Paddling to the peripheries Canoeing bishop connects with college students


Canoeing bishop connects with college students

Father Jeff Belger
Bishop Thomas Zinkula speaks to students from the Newman Catholic Student Center at the University of Iowa during a lunch break from their canoeing trip on Labor Day, Sept. 2, on the Cedar River.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

No one had to beg Bishop Thomas Zinkula to join 28 college students, a priest and a couple of family members on a canoe trip down the Cedar River on Labor Day. He saw it as a perfect opportunity to follow Pope Francis’ advice to go out to the peripheries, this time with a canoe paddle instead of a staff.

“I like to be out among the people and I think they appreciate having the bishop in their midst. I also like to canoe. Why wouldn’t I do this?” he asked The Catholic Messenger during an interview after the daylong trip. Besides, he grew up near the Cedar River on a farm in Mount Vernon where the canoe trip began. “That’s what we did growing up,” he said.


It took two years into his role as Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport to clear the decks so that he could accompany University of Iowa students Sept. 2 on the Newman Catholic Student Center canoe trip. Last year, he was out of the country on a trip to Milan, Italy, with members of St. Ambrose University-Davenport Board of Trustees and the year before that he was at “Baby Bishops” school in Rome.

Father Jeff Belger, priest director of the Newman Catholic Student Center, organizes the canoe trip every Labor Day weekend as an opportunity for students to connect with one another and to create a sense of community. The priest engaged in creative advertising, using a nine-passenger canoe to promote the trip with the bishop: “I parked a 26-foot canoe in front of the Newman Center.”

The trip usually maxes out at 26 students; this time, the Newman Center accommodated 28, with canoe rentals and the bishop bringing his own, one-man canoe. The bishop’s brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Terri Zinkula, also paddled along with the group.

They put in their canoes on the Cedar River at Palisades-Kepler State Park in Mount Vernon and traveled leisurely downriver for eight or nine miles, eventually ending the trip in Sutliff, known for its historic bridge.

Bishop Zinkula made the rounds, chatting with the young adults as he paddled alongside their canoes. “A couple of them asked about vocations to the priesthood,” he said. “We talked about where I grew up and we talked about school and where they were from.” One student remarked, “I never heard about a bishop canoeing before!” Emily Pries, the bishop’s executive secretary, who was present during the later interview, quipped “Jesus ministered on the water, so will Bishop!”

Some students seemed shy initially, but warmed up to the bishop when he conversed with them. He wasn’t dressed like a bishop presiding at Mass, of course. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, as did Fr. Belger, which may have helped put the students at ease.

Per tradition, the canoeists stopped for lunch and bean bag toss games at the cabin of Bud and Carol Sueppel, parishioners at St. Mary Parish in Iowa City. The guests feasted on brats, potato salad, chips, other trimmings and dessert.

It’s important to connect with young people, to get a better sense of who they are and where they are going, Bishop Zinkula said. “I can make the church more real to them through my presence. This is Pope Francis stuff.”

Students also had an opportunity to connect with four FOCUS missionaries serving this year at the Newman Center. Their role is to connect students with the Newman Center and to walk with them on their faith journey, Fr. Belger said.

Timing is everything. Because the academic year is just getting started and students don’t have a lot going on, those who don’t go home for the long weekend are looking for something fun to do, Fr. Belger said. “In order to create community, doing something to bring people together is a must.”

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