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Building upon the model pioneered at the University of Illinois, the Newman Student Housing Fund creates and operates faith-based housing on a growing number of campuses.
BY PETER JESSERER SMITH
DALLAS — It’s a fresh take on a Newman idea that could ignite a revolution in Catholic campus ministry and bring relief to parents sending their children to secular colleges and universities. While parents worry about how their students’ faith will survive the college-party scene, one man has a vision to give Catholic students a new living option: dorms where they can experience the Newman scene.
Matt Zerrusen, a 31-year-old devout Catholic and entrepreneur, believes faith-based housing that serves hundreds of college students is the game changer the Catholic Church needs in the New Evangelization. And it’s a win-win, he said, because housing is something U.S. secular colleges and universities are desperate for.
“Probably 70% of Catholic students stop going to Mass, and 50% lose their faith when they go away to college,” Zerrusen said. “They lack the support of a community they might have had in their family or parish, and some end up living in dorms outright hostile to living their faith.”
That lack of a faith-filled student community is a void that Zerrusen, president of the Newman Student Housing Fund, wants to fill for college-bound Catholics, most of whom do not attend Catholic institutions.
While 5.5 million Catholics attend higher education, only 500,000 Catholics actually attend Catholic colleges and universities, according to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association.
Zerrusen started the Newman Student Housing Fund, a limited liability company backed by private equity, in July 2010. The for-profit fund builds faith-based living communities attached or close to established Newman Centers or Catholic campus-ministry centers. It finances the housing, owns and operates them and creates a baseline of rules for student living.
Matt Zerrusen is also vice president and co-founder of Immaculate Conception Investments, LLC, a private-equity firm that targets investment opportunities consistent with Catholic values. His father, Bill Zerrusen, is the co-owner of the family's 3Z Printing Co. and a member of the board of trustees at EWTN, the National Catholic Register’s parent company.
Prior to the Newman Student Housing Fund, the Zerrusens started The Newman Connection, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing physical and spiritual support, resources and networking on a national level for established Newman Centers on college and university campuses.
“It’s all about the vision of Blessed [John Henry] Newman — to create a living, learning community inside a secular campus,” Matt Zerrusen said. “We want to provide a housing environment conducive to the students’ development.”
Rooted in Catholic Teaching
Zerrusen said everything about the housing, from design to basic rules, has roots in Catholic social teaching.
“Ideally, we want separate buildings for men and women, but, at the very minimum, we design housing units so men and women live on separate floors with secure access codes and key fobs. We also have a strict 'no overnight guest of the opposite sex' policy and put in place a curfew,” he said.
While the Newman Student Housing Fund owns the housing and takes care of the rent and bills, Zerrusen said the business model gives campus ministers the freedom to focus on creating a Christ-centered culture.
“We tell campus ministries: 'We handle the physical; you handle the social,'” Zerrusen said.
Zerrusen moved out to Dallas, where the friendly business climate and strong economy convinced him it was the right place to base the company. His father serves as the fund’s executive chairman and meets with bishops and campus ministers to develop ideas for student housing that fits their needs.
Zerrusen said he pitched his idea and the Newman vision to recruit two key team members, Steven Cole and his business partner, Cal Axtell. Both men have experience handling hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate and were excited to come on board.
“We are really blessed to have these two guys on our team,” Zerrusen said. “Steve handles all the real-estate development work, and Cal is a real financial whiz — he knows how to put together a real investment vehicle that is sellable on the market.”
Although faith-based housing is not new to Newman Centers, only a handful of them provide housing, and on a much smaller scale. With one exception, they do not have housing that would serve hundreds of students, as Zerrusen envisions, at secular universities.
“But you have a much greater opportunity for evangelization when you do something this large,” he said.
Zerrusen was inspired to start the Newman Student Housing Fund after getting to know the St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Big Ten university's flagship campus. He knew about the challenges of other campus ministries and spent weeks extensively studying St. John’s: how it worked, why it worked and what could be improved.
St. John’s features a residence hall housing up to 600 students (men and women live segregated on separate floors) that attaches directly to the Newman Center and the chapel, which serves more than 5,000 students on a given Sunday.
“All my residents — and we have about 586 students in our dorm — really become collaborators with us in campus ministry,” said Msgr. Greg Ketcham, St. John’s chaplain. “The kind of interaction we have with the residents really expands our outreach to the entire student body.”
Msgr. Ketcham spoke extensively with both Matt and Bill Zerrusen about St. John’s and the vocations it produces consistently. Besides strong marriages, Msgr. Ketcham sees an average of 10 St. John’s residents a year pursue priestly or religious vocations.
Msgr. Ketcham said the St. John’s concept, of a place where campus ministers walk the halls and reach students right where they live, have meals and socialize, began in 1927, but it never took off anywhere else because most Catholics back then went to Catholic institutions. But it’s an old idea with urgent relevance today.
“The Church has to go where the people are,” he said.
A Good Fit at FIT
However, a great obstacle today to building faith-based housing on St. John’s scale is simply the cost. Most Catholic campus ministries do not have the financial heft.
Father Doug Bailey, a Salvatorian campus-ministry chaplain at the Florida Institute of Technology, wanted to build large-scale student housing for his ministry five years ago. He had four vacant acres right next to the church.
“I floated the idea with the bishop [John Noonan of Orlando], and he liked the idea. It didn’t get off the ground then, because I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know anybody,” he said.
In Texas, Adam Koll, the director of the Diocese of Corpus Christi’s Office of Youth Ministry, learned about the Newman Student Housing Fund and took a tour of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center a couple of years ago.
“I wanted to create a culture of vocation at Texas A&M in Kingsville. I saw we had a lot of things in common with the University of Illinois,” Koll said. “But it is hard to create that culture when you have only a student center.”
The Newman Student Housing Fund worked closely with both Bishop Noonan and Corpus Christi Bishop Michael Mulvey. Ground broke in December on new student dorms for 140 residents that will be next to the FIT Campus Ministry Center and Chapel. They broke ground in October on the Texas A&M St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center, with its 300-seat chapel and residence hall for 287 students. Residents will move into both sites in August 2013.
The campus-ministry model that began at St. John’s could be surpassed in the coming years. According to Koll, their new Newman Center has enough acreage to expand and develop male and female residence halls that could house 900 students.
Zerrusen said they have more discussions under way with potential clients and plan to scale and model another concept of faith-based dorms.
Prayer is key to the Newman Student Housing Fund’s success — both present and future — Zerrusen said. At each groundbreaking, Zerrusen has the bishop bless the site and asks people to pray for those building the dorm and to pray at the site.
“The foundation of anything great is not just based on bricks and mortar; it must be based on a foundation of prayer,” Zerrusen said. “We have a very strong devotion to the Blessed Mother. Prayer is at the very center of what we do in our business. We hope that in these facilities it is the heart of what students do as well.”
Father Bailey said he is excited for the upcoming new chapter in his ministry: when the FIT faith-based dorms open in August 2013.
“The Zerrusens have got a great vision,” he said. “This whole idea is something that campus ministers have tried to do in the past and have wanted to do. Now, here is somebody who has the means and opportunity to make it happen. And I think this plan is right on target.”
Peter J. Smith writes from Rochester, New York.