Thursday, July 30, 2009

Leader of OSU campus ministry dies at 49

By Ed Langlois

Sue Gifford

Sue Gifford

CORVALLIS — The dean of Oregon’s Catholic campus ministry has died.
Sue Gifford, campus minister at Oregon State University here for more than 20 years, died in her sleep last weekend. She was 49.

“In the crazy life of the student these days, we can be a place to come, ask questions, have some fun and learn more about faith,” Gifford told the Sentinel in 2002. “We can provide a community where students can grow both in their field of study and in their faith and knowledge of God.”

Gifford’s simple Corvallis apartment was festooned with photos from friends and former students.

“She had an enormous vitality, love for the Lord and a tremendous sense of humor,” says Barb Anderson, pastoral associate at St. Mary Parish here. “She was a person who really believed in hospitality and accompanying people on their spiritual journey. She had a lot of patience for young people who were struggling and needed some guidance. She was very willing to be that guide, that friend.”

Friends say Gifford had suffered for decades with Cushing’s syndrome, an excess of the hormone cortisol related to a tumor on the pituitary gland. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause excess weight and high blood pressure. At one point, Gifford’s doctors told her she may not live to be 40.

She was was born July 4, 1960 in Greenfield, Mass., attending schools in Colrain and Shelburne Falls, and graduated from Mohawk Regional High School in 1978.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. in 1982, and went on to earn a master’s degree from Mundelein College in Chicago. She devoted her life to Catholic campus ministry at the University of Illinois and Oregon State University. She held positions on various archdiocesan and national committees associated with Newman Centers and the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.

Gifford played a key role in creating a new Newman Center at OSU.

Dedicated in 2002, it includes housing, common areas, a coffee house and a faith library.

“The sky is the limit on what we can do with this new space,” Gifford told the Sentinel. “There will be lots of places for students to just come and be. The Newman Center has to be their home away from home. We can be a place where kids can come in from the hubbub on campus and catch their breath.”

Taking a page from fraternities and sororities, each fall she made the second week of school Catholic Rush Week. Students ate ice cream, studied scripture, ate a simple supper and even attended a session of “Stupid Catholic Questions,” where any inquiry is fair.

Gifford led workshops on the sacraments and was the organizer of a group that explored all manner of vocations — single life, marriage, priesthood and religious life.

When Holy Names Sister Crystal Clark professed her first vows in 2006, the young OSU graduate cited Gifford as an important part of her faith development.
Gifford knew that public colleges and universities were focusing on educating the whole student and wanted spiritual formation to be part of that. She launched a university lecture series that focused on faith and higher education.

Dominican Father Michael Fones, who worked at campus ministry at the University of Oregon for six years, considered Gifford a sister. They led retreats together and even teased each other about collegiate allegiances.

“God gifted her with a tremendous ability to see strangers in the crowd and make them feel at home and really establish trust,” says Father Fones, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz. “For somebody who does not know Christ, that is the first threshhold they need to cross before they can really start exploring faith.”

Gifford is survived by her parents, Rolland and Lois Gifford, and her brother, Paul, of Shelburne Falls, Mass.

Sue enjoyed cooking and reading, and she loved spending time with students, her newly adopted dog, Tanner, and her wide circle of friends across the country.

A prayer service and vigil were held Tuesday and the funeral Mass was set for 3 p.m. Wednesday, July 29 at St Mary Church here.

In lieu flowers, donations can be made to the charity of one’s choice or to the Nancy Gifford Memorial Scholarship Fund c/o Paul Gifford, 19 South Maple Street, Shelburne Falls, MA, 01370.