Nearly 21 million students attend  colleges and universities in the United States, yet fewer than 1 million attend Catholic institutions of higher learning. Many American bishops are recognizing that as many as 90% of American Catholic students are attending college at secular institutions, and they have devoted ample resources to establishing and maintaining vibrant Newman Centers to minister to this transitory population.

The Register spoke to representatives of three such thriving centers, to learn about their ministries and discover their secrets to success.

The St. Lawrence Center at the University of Kansas (KU, KUCatholic.org) serves an official membership of 1,000 students (on a campus of 25,000) and 150 KU families.

It has two priests on staff, two religious sisters and four lay missionaries of Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus), young laypeople who organize Bible studies and other activities to draw students to the center, as well as teachers who teach theology and liberal arts. The Catholic center is located at a prime location on the KU campus and is the most active of all religious denominations at KU.

The center’s director and chaplain is Father Mitchel Zimmerman, a KU grad himself.

As he said, “We serve in a variety of capacities, training students to be great parishioners and professionals. We’ve seen lots of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and many strong marriages come from our students.”

“We pride ourselves on great liturgies, which are beautiful, authentic and draw parishioners to Christ,” he added.

Over the past 30 years, the center has seen 42 alumni become priests, four male religious, 14 female religious and eight in formation for the priesthood.

Father Zimmerman himself sang in the St. Lawrence Center choir while a student, and he recalls singing for Pope St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. He “heard his call” while praying in the St. Lawrence chapel.

The center hosts many events, including a recent barbecue (“lots of events with food”), leads Bible studies and retreats and participates in campus welcome events.

“Authentic friendships will always win the day,” Father Zimmerman explained of the center’s outreach.

Three hundred freshmen registered at the beginning of the school year, for example, and the Center staff called each, inviting them to the center to take a tour and get to know the staff. The students were not only encouraged to come to center events, but to return with friends.

When Father Robert Matya of the Newman Center/St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL, HuskerCatholic.com) was named chaplain 19 years ago, the center welcomed an average of 400 students for two Sunday Masses. Today, 2,400 students come to four Sunday Masses, thanks to the center’s efforts to draw more of the estimated 6,000 Catholic students (of a total UNL student population of 25,000) to regular participation in the life of the Church.

The center has a full-time staff of eight, but a real key to the success in the growth of the center, said Father Matya, is the presence of 10 Focus missionaries.

They have been at work 18 of Father Matya’s 19 years at the school: “They’re definitely a huge part of our growth.”

Father Matya said that as a chaplain he has learned to continually reach out to students. “Our job is to go out and do our best to draw them to Christ.”

The young people he meets are often open to discussions about God, “as they recognize that many of the promises made to them by the culture are a lie.” Especially effective, he continued, are “peers who are happy and joyful and living lives of faith.”

An important asset to the Lincoln Newman Center has been the opening of a “Neo-Gothic,” traditional, 650-seat church, more than double the size of the previous church. Features of the church include stained-glass windows, including one that is among the largest installed in a Catholic church in more than a century.

The church was dedicated in 2015, prompting a curiosity among students on the surrounding campus to explore the house of worship. As Father Matya said, “The students have really embraced it.”

The center has seen many vocations to the priesthood and religious life. Lincoln Bishop James Conley estimates that 100 of the Diocese of Lincoln’s 139 priests came through UNL’s Newman Center. Bishop Conley also established the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, offering lectures and courses, at the Newman Center.

UNL has many religious ministries on campus, with the Catholic presence being the largest. “It has been fantastic,” Father Matya said.

Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center (OurLadyofWisdom.org) has been serving students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) since 1923. The campus has 19,000 students, about 11,000 of whom are Catholic. The center has a staff of 35, of whom five are Focus missionaries.

“We’ve enjoyed exponential growth,” said Father Bryce Sibley, the center’s pastor for the past six years. “And our students and families come here by choice and tend to be more active and engaged than a typical parish.”

He has seen 47 students go on to seminary or religious life since he began his tenure and noted that all four seminarians who will be ordained for the diocese in 2018 are alums of the center.

Future plans, he said, include the building of a new church, which will replace the 75-year-old building the center currently uses.

Construction will begin as needed funds are raised.

He lauded the “relational” ministry as an effective means of evangelizing young people and noted “the students like honest, frank speech and want to hear the Gospel in its entirety.”

Jim Graves writes from

Newport Beach, California.