From science to seminary: A Creighton graduate’s unexpected path

Oct 09, 2023

After obtaining biology and entomology degrees, Lee Noel changed course and changed his life.

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Being an outdoorsman, I found out how much I enjoy praying outside, and my spiritual director taught me about contemplative prayer, specifically what it means to acknowledge God’s presence at all times.

By Cindy Murphy McMahon

Creighton alum Lee Noel has traveled far since his days at the University, but not in miles. The traveling he has done has been inward – spiritual – with plenty of detours. Originally from Sioux City, Iowa, Noel chose Creighton for several reasons.  

Family weekend fall 2019, annual seminary baseball game.
Family weekend fall 2019, annual seminary baseball game.

“I had friends older than me who told me they had quality experiences attending Creighton, and I knew I wanted to go to a Catholic school somewhere close to home. I was also interested in pre-medicine, and when I found out I could also play club hockey, that sealed the deal!”  

Noel, BSEVS’14, began a major in biology, with the intention to pursue medicine. Detour No. 1 starts here. 

After his sophomore year, he wasn’t feeling the way he thought he would about medicine as a profession and was more drawn to environmental science. 

“Our family grew up enjoying hunting, fishing and spending time outdoors,” Noel says. “Plus environmental science had classes I was really interested in, especially meteorology and animal behavior, so I switched and graduated with my B.S. in environmental science.” 

He enjoyed his time at Creighton, recalling particularly Fall Break Service & Justice Trips and the Cortina Living-Learning Community, which challenges students to connect passion for social justice with their academic and life goals. 

“Those were my first experiences with social justice and learning more deeply about how our Catholic faith is involved in every aspect of our life, not just for one hour on Sundays.” 

He also played club hockey all four years and joined Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, making friends through both that he still has today.  

Heading into the second semester of senior year, he wasn’t sure what his next step would be. 

“During our Christmas family reunion, my uncle who was working in the business school at the University of Wyoming invited me to come visit and consider graduate school there. Laramie sounded like a cool place, and since I had my aunt, uncle and two cousins there, it was appealing to check it out.” 

Lee Noel ranch hand in field near fence.

His plan was to pursue big game studies, such as researching elk or antelope migration patterns or wolf or coyote behaviors, but Detour No. 2 was about to take place. 

He settled on Wyoming, “but I was such a late applicant that all of those graduate programs were filled,” Noel says. “However, there was an opening in the entomology department.” 

He and his brothers had always enjoyed catching bugs growing up, “and our mom would capture monarch caterpillars for us, and we would feed them and observe them as they turned into butterflies.” 

So, he thought, “What the heck, I’ll apply for an entomology master’s program. I got accepted and took my first classes in insect studies when I arrived in Laramie.” 

Detour No. 3 was just around the bend. 

While in Wyoming, he began to feel “this slight invitation inside of me to begin building a deeper spiritual life.” 

His aunt and uncle invited him to join them at St. Paul’s Newman Center in Laramie, and he went on his first retreat in the fall of 2014, during which he had a powerful spiritual experience of God the Father’s love for him during Reconciliation. 

“It felt like a golden wave of mercy, joy and peace welling up in me. I never heard “be my priest” or “come follow me,” but from that point on I knew I wanted to spend more time at the Newman Center.” 

He says he was inspired by how much joy the students had while also having fun in their college lives, “and maintaining a sincere, personal relationship with Jesus.” He wanted that, too. 

“It was a huge privilege to get more involved with the ministry there, and I began going to daily Mass a bit. I was beginning to think that priesthood was a viable option after spending more time with the pastor there and getting to know the vocations director of the Diocese of Cheyenne.” 

Meanwhile, he finished his studies and, graduate degree in hand, he moved to Fort Collins, Colorado, to work in a lab studying mosquitoes. 

Yet something kept tugging at his heart, his spirit. 

He got involved at a local Catholic church and made new friends who invited him to Bible studies and Adoration of the Eucharist, which he says helped him develop a deeper prayer life. He had a girlfriend, played recreational hockey and baseball, and went hiking in the mountains. 

“But I still felt like I was being invited to consider the priesthood,” Noel says.  

“Toward the end of my second year in Colorado, I felt called to take the plunge and give seminary a shot for the Diocese of Cheyenne since they had been so supportive during my time in Laramie, and I felt good about being in Wyoming.” In August of 2019, he entered Mundelein Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois. 

The summers of 2022 and 2023 brought him back to Creighton to participate in the Institute for Priestly Formation (IPF). Creighton has hosted the IPF summer program for seminarians from across the U.S. since 1995. 

“The classes we took really helped me begin a more personal relationship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit,” Noel relates, “mediated through quiet, contemplative prayer time.”  

He says it was “a powerful experience to be in a completely different mindset, while also in very familiar surroundings. There were challenges to be sure, but I was quite joyful to reconnect with Brandeis cafeteria workers who remembered me from my days as a student and make new friends with seminarians from across the country.” 

Lee Noel ranch hand

This past summer he experienced a 30-day retreat through the IPF based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The silent retreat was difficult at first for the self-described extrovert, but he says it was “a good experience to try to maintain ‘monasticism of the heart’ while on a busy campus. 

“Being an outdoorsman, I found out how much I enjoy praying outside, and my spiritual director taught me about contemplative prayer, specifically what it means to acknowledge God’s presence at all times.” 

He says he is “getting more comfortable with recognizing that my life is about remaining in communion with God at all times and recognizing God’s presence in everything I do and in everyone I encounter.” 

Noel expects to be ordained a transitional deacon next spring of 2024 and then likely ordained a priest in the spring of 2025. 

He is content and at peace with where his life’s detours have taken him and has many hopes for the future of the Church he has been called to serve.  

Most of all, he hopes to help people know, first and foremost, “that they are deeply, infinitely, personally loved by God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. 

“I also hope the Catholic Church continues to emphasize the importance of the Eucharist in our private prayer life and in our public life, where we see everyone as a member of the Body of Christ and love everyone as our neighbor, as if they are Jesus Christ.”