JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — For Matthew Drysdale, a Catholic student attending the University of North Florida, Frassati Newman Hall was a godsend for his faith and academic career.
“Overall, it has been a fantastic experience,” the Catholic civil-engineering major said of his life in Catholic faith-based student housing while attending a secular university. Drysdale told the Register that the hall is a “welcoming” and “laid-back” community comprised of Catholics and non-Catholics with similar values; a chapel is open 24/7, where sacraments like Mass and confession and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are readily available. Weekly events bring residents together, from Bible study to sports events.
The other benefit for Drysdale is that his faith is thriving — not simply surviving — at Frassati Hall, which serves not only UNF students as Drysdale, but other students attending surrounding Jacksonville-area colleges and universities. It has none of the challenges to conscience or faith that Drysdale experienced living in a regular dorm at a different university.
“I can focus here a lot more,” he said, adding that the Catholic environment has also helped him “grow closer to God” and discern whether he has a call to the priesthood or married life.
Having one’s faith thrive and grow in college — particularly on a secular campus — is not particularly easy for college-age Catholics. According to Pew Research, the percentage of college graduates identifying as Christian has declined from 73% (2007) to 64% in 2015. The number of people identified religiously as “nones” went from 17% up to 24% in the same time period. Pew reports that U.S. Catholics have seen the greatest rate of attrition.
But Frassati Hall, which opened this academic year, is part of a growing realization among campus ministers that Catholics need community in order to grow in faith.
The spiritual battleground for the future of Catholicism’s Millennial generation is at public or secular universities. According to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, 5 million Catholics attend secular colleges, while just 500,000 Catholics seek their degrees at Catholic institutions.
The past two years have seen the construction of five faith-based housing projects (known as “Newman Halls”) with attached or adjacent Newman centers at the University of Nebraska, Troy University, Texas A&M at Kingsville, Florida Tech and the University of North Florida. The Newman name is a reference to Blessed John Henry Newman, the cardinal-convert who was committed to academia and faith on campus in England.
“I think the faith-based housing at public universities, in this day and age, is a great opportunity for students of faith and others to experience a much healthier environment, both spiritually and even just at a human level,” said Father Blair Gaynes, the chaplain at Frassati Hall.
Having faith-based housing attached to the Newman Center has increased the priest’s reach and presence among students. When he began ministry on campus five years ago, Father Gaynes started with a tight-knit group of 15-20 students. The hall has more than 300 students, and students are constantly stopping in his office to talk.
“The idea is: You draw people into the center, to the heart, to the Eucharist, and then empower them to go out and share that and participate in the mission of the Church actively,” he said.
Other Christians Interested
The faith-based dorms also serve non-Catholics. The majority of the 360 students residing at Troy University’s Newman Center in Alabama — right in the buckle of the country’s “Bible Belt” — are Protestant Christians, according to Kelsey Burgans, assistant campus minister and community director at the Newman Center.
“They’re really drawn by the character and ideals of the Newman Center,” Burgans said, with its chapel with the Blessed Sacrament for adoration and daily and Sunday Mass; Bible studies, social activities and Fellowship of Catholic University Students missionaries and outreach are also included.
“We don’t sugarcoat anything, but we love to help our students find the best way to be ourselves and to love Christ the most,” Burgans said.
Mary Stewart, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in accounting, told the Register that Troy’s Newman Center “feels like a second family.” She has lived at the hall for a year and a half. Her friendships with fellow students in the hall have been an opportunity to share her faith — if she has any questions, Father Den Irwin is just a phone call or text away — and has the “peace and encouragement” to grow in her spiritual life.
“I love that I can go anytime I want and pray in the chapel and have that quiet time,” Stewart said.
Tried, True and Tested
The model of this form of Catholic campus ministry on secular campuses originated at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center and its Newman Hall at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., where 600 students live — men and women residing on separate floors in the same building.
Annette Popernik, 21, has lived at Illinois’ Newman Hall for four years, starting as an undergraduate. Popernik, who is in her first year in the university’s mental-health graduate program, said that when she looked at colleges, she wanted “to find a place that would help me grow.” Her parents wanted the same thing for her, and the deal was sealed when they visited the campus and Newman Hall.
“Mom was so assured that this would be a good place,” said Popernik, who is now part of the resident-assistant team.
“It can be hard at a school to make friends, but living at Newman you feel loved and cared for,” she said. “No one struggles alone, and we make sure of that.”
Father Luke Spannagel is the head chaplain at the Newman Center, and while the hall puts him in close proximity to the students, he points out they also have proximity to Jesus.
“For most of them, it will be the only experience in their lives where they live in the same building where Jesus is present in the Blessed Sacrament,” he said.
The priest explained that the Catholic community formed by Newman Hall is producing vocations.
“We do a lot of marriage prep,” he said. And others discern a vocation to the priesthood, just as Father Spannagel did as a student at Newman Hall many years ago.
“I definitely grew here, first as a man and, secondly, as a man of God,” he said. “The friendships I made here helped me in my discernment quite a bit.”
More Dorms in Works
The Newman Student Housing Fund has been responsible for constructing four out of the five Newman Halls at public universities that have been built over the past two years. It is building another at the University of South Florida, with an anticipated completion date of fall 2017.
“The demand has been pretty solid,” the company’s president, Matt Zerrusen, told the Register. “There are a lot of ministries out there that want to explore faith-based housing, but either don’t have the land it takes or don’t have a ministry big enough to support it.”
“This is not a ‘build it, and they will come,’” he added. “The foundation has to be there, or it is infinitely harder” to expand a Catholic community on campus.
For Frassati Hall, that vision came to life with the commitment of Father Gaynes’ bishop, Felipe Estévez of the Diocese of St. Augustine, who believed this was where the Newman Center needed to go before the team even knew about the Newman Student Housing Fund.
As Father Gaynes said, “I think Catholic families and parents need to know this is happening, this is available, and they can support it and take advantage of it.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.