She wasn’t looking for love in 2011 when she arrived at St. Francis Mission, a ministry of the Jesuits among the 20,000 Lakota (Sioux) people on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. She was looking to strengthen her relationship with God.
Davanne Piccini, 26, joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), an organization engaging young people in vital service withinpoor communities, looking for an experience different from anything else she had ever done. She knew she wanted to dedicate a year, and the time right after graduating from Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, was probably her only chance.
But it was living on the reservation, located in the second poorest county in the United States, where suicide, alcohol and sexual abuse are prevalent, that the Alabama native would come into a deeper relationship with God and find love.
Part of being a JVC volunteer is living by the four core values – spirituality, being grounded in the Ignatian tradition that God is active in the world; simple living, having basic needs met and living in solidarity with people who are poor and marginalized; community, living with other volunteers who share meals, reflect, pray and serve together; and social justice, working alongside those who are disenfranchised to understand the realities of poverty and justice faced by much of the world.
Michael O’Sullivan, 27, a Chicago native, had been working at the mission for a year as a DJ at KINI-FM when Davanne joined the community as a religious education teacher.
Raised in a Catholic family, Michael said he fought his parents when he was told he had to go to church every Sunday, but in seventh or eighth grade he got involved in things like youth group, and then retreats, World Youth Day to Sydney in 2008 and in retreat programs at Marquette, but the JVC experience would play a big role in his faith formation as well.
“Spiritual direction on the reservation was just phenomenal for growing in faith and getting to know yourself better as well as your relationship with God … especially in the middle of this huge, somewhat depressing place,” he said.
He made his way there because he wanted to “pay it forward” with some post-graduate volunteering after attending Marquette University on the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship – a full tuition and housing college scholarship for golf caddies.
Being Catholic had been easy for Davanne, who grew up in a Catholic home school family, and attended Catholic high school and college. It wasn’t until she was in her 20s and experienced college and then JVC that she faced tougher questions. It was then, she said, her relationship with God “really started going somewhere.”
Davanne would be living, praying and working alongside Michael, and that’s one of many reasons she considered him only a friend when she arrived.
“One is that you’re community members living together, working together, if it were to go wrong, then it affects everyone,” she said in an interview with the Catholic Herald last August. “So I think we were trying to avoid that, but having that time, so much time, on the reservation, because your community quickly becomes your everything out there, you really get to know each other well.”
They noticed within the first couple of weeks that they had a connection through their matching “Belize rings.”
Michael had traveled to Belize for two weeks through a program at Marquette to do service work during a winter break. Davanne did service work at the same location.
“We learned through noticing these rings that the library that my (volunteer) week started, Davanne’s group worked on only two weeks later,” Michael said. “So, we slowly put the dots together – it just seemed a little serendipitous that that had happened.”
“Coincidental at the time,” Davanne laughed.
The two became close friends in the first couple of months as they worked together on various projects – organizing family nights and other free, safe events in the community.
“It really forced us to get along, learn how to problem solve and communicate effectively,” Michael said.
He decided to express his feelings for her in December, in what Davanne described as “the cutest love note that I could just not take right then at all.”
“That didn’t go over very well, so it was tense for a couple of months,” Michael said, noting that they still had to work together.
Davanne had been in two serious relationships and had done some dating before coming to the reservation, and she made it clear that she wasn’t there for that reason.
“I came to believe that that year was a year for me to learn how to be just me and God, don’t seek out a relationship, which had kind of been something I was used to doing in college,” she said. “It made it a little bit harder to recognize what I had in Mike.”
Michael had also been in several serious relationships – one where he talked about a future with someone. He felt different with Davanne, because they were grounded in faith together – something his past relationships had lacked.
During the next four months, Michael tried not to like Davanne as they worked together. He said the harder he tried, the more he wanted to be with her.
“There was definitely a lot of prayer and a lot of prayer time helped me love her as a friend, as well as just returning our relationship back to how good it was before I let her know that I cared so deeply for her,” Michael said.
Davanne turned to her spiritual director for guidance.
“My spiritual director got me to see sometimes you just try things and you don’t actually worry about can you see it all the way through to the end; just give it a try and see where God takes it from there,” she said.
By April, they started talking more and decided that because they both liked each other and worked well together, they would give it a shot.
“It was really hard for me to date him,” Davanne said. “I mean, in my mind, in less than a couple of months, I’m from Alabama, you’re from Chicago, how are we going to make this work? And I really only wanted to get into a relationship that I see going somewhere.”
She made a pros and cons chart.
They even went on a silent retreat, and both spent time discussing the relationship with their spiritual directors and prayed – a lot.
“But after the silent retreat, like it seemed like that hesitation went out the door,” Michael said.
At the end of their volunteer year, both were asked by Jesuit Fr. John Hatcher, president of the mission, to stay on board as stewardship officers or fundraisers. They relocated to the Marian Center for Nonprofits in St. Francis where they would serve for more than two years, visiting donors throughout the country and telling people about the mission and its aim to break the welfare mentality prevalent on the reservation.
Within the first couple of months in Milwaukee, working in new positions away from the reservation where their story began, Michael said they were talking about their future together. He proposed on his birthday, Dec. 7, 2013.
They acquired a new set of matching rings when they exchanged vows Oct. 18, 2014, in St. Joseph Chapel at Spring Hill College in Mobile, and moved there shortly after concluding their work for the mission at the end of January. Many of their Jesuit friends traveled from around the U.S. to celebrate and participate in their day, including Fr. Hatcher, who presided at the ceremony.
The couple also exchanged vows standing on a Star Quilt, part of Native American tradition, they received as a wedding gift from the St. Francis Mission staff, which Michael said connected a significant part of their history together.
As they settle into their new home and search for a parish, the couple have been busy starting a real estate investing company together, and Michael is working on incorporating a media company with a focus on social media and website management for nonprofits and small businesses. The mission is one of his clients.
“I almost feel like God let us come to the decision that we wanted to be together,” Davanne said, comparing it to the idea of God bringing her out into the desert.
“He brought me to a place where there wasn’t much and it pulled me out of the busy college lifestyle, and it was kind of like a year-long retreat, one that was kind of lonely and difficult to get through and I, through that time, my relationship with him really grew,” she said. “It was the first, kind of the first, time where I would say, ‘God I need this’ or ‘I want to do this for you and the people here, but I can’t do it without this; I need your help,’ and then it would happen. I think it was a year of learning to trust God.”