College Church Taps First Lay Woman to Lead

Replaces Head Pastor Katie Jansen now heads the church, as Fr. Tim McMahon replaces Fr. Dan White


Paige Fann

St. Francis Xavier College Church has made major changes ahead of the school year, replacing its head pastor and appointing a lay woman to leadership.

Katie Jansen took over as the church’s first parish life coordinator on Aug. 21, as the church pivoted to a less top-down model. Jansen, who previously served as College Church’s parish administrator, is the church’s first woman and first non-ordained leader.

“When people see themselves or someone who looks like them in leadership, that space feels more open to them. So, if a woman sees another woman in leadership, this feels like a welcoming place,” Jansen said.

The move comes as the Catholic Church worldwide attempts to reconcile its ordained and laic elements, and amid calls for reform in a historically male-dominated institution. Jansen, a former community organizer and member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, hopes the change reflects a new way of thinking about the church and its role with parishioners.

“I think, historically, the Church has been pretty good at saying who doesn’t belong, instead of suggesting that, actually, people do belong,” Jansen said. “So, this is one more way to say, yes, women do belong in leadership in this church.”

Jansen is the second lay woman to lead a church in the Archdiocese and the third within the Jesuits’ U.S. Central and Southern (UCS) province, comprising 12 U.S. states, Puerto Rico and the nation of Belize. In a press release, UCS said the change “allows for a more inclusive, progressive, forward-looking leadership model.”

“Many lay people feel called to church ministry the same way that a priest does,” Jansen said. “And if we create space for that calling, the Church is more vibrant.”

Fr. Tim McMahon, SJ replaced 10-year head pastor, Fr. Dan White, SJ on Aug. 1, after both priests celebrated Sunday Mass the day before. McMahon, who brings with him an extensive career in both spiritual and educational leadership, praised the construction of the new Jesuit Center as a sign of SLU’s commitment to the Church.

“It’s a new era in the history of the Jesuit presence at the University, and I think hopefully one that will continue to grow,” McMahon said.

McMahon mentioned there are certain roles with legal considerations he has to take on alone as “canonical pastor,” such as officiating weddings. However, when possible, the church will function as a “shared ministry” between him and Jansen, he said.

The leadership shuffle, supported by St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski, is aligned with “Our Parish Vision,” a strategic plan launched by the College Church in July 2020. The plan reflects changes implemented during the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, as well as calls made by Pope Francis for a “synod on synodality,” emphasizing lay parishioners’ contributions to the Church, Jansen said.

 “The transition we are making is not just a change in leadership,” College Church said in a statement. “It is a change in the way we are community.”

McMahon said the church aims to find more ways to include lay people in future decisions.

“We have a lot of people with a lot of gifts,” he said. “This model is a way of exploring how we can better allow people opportunities to put their gifts at the service of not only the wider parish community but beyond the walls of the community.”

Jansen echoed the goal of finding and establishing places for parishioners to better contribute. She cited Pope Francis’ request for all Archdiocese to hold listening sessions and College Church’s effort to include parishioners’ reflections in bulletins earlier in the pandemic.

“We all have a relationship with God. The Holy Spirit works in all of us,” Jansen said. “We all have experiences that help us understand our faith, and we have faith that helps us understand our experiences.”