By Rebecca Andrews, Contributor | Apri 20, 2015
Gloria Schweizer doesn’t chuckle very often. She laughs wholeheartedly instead. Loud and boisterous, it announces her presence before you even see her, and doesn’t seem like it could come from someone so petite.
“You can hear it from a mile away,” said Erin Krichilsky, a sophomore biology student from Charlotte. “You’re like, ‘Where’s Gloria, she’s late?’ but then you just hear that cackle and you know she’s there.”
What makes her laugh so unique is not only its volume but the spirit behind it. She continues to smile despite hardships she has experienced. She cites her faith as a source of strength.
Schweizer, the Asheville area Catholic campus minister, said she started working in Catholic campus ministry 21 years ago at Western Carolina University. At the time, she was a stay-at-home mom and her only experience for this job was volunteering with high school students at her church. Despite being up against a qualified candidate, she got the job.
“At first I thought, ‘The other person didn’t want it,’” Schweizer said. “About two months after I started I found out that he chose me. I really felt chosen by God.”
But things haven’t always come together so easily. Schweizer said she grew up in a dysfunctional household with an alcoholic father and a bipolar mother.
“The violence was the hardest part,” Schweizer said, nodding solemnly. “I lived with a lot of violence, verbal abuse, and physical abuse.”
It was during this time that she started working and met Ciel Levy, a hard-working Catholic woman who taught her about faith and integrity, which inspired her to convert. She gave Schweizer a novena, a series of prayers said over nine days, on a piece of paper she still has to this day, 50 years later.
“She lived her faith, and part of our faith is to reach out to somebody who really needs it,” Schweizer said, “At that time that was me.”
That act of kindness stayed with her, and continues to be the core of her faith. She believes that every little thing someone does makes a difference, because during her childhood, every small kindness meant so much. This is the driving force behind her decisions to foster connections and build a family within the ministry, she said.
She said when she started at WCU she often felt overwhelmed, but her students and colleagues welcomed her easily into the community. Her favorite memories over the past 21 years have been watching her former students go on to get married and start their own families.
One student in particular, Matthew Newsome, converted and met his future wife while in the WCU Catholic Campus Ministry. He now holds Schweizer’s former position, which she encouraged him to take after she left for Asheville. Seeing her former students become her peers is the best part of being involved, Schweizer said.
This became apparent to her at an alumni mass about 10 years ago, surrounded by many of her former students, Schweizer said.
“Being in that chapel and celebrating mass together and singing the songs that we all knew so well there was such a feeling of this is what it’s all about, the community,” Schweizer said. “There’s something about the church being a universal church. You could go to mass in any country, say, ‘I’m Catholic,’ and you are welcomed.”
This atmosphere of acceptance is exactly what she strives for in the Asheville CCM. Hospitality and invitation are so important, Schweizer said, everyone and anyone, even non-Catholics, are welcome. Freshman music technology student Maddie Crow agrees.
“Even if people don’t have the same beliefs as me specifically in the group, they were raised in a way that is the same way I was raised,” Crow said. “They are used to the idea, we all have that similar background. I have recommended joining to people who are interested in religious studies.”
Schweizer said she takes pride in her students and how they facilitate a safe environment. And Schweizer herself has no plans of stopping working toward this ideal.
“I want to work as long as I feel relevant to students. I’m not old and crotchety,” Schweizer laughed. “I can still embrace students and all their ambiguity and create a safe place for them to come where there is comfort and no judgment. And at the same time holding up everything that our faith has to offer.”
Standing at her mother’s bedside on the day of her death, Gloria Schweizer came to a sudden conclusion. She was praying the Hail Mary, one that touched her so deeply.
“Hail Mary, full of grace the lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus,” Schweizer said. “Here I am the fruit of her womb, she gave me life, and I thought, like a little voice in the back of my head, ‘I love my mother.’”
This was a relief after many years of struggling with her relationship with her parents and praying that she could someday find the courage to forgive her mother, Schweizer said.
“I always prayed to love my mother, because I didn’t,” Schweizer said. “She abused us, didn’t take care of us, we were neglected children.”
Despite this, Schweizer and her brother took care of her mother for many years after she had a brain stem stroke that left her paralyzed from the neck down. And it was during these many years that she said she came to forgive her mother for the things that weren’t her fault.
She never fully knew her mother’s history. During that time there was no diagnosis for bipolar disorder or social workers to check on them.
“My process as an adult was to realize that, and forgive. It’s so tempting to blame, she should have done better, my father should have done better, but everybody has a story,” Schweizer said. “ And there is a lot of grace in forgiveness.”