The Church in canoes – Newman Catholic Student Center paddles with the bishop

Father Jeff Belger pushes the “Shoquqon,” a nine-passenger canoe, in the Cedar River on Labor Day during a Newman Catholic Student Center (Iowa City) canoeing trip in Linn County.

By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger

LINN COUNTY — Jesus walked on water and Father Jeff Belger walked on sandbars. The priest’s experience happened during a Newman Catholic Student Center canoe trip that celebrated faith and fellowship on the drought-depleted Cedar River on Labor Day.

Fr. Belger

Father Belger, priest director of the Newman Center in Iowa City and captain of the mighty “Shoquoqon,” a nine-passenger canoe that draws a lot of attention, had to get out of the boat about a dozen times to push it off a sandbar. That gave him a break from steering a heavy boat into a headwind on a parched river. “It was a hot day, so it was a good combination of paddling and splashing arou­nd in the water.”

The canoe trip, an annual tradition to welcome new and returning students to the Newman Center, brought together 20 students, four FOCUS missionaries, Father Belger, Father David Paintsil and Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula. About half the group had no canoeing experience!


Father Belger, an outdoor enthusiast, paired experienced and inexperienced canoeists. Seven of them took their seats with him in the “Shoquoqon,” on loan from a family friend in Burlington. The other canoeists paddled in two- and three-person canoes. Archbishop-elect Zinkula paddled alongside in his one-person canoe.

Abp.-Elect Zinkula

He’s made several of the Labor Day canoe trips in six years as Bishop of the Diocese of Davenport. Next month, he will assume leadership of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, through which the canoe trip travels, from Kepler State Park to Sutliff. All the more reason for him to participate in next year’s canoe trip, Father Belger says. The route has been a longtime favorite of the priest, who discovered its proximity to Archbishop-elect Zinkula’s boyhood home prior to their first ride together with the Newman Center group.

“When we passed by the south end of the farm it brought back a lot of fond memories of growing up in that area,” Archbishop-elect Zinkula said. “The thing I remembered most was canoeing on the river on occasion on my day off while I was a priest in Dubuque. My dad would drop me off downstream of the last dam in Cedar Rapids, and he and my mother would leave my car in Sutliff. Depending on the strength of the current, it would take me four to six hours to paddle down to Sutliff; I would have to portage around the broken-down dam in Palisades Park. Those were special times of solitude, communing with nature and prayer.”

The Newman Center group celebrated Mass at the half-way point, on the side of a cottage in Ivanhoe. Archbishop-elect Zink­ula presided and Fathers Belger and Ken Kuntz concelebrated. “My back was to the river and the students and other attendees faced it,” the archbishop-elect said. “After Mass a couple of guys told me about watching eagles flying over the river during the Mass. Then I asked them what the homily was about!”

The homily, which Father Belger gave, emphasized the need to spend time appreciating God’s Creation. He also referenced the value of hospitality, which the Newman Center group experienced that day. “It has become a tradition for the Sueppel/Lehman families to host us for an outdoor Mass and lunch at their cabin on the river. And they did not disappoint again this year,” he said later. Fathers Kuntz and Chuck Adam provided “land-bound moral support.”

Father Belger welcomes opportunities to take the Church outside of a building. On a canoe trip on the river, “We’re all in the same boat, literally,” he said. “On this trip, people get to know each other and having Archbishop-elect Zinkula with us makes it special. It shows that the Church cares.”

Father Jeff Belger gives a homily to participants of the Newman Catholic Student Center (Iowa City) canoe trip on Labor Day along the Cedar River in Linn County. The Sueppel/Lehman families hosted the group at their cabin near the river.

“The highlight of the trip had to be the canoeing itself,” said Gracie Hinerichsen, a freshman from Dyersville, Iowa. “It was so awesome to look around and see all of us traveling together as one group. There were also so many fun times on the river when people would make jokes, play games and just talk to each other.” She appreciated Archbishop-elect Zinkula and the priests for taking “time out of their busy day to spend a day with us and help us grow a little closer to God.” She also appreciated being able to celebrate Mass outdoors. “I would just give a big thanks to Bishop and Father (Belger) for the opportunity they provided us because it was truly an amazing experience.”

Kate O’Tool, a sophomore from Sioux City, Iowa, enjoyed meeting and talking with new people and forming friendships on her first Newman canoe trip last year. “I hoped this year that I could welcome new students to the Newman Center community. One of these freshmen I canoed with the whole time and I had a great conversation with her! We talked about anything and everything and we were able to accomplish something difficult (fighting the wind and waves). Spending this time with her was the highlight of my trip.” O’Tool also appreciated the celebration of Mass with the bishop and several priests. “This was special to me because I have only ever had Mass with a bishop for large, out of the ordinary, events, such as confirmation ceremonies or an ordination.”

Father Belger’s muscles ached afterwards, a small price to pay for the benefits of the canoe trip: “I formed a new community. They get to know who we are. It’s an entry point to the ministry we do on campus.”

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