By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald
BATON ROUGE, La. – From the outside, the LSU fraternity house where 18-year-old freshman Max Gruver died last year as a victim of what prosecutors called alcohol-fueled hazing looks remarkably similar to the 10 or so other Greek homes on fraternity row, if not a little spiffier.
Twenty-nine days after having stepped on the LSU campus in 2017, Gruver, a native of Roswell, Georgia, went to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house as a pledge to participate in what his frat brothers had dubbed “Bible Study.”
For the uninitiated, the rules were simple, according to an affidavit filed by LSU police: If a pledge gave an incorrect response to a question related to Phi Delta Theta, then the pledge had to guzzle a shot of 190-proof alcohol.
By the time Gruver died on the morning of Sept. 14, 2017, the East Baton Rouge Parish coroner said his blood-alcohol level was .496, approximately six times the legal limit. He had died of alcohol poisoning and aspiration, which means he choked on his own vomit.
LSU responded by banning the Phi Delta Theta from campus until at least 2033 and issuing a “zero-tolerance” policy that provides for expulsion of students and fraternities who engage in hazing, although Gruver’s parents believe state law should be changed to elevate hazing from a misdemeanor to a felony.
The Gruvers also have filed a $25 million federal lawsuit against LSU, claiming the university responded with “deliberate indifference” to allegations of hazing at its fraternities.
The first trial for some of the fraternity brothers present when Gruver died is set for December.
Christ the King: A new vision
Two blocks away at Christ the King Parish – the Catholic student center on the LSU campus – Father Andrew Merrick had been wrestling with ways to respond to the unspeakable tragedy. He celebrated a Memorial Mass for Gruver, a Catholic, who had attended Mass there several times in his first month on campus.
Unrelated to Gruver’s death, Father Merrick and his parish staff had been discerning the possibility of sponsoring a student residence – one for men and one for women – where Catholic students could live in community to pray, eat, study and challenge each other to live authentic Christian lives.
This would not be for every student who came to Christ the King, but Father Merrick was intrigued by the possibility of providing for “at least a small portion of them … an intentional experience of, ‘Hey, we’re pursuing this goal of really growing and being formed in what would be the four pillars of formation: spiritual, human, intellectual and pastoral (service).”
Father Merrick said he thought establishing such a residence would be a five- to 10-year goal, but following Gruver’s death, he contacted the fraternity to see if it might consider leasing the two-story house to Christ the King, not knowing if the parish had the financial or human resources to make it happen.
The national fraternity initially said it had no plans to sub-lease the house.
“I told the Lord, ‘If you want us to have this house, you have to give it to us,’” Father Merrick said. “I didn’t think it was prudent for us to go chasing it.”
A few weeks later, the fraternity called back and asked if Father Merrick was still interested. After Mass one day, Father Merrick floated the idea to several parishioners, who also said they were intrigued by the vision and offered to help with finances, minor renovations and red tape.
With lease, a special blessing
“We celebrated Mass in the house, blessed it and had a eucharistic procession in the house once the lease was official,” Father Merrick said.
In the five months before the fall semester began in August, the parish coordinated minor renovations and painting.
“Let’s just say it was in average frat house shape, probably above average,” said house director Adam Trufant.
When several contractors who came to do repair work on the fraternity house found out the mission of the new residence, they donated their services.
In August, the John Paul II House became home to nine students – including six from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, two from the Baton Rouge Diocese and one from the Shreveport Diocese – as well as a director and co-director. The New Orleans-area residents are Huy Tran, Emile Jeunesse, Dominic Sunseri, Daniel Augustin, Brandon Campo and Luke Lambright.
‘Striving for something more’
“A lot of people have asked, ‘What are you doing?’ and I just kind of tell them we’re a group of guys striving for something more,” said Daniel Ellender, 21, an accounting and entrepreneurship major from Mer Rouge, Louisiana, north of Monroe. “A lot of people are excited to hear about it and they respect it, too. So, they think it’s cool.”
“I kind of like the idea of having really good, authentic Catholic guys in the house and really striving to be like holy men, especially in college,” said Tran, 22, an accounting major from Metairie who attended Haynes Academy. “I mean, you’re going to rub elbows a couple of times and butt heads, but that really helps us grow in our own certain ways. It’s been challenging at times but also just really fruitful.”
The students meet individually with Trufant every three weeks to discuss their spiritual goals and “character formation.”
“We’ll talk about, ‘How’s your life? How is that coming? What are you doing? What plan do you have to grow or to read or to deepen your meditation, your contemplation and become the man you want to be?’” Trufant said.
“We’re trying to grow a culture of being courageous to tell the truth, unafraid of the consequences of the truth and letting that stand on its own. It’s been really fruitful to see people coming into themselves and standing up straight, a little more happy. The guys have been really awesome about speaking plainly with each other.”
Community meal and prayer
Every Wednesday night, the house gathers for a mandatory community meal, which is followed by a roundtable that includes Scripture study and routine house business, “such as practical ways of living in a big house together,” Trufant, the director, said.
“If you take your phone out while you’re at the dinner table, you have to recite a poem from a book of Catholic poetry, and I was the first offender because I showed up at dinner and I didn’t know the rule,” Father Merrick said, laughing. “They said, ‘Father, ignorance is not an excuse.’”
There is a pool table, left behind by Phi Delta Theta, but no television. Most of the first-floor furniture was donated by parishioners and friends.
A former bedroom on the second floor has been converted into a small chapel, which is still a work in progress while parishioners with woodworking skills craft an altar and tabernacle. Many of the house residents get up at 6 a.m. daily to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.
Echoes of Mother Teresa
An intriguing bond to St. Teresa of Calcutta and her Missionaries of Charity is celebrated in the blue-and-white stairwell leading to the second-floor bedrooms. In recent years, Trufant has led two groups of LSU students to Mother Teresa’s motherhouse.
“Phi Delta Theta’s colors were white and blue,” Trufant said, “so one of my coworkers who went to Calcutta with me saw this and freaked out and she said, ‘Don’t whitewash these walls. Let me paint Mother Teresa’s sari bottom on it, and then we can make this hallway a dedication to that space.’”
At the top of the steps is a portrait of the crucifixion, with the words, “I thirst” and “I quench,” just as it exists in Mother Teresa’s motherhouse.
“They also have a chalkboard on the stairwell where they write some really dope Scriptures every day,” Trufant said. “Every day they would put stuff on there.”
Gruvers are thankful
Father Merrick has kept in contact with Gruver’s parents, Stephen and Rae Ann, who came to Baton Rouge around the anniversary of his death. They had breakfast together in Baton Rouge on Sept. 8.
“They were grateful that we were in the house,” Father Merrick said. “They were really grateful that there’s a positive thing that’s happening in the house. I would say the same thing for Phi Delta Theta. They are very grateful that we’re in the house.”
The Gruvers have not met yet with any of the students living in the John Paul II House.
“The door is open for that, but I don’t know if they’re ready,” Father Merrick said.
Baton Rouge student Michael Vu said he hopes the John Paul II House becomes a sign of hope for LSU and for the Gruver family.
“It’s been interesting to think about how that tragedy has allowed for this gift, truly, to come about,” said Vu, 21, a double major in psychology and philosophy, whose brother is a priest. “And I thank God for the opportunities and the things that he’s done in our lives – from being able to take what was a terrible tragedy and bring about a sort of victory through that. We hope to continue to honor (Gruver’s) memory, using the house in a respectable and responsible way and living out Christ’s life on campus.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.