that by October," Schlageter said, "you risk losing them."
He and the 20-some other members of the campus ministry have more than 6,000 souls to take care of, 859 of them freshmen -- the most ever at Catholic -- and t hey don't want to shut them out. He studies photo directories, trying to memorize names and faces.
"Father Bob is the real mascot of the school," said junior Drew Napoli. "Everyone loves him. . . . You can't help but smile when he's around."
He grabs kids by the collar, taunting them, or snatches a do-rag off a student to wrap around his own large head. (That photo zipped from cellphone to cellphone last week.)
Some call him the wired friar: He's always got his Treo somewhere in the folds of his black habit. He fires off text messages, checking in on a troubled freshman or making a sophomore giggle at a dull ceremony.
He started blessing rooms when he came to Catholic nine years ago; back then, it took him a week. Now it takes two weeks and a dozen people to get to the thousands who ask for a blessing. He doesn't go in if not invited, but at Spellman Hall last week, almost every door had a note on it: Please bless this room.
Maybe it's a sign of this generation of students' interest in spirituality. Or maybe it's Father Bob.