Godspeed: Behind Track & Field’s Sunday Tradition

Sunday nights, some students are going to the library.

Others are just arriving back on campus after spending a nice weekend at home.

And let’s not forget the bunches yelling and cursing around their televisions, doing all they can to push their team to a Sunday victory.

Then there’s the small army of students that shuffle to the dining hall for an averagely satisfactory dinner, then to the warm walls of the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel on Marist’s campus. As always, the group rocks their signature red backpacks engraved, “Track & Field.” They’re all smiles as they greet Father John, the campus priest, at the door, and their chattering begins to lull as they congregate at their unassigned-assigned pew.

Though Marist is currently recognized as non-denominational, the chapel that stands at the heart of campus hosts a Roman-Catholic mass twice on Sundays. For a college that was originally designed as a seminary for a vocational religious group called the Marist Brothers, the religious values instilled on the campus are far from random.

What was formerly known as Marian College in the early 1900s, the campus was made up of only four buildings: a gymnasium, currently known as Marian Hall; a residence hall for the Brothers; Adrian Hall, which was torn down in 2000; and Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel, erected in 1953 and still stands in 2019. Through the decades, renovations have come and gone to various buildings around the Hudson Valley campus, but the chapel has retained many of its original detailing and design without being stuck in a time warp.

The same modernization can be said about the service itself. Though the Marist Brothers have always been ahead of Catholic-trends, the religious community on campus has seen a major change that can be credited to the arrival of Father John Ulrich on campus.

“I wanted to make the liturgy more friendly,” he shared. “When I first came, the responses were a bit wimpish.” His prerogative was to make a historically dry service into something that college students look forward to each week. He jokingly mimics the muffled responses of the congregation prior to his transformation of the culture. In hushed tones, the students self-consciously respond to his prayers. To any observer, it would have seemed like the students were being forced into this beautiful chapel to agonizingly interact with their faith.

Three years into his time at Marist, Fr. John couldn’t help but admit that he had a little help along the way. That “little help” is the sea of red backpacks that unite, front and center, in the chapel each Sunday at 6:30 p.m.

Each week, you can count on about a dozen runners blessing the chapel with holistic attitudes and active engagement in the church community. Whether acting as Altar-Servers who assist Father John in his service, Eucharistic Ministers, or just simply out-singing the Marist choir, these athletes take the prize for “Lay Person of the Week.” There’s even a guest appearance from head coach Pete Colaizzo – he brings along his family to celebrate the Liturgy.

Interestingly enough, the trend is unintentional. Rather than it being a culture instilled into the program from the days when the Marist Brothers “ruled the school,” so-to-speak, this call-to-the-church can solely be attributed to the students’desire to be engaged with their religious values.

Senior Conor Stack grew up in a Roman-Catholic household. With that came a strict regimen of worship on Sundays, something that Stack wouldn’t let go of as he entered college. “It helped that Marist had a chapel on campus. It was not technically a catholic school, but it had roots of Catholicism,” he admitted. “One of my teammates… was really involved in it too. He was friendly with the brothers and the priests. I remember DM’ing him on Instagram making sure it was cool to go to church on Sundays.”

This millennial approach to investigating what college students think of going to church isn’t something only Conor has experienced. A handful of his teammates, including Alyssa Lafave, learned of this Sunday tradition during their first encounters with the school. “I remember on my recruitment visit, I stayed overnight with some of the girls on the team. I remember some of the older girls saying, ‘hey, who’s going to church tonight?’ Then I texted my mom saying ‘mom… they go to church here too!’ So I went to church with them,” she said. “Ever since I could remember being here, we’ve always had that section in the chapel. It’s where the track team goes.”

Despite Marist’s history with Catholicism, many of these Church-goers do not associate with the catholic faith. Yes, Marist is non-denominational. Yes, the Marist Brothers are a catholic group that founded the college. Yes, the Sunday mass is a Roman-Catholic service. But no, you don’t have to be catholic to attend. That’s a preconceived notion that senior captain, Denise Grohn, is bringing down. As a presbyterian, she’s still all about the Sunday tradition.

“I hope that others can see us too, and think, ‘wow, they have so many people there, maybe I’ll bring a friend next time,’” Grohn shared. “Even the fact that our coach goes, it’s interesting and fun. I think it’s just reassuring in that if people aren’t forced, they’ll still go because they like it and they want to be apart of religion.”

This unintentional tradition – dinner at the dining hall, then meandering across campus to the chapel – has been with the track team for as long as any of the current seniors can remember. Even the relationship between Campus Ministry and the track team has been long-standing. “We actually participate in the mass,” Denise stated proudly. “From 2014 to 2022 we’re having people on the board [Campus Ministry Student Advisory Board]. I think that’s really cool.”

With all of this being said, it still begs the question: why? Aside from the ever-present ideology of religion in Western society, why is it the track team that is so dedicated to their faith? As churches along the northeast close down, why does the track team’s faith keep growing stronger? What makes track different than other sports? Is there a special relationship between actively running and prayer? Well, meditation and prayer go hand-in-hand. As do meditation and running, at least according to these athletes.

“It’s weird. You do get out-of-body experiences. You’re so lost in thought and then suddenly it’s like, ‘Woah, I’m on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, how did I get here?’” Grohn laughingly admits. “You almost blackout for times.”

Even the 29-year head coach feels that same meditative state when running. “Sometimes if I go on long walks or runs by myself, I’ll pray,” Colaizzo said. “Both are meditative, prayer and long-distance [running].” When it comes down to running, it’s all in the head. Compared to other sports, like basketball, running is one long repetitive motion. In most events, it’s literally about going the distance. That’s a lot of time alone with your mind. To get through it all, some pray.

For Alyssa, it’s praying on the line before the race. For Conor, it’s informal prayer throughout his race. Again, credit is given where credit is due – it takes some serious mental strength to run for long periods of time. Prayer takes that burden off their shoulders.

From going to Sunday mass in a group of 20 in 2019 to finding out their head coach got married at the Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel back in 1995, this team has always been in touch with their religious values – whatever those may be.

Though it can be safely assumed that most people identify as Roman-Catholics, with the help of athletes like Denise, the culture can continue to expand and consume more than just one faith. As the Church likes to say, “Come one, come all.” The track and field team has perfectly embodied that statement. Though all of this is coincidental, the team, like the Church, will continue to welcome new and old runners alike to join with them in their Sunday tradition.

Edited by Will Bjarnar

Leave a Reply