Benedictine Takes Leading Role at Historic FOCUS Conference

The 2023 SEEK Conference in St. Louis made history.

For the 25th anniversary of the event, more than 17,000 people attended, the largest ever in the history of its host organization, the Catholic college student apostolate, FOCUS.

Attendees came from Ireland, Germany, Austria and Mexico, but the largest number came from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Benedictine College had a special reason to celebrate: The school was where FOCUS was founded in 1998 and was also the place where the first FOCUS conference was organized.

St. Louis’s NBC affiliate, KSDK, reported on the large Benedictine group, introducing viewers to Marie Putbrese, a 2017 graduate who was attending her ninth SEEK conference, and Jack Figge, a Benedictine College freshman from St. Louis who was attending his first.

“Since Benedictine College and FOCUS have such a unique and fruitful history together, SEEK23 felt like a giant family reunion,” said Joseph Wurtz, who is Dean of Students at Benedictine College. Wurtz was one of the original missionaries at FOCUS and has served on the organization’s board of directors.

He was present at the first FOCUS conference 25 years ago.

“Yes, we are all one family in our Catholic faith, but to experience the depth and warmth of the connection among 17,000 people was life-giving.”

Edward Sri was a Benedictine College theologian when FOCUS was founded on campus, and helped organize the first FOCUS conference for fewer than 30 attendees.

“When you see young people responding to the Gospel, young people so joyful, young people wanting to go and stop in the adoration chapel and pray — it’s just very moving,” he told the Catholic News Agency.

Apart from its large student contingent, Benedictine College was well represented at the event.

Several alumni gave presentations at the event, including Sarah Swafford, Lisa Cotter, Amber Ezeani, John Bishop, Kara Logan, Jim Jansen, and Beth Sri. Tom Wurtz created a live podcast of the event.

Swafford, shown above, a Benedictine College graduate, is a popular speaker on contemporary problems facing young Catholics. “I couldn’t imagine not having a SEEK conference. I snuck into my first conference 20 years ago when I was a high school student,” she said. “It was in Lincoln, Neb., there were 300 people there and I thought, ‘Can you even believe it. There are 300 people here. I didn’t know 3 people who were Catholic and loved Jesus. This is amazing!’

She said the event helped change her life. “I’ve never looked back. It has been so pivotal in my life. Putting these conferences on is not easy, and I am so grateful to everyone at FOCUS who works so hard on this.”

Members of the college Board of Directors who attended SEEK23 included Montse Alvarado, executive director of the Becket Fund; Danielle Brown of the U.S. bishops’ Committee Against Racism; and Alietia Caughron, Helen Healy, Matthew Tynan and Lené Westerman.

Benedictine College administrators attended, including President Stephen D. Minnis, Chief Business Officer Stan Sluder, Dean of Students Joseph Wurtz, Vice President for Advancement Kelly Vowels, Vice President of Student Life Linda Henry, and Director of Information Technology, Deacon Charles Welte.

Wurtz thanked Benedictine College staff and FOCUS staff for the conference.

“SEEK 23 depended on the efforts of dozens of staff members who put in countless hours behind the scenes,” said Joseph Wurtz. “I am confident this labor of love will bear much fruit for Benedictine College and for America.”