As the new chaplain and director of Campus Ministry at St. Ambrose, the best advice Rev. Thom Hennen '00 received about replacing his popular predecessor was from the predecessor himself.
"I'm going to be learning a lot this year," Fr. Hennen said of the challenge of replacing Rev. Chuck Adam '82, who assumed a new diocesan assignment earlier this month after more than 21 years of service to his alma mater. "When I told Fr. Chuck I knew I had big shoes to fill, I thought his response was perfect. He said 'Don't worry about my shoes. Fill your own shoes.'
"I thought that was good. I can do that."
Fr. Hennen also can offer a unique understanding when he counsels and encourages St. Ambrose students in matters of faith and college life. That's because, in a figurative sense, he once filled their shoes as well.
Although he spent his first year as a seminarian, Fr. Hennen said he reconsidered his choice early-on before finding certainty in his call to the priesthood as an upperclassman.
"I was just 'Joe Normal College Student' for my sophomore and junior years here," he said. "And then I couldn't outrun God any longer and I had to get back to the seminary.
"I often say 'God writes straight with crooked lines' and my particular journey, I can't imagine having gone any other way. It doesn't work that way for everybody. But, in my case, it did, and God was able to use that experience in a powerful way."
Fr. Hennen said he will use his lay student experience as he evaluates the faith opportunities and challenges that confront St. Ambrose students today.
As "Joe Normal College Student," he changed his major to secondary education, dated and began to look forward to layman's life as a teacher.
"I know what it is like to be a college student, not just generally, but at this university," he said. "I know a number of the faculty and staff members. I know the campus. I know the history. I know the spirit.
"I was a residence hall adviser and worked in Security. I was a barista at the campus coffee shop on Harrison Street. I was a work study student in the History Department, played intramural basketball and was active in student government. I was never a Theatre major but I was in two shows each year. So I was plugged into a lot of stuff going on in a lot of different areas on campus.
"I know the pitfalls, too," he said. "The temptations. The struggles. The opportunities to make poor choices that exist for any college student."
More importantly, Fr. Hennen said, "Even when I was not in the seminary, I didn't leave my faith or the church. So I know it is possible to cultivate your faith in a very beautiful way here. Yes. I know that side of it, too."
Fr. Hennen, 39, grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, as the youngest of John and Joan Hennen's 11 children. He began considering the priesthood in high school and consulted with his parish priest, Rev. Nick Adam. The pastor promptly referred young Thom Hennen to his brother, Rev. Chuck Adam, who had just become the new director of vocations for the Diocese of Davenport as well a rector of the seminary at St. Ambrose University.
Fr. Hennen enrolled as a seminarian at St. Ambrose the following year.
He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy and History from St. Ambrose and then completed his theological and advanced studies degrees at the North American College in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Davenport in July of 2004.
Fr. Hennen was parochial vicar at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton, Iowa, from 2005-2010. From 2010-2011, he was a part-time parochial vicar at St. Mary's Church in Iowa City, Iowa, and part-time priest and campus minister at the Newman Catholic Center near the University of Iowa.
In 2011, he returned to Davenport and became director of vocations for the diocese. He will retain that role. In 2014, he became a part-time theology instructor at Assumption High School, and he said his work with high school students now will inform his understanding of the millennial college student.
"My experience at Assumption was that these are, by and large, really good young people and they are not as tuned out as we might think to matters of faith," he said. "Some are very tuned in, as a matter of fact. And I think there is a lot of that here."
Fr. Hennen's approach to his new assignment will be to follow Fr. Adam's advice to forge his own path - albeit in a deliberate fashion.
"I think I build on the good that's already here. I listen and I learn," he said. "I should try to be true to who I am - I can't be Chuck 2.0 because he is a different man, a different priest. I just have to be the best version of myself and, as in previous assignments, trust that that will work."