Jesuit Superior Gilbert Sunghera, S.J. Finding His Way in the Great Northwest

headshot of Jesuit superior Gilbert Sunghera.
Jesuit Superior Gilbert Sunghera

March 07, 2024
Gonzaga University News Service

Father Gilbert Sunghera, S.J., had only been to Gonzaga for three days many years ago before accepting the assignment as superior of the Della Strada Jesuit community earlier this year.

But he did so with some trepidation.

“I grew up in the post-suburban communities of Los Angeles and have worked primarily in urban areas,” says Fr. Sunghera, who most recently served as superior and associate professor of architecture at Jesuit University of Detroit Mercy.

“I’m afraid of nature. My blood pressure goes up when I’m out in the countryside,” he says, perhaps with a measure of authenticity blending with his broad smile. But an urban snob he certainly is not.

“This is a whole new environment for me to grow to love, which won’t be hard given the natural beauty of the area” he says.

“I love the spirit of this place.” He recites examples: In the Kennel at men’s and women’s basketball games, at ash distribution on Ash Wednesday, from parishioners at St. Al’s and G-Prep, and engaging the Jesuits in Rocky Mountain Mission, who work with area tribes.

“Students seem joyous. They seemed to enjoy that we (Jesuits) were throwing candy to them from our second-floor balcony on Mardi Gras Tuesday (the day before Lent began), before the big faculty/staff open house.”

He seems to be fitting in well, with two months on the job and some exposure to the outdoors.

The title for this role used to be rector but was switched to superior to make it easier for the leader of the province to name successors.

Fr. Sunghera supports 26 men who base themselves out of the multi-apostolic Della Strada community. Four work full time for Gonzaga University, two work at Gonzaga Prep, two at St. Aloysius Church and grade school, four live and work on tribal reservations, one lives and works in Boise, and another at the local diocesan seminary. Others do pastoral work in the area. Four Jesuit grad students live in the community, with another soon to join he cadre. Two Jesuits, Bryan Pham and Pat Conroy, are chaplains in our residence halls.

“At times I feel like I’m a glorified house mother,” Fr. Sunghera quips. “My role is to make sure our Jesuits have what they need to do their work and that their personal needs are taken care of."

One of my immediate priorities is discerning how Jesuits continue their historic ministry to our Native American communities as the current Jesuits age out. I have developed a good ear for listening and I will be hearing from those we serve.”

Part of his listening skills were honed during his years as director of the University of Detroit Mercy Liturgical Space Consulting Service, a nonprofit consulting and design firm serving as a “translator” between architects and religious communities on building plans for sacred spaces.

“I did a lot of work on sacred spaces and sustainability projects,” Fr. Sunghera said. One example was serving as a consultant for the new Jesuit residence at Fairfield University.

“We chose an architectural firm that had a reverence for the sacred, especially the liturgical practice of the community in its academic pursuits. The university planning office reviewed the plans and said they must eliminate all sustainable elements in the building to make it cost-effective. But our architects challenged the Jesuit community” to stand up for their aspirations and Jesuits, along with the architects, convinced the university to keep the geothermal heating and cooling systems, as well as other sustainable elements, in place. This was in line with Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ care for our common home. The Jesuit community came up with additional funds to help support this effort.

The New York Times ran a story about the university’s commitment to green construction in reaction to the building design, “and now the university is championing green building projects across campus,” Fr. Sunghera says.

The architects asked the proper questions and had a great respect for the religious sensibilities of the Jesuits, as the three sides were converging on a proper suitable compromise. “I learned a lot by listening.”

Just a few of his dozens of design and consulting projects include the Jesuit residence at Brophy College Prep in Phoenix, chapels at Jesuit High in Sacramento, Loyola High in Detroit, Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Interfaith Chapel at UDM, hospital chapel in Livonia, Michigan, and a Jesuit retirement community in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He is currently working on renovations to the Basilica of Saint Mary in Minneapolis, as well as updating its master plan for the next 100 years of service to the city.

In the Beginning

Growing up near the coast in Southern California, Fr. Sunghera had water as his playground. But it was not until he was a student at University of California, Irvine that he became entranced by the contemporary architecture that was springing up all over campus. He studied environmental psychology at Irvine, learning how people are affected by their environments.

He received his Master of Architecture from University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and volunteered at a homeless shelter near Marquette. “That’s where I first heard of the Jesuits. I had grown up in a Franciscan parish near L.A.,” Fr. Sunghera says. His master’s thesis focused on an architectural response to the homeless.

He returned to California to work for an L.A. non-profit architecture firm that designed clinics, shelters and low-cost housing. He was also discerning a call to the priesthood.

“There were a lot of protests over what was happening to the Church in Central and South America,” Fr. Sunghera remembers. “I had just dropped in the mail my application to the Jesuit novitiate when I heard on the radio that six Jesuits had been killed in El Salvador. I immediately wondered if I could get back to the mailbox in time to retrieve my application.”

He entered the Jesuits in 1991 at age 31. More education followed – with Philosophy studies at St. Louis University, his Master of Divinity degree at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and a post-professional Master of Sacred Theology from Yale focused on sacred architecture.

“I entered the Jesuits (like most Jesuits ready to surrender past passions) with thus giving up my life in architecture,” Fr. Sunghera said. But after helping the province by assessing the design proposal for the new headquarters of the Jesuits in Los Gatos, Fr. Sunghera’s superior told him about a university in Detroit with a school of architecture.

In addition to teaching, Fr. Sunghera enjoyed his work with the Liturgical Space Consulting Service with an emphasis on contemporary design. He will continue to consult part-time for the service as he serves this new role as superior.

Taking a Renewed Look at Life

Now, he’s assessing his new life in the great Northwest, learning about space outside the city and getting to know the campus and its community.

He is the son of Indian immigrants. His father was Sikh, his mother “very” Catholic, he says. “It is wonderful to see that we even have Sikh students here on campus, and it’s nice to have such religious diversity here,” the new superior says.

He also thinks it is important to encourage more diversity on campus “so that our students learn not just to tolerate diversity, but to become engaged in it."

"If we don’t attract students engaged in the larger world our students will struggle engaging in a world different from their world here. Socioeconomic diversity is part of this. It’s important to bolster our efforts to attract students who might show academic promise but have not had the opportunities or access to traditional college- prep institutions.

“The University is spot-on in its efforts to develop more diversity here,” he says.

And Fr. Sunghera is learning his new spot on campus quite well, but freely admits – with a smile – it is a work in progress.

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