There is something symbolic about the campus footprint of the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Almost at its very center — UConn’s heart, one might say — is “Religious Row,” building after building along North Eagleville Road that are spiritual homes for the university’s nearly 20,000 students. There’s a new Islamic center. Hillel is the center for Jewish life. And there are homes for Congregationalists, Episcopalians and others, including Catholics, who are estimated to make up more than half of student enrollment.

“There is a large religious presence here,” said Father John Antonelle, parochial vicar of the university’s St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel, the parish for UConn’s Catholic faculty, staff and students. “We are very prominent right here on campus, all these faiths. It’s right off the main artery that goes through campus; and so, the students pass right by us, constantly going to and from class.”

Catholic ministry at UConn hasn’t always had a strong pulse. Student vocations have flatlined, with just one recent graduate transitioning to religious life. And like their cohorts at other secular universities, many of UConn’s Catholic students “just identify with Catholicism but aren’t practicing,” Father Antonelle said.

But the heartbeat at St. Thomas is growing stronger.

“We have a long way to go yet, but there has definitely been an increase in the students utilizing our center and being present here,” Father Antonelle said. “It is a wonderful place, a haven for the faithful to come to as they go through studies and stress and deal with shifting away from high school to college and being away from home.

“We are kind of like their home away from home, especially when they are regularly practicing Catholics.”

TLC and Focus

A late vocation, the 57-year-old Father Antonelle had been ordained just three years, with only two parish assignments, when Norwich Bishop Michael Cote named him to head St. Thomas in July 2009. The diocese took over campus ministry there from the Jesuits. The chapel serves as a parish for campus Catholics as well as those from surrounding towns.

“I was a little intimidated,” he said about the prospect of shepherding thousands of Catholic students. “I had no formal experience in doing it. And just thinking about the sheer number of students I would be dealing with — but I kind of wrapped my mind about it thinking that I’m going to be in a parish ... with a huge youth group, and that kind of helped me to get a handle on it.”

The mission at St. Thomas, Father Antonelle said, is to help the students establish and to deepen their relationship with Christ. “We begin there, and then guide them to put their faith into action, to be involved with the needs of the community,” he said.

That happens most visibly with TLC — Tom’s Leadership Council, a student-run organization fostering fellowship and spirituality through social and service events for UConn students, including visits to nursing homes, assistance at shelters and service in soup kitchens. TLC also hosts an annual spring retreat.

Paul Secola, a senior strength-and-conditioning major, arrived at UConn with a lax faith life. “I was not really practicing,” he said.

But he joined TLC, “which exposed me to college students who kept the faith outside of home.”

TLC’s impact recently has been amplified by Focus — the Fellowship of Catholic University Students — which arrived at UConn about the same time as Father Antonelle.

“They have been very instrumental in engaging the students on campus, making many aware that we are here and inviting them to St. Thomas,” Father Antonelle said. “Focus helps the students grow in their relationship with Christ, and then, through TLC, put that faith into action and get involved not only in the spiritual sense, but also in contributing to society.”

That was Secola’s experience. He said his faith began to grow in the middle of his sophomore year, when he attended a Focus conference.

“I experienced God in ways that I had never experienced (him) before, and I was on fire with Christ,” said Secola, who now is TLC co-president. “Ever since then, faith has been a major part of my life. Focus is a huge tool to spread the word and is an advantage because the missionaries are our peers and we can relate to them.”

Focus missionaries at UConn organize student Bible studies, offer student-to-student mentoring and host on-campus events. About 90 students take part in the Bible studies. Last year, 10 UConn students attended the Focus national conference in Orlando, Fla. In March, several UConn students went on a Focus-sponsored mission trip to El Salvador.

“The way in which the missionaries and students involved with Focus form relationships with other students in order to introduce them to the person of Jesus Christ is the most successful way of evangelization on this campus,” said UConn student Kaitlyn Gilday, who leads a Focus Bible study and mentors other students.

Gilday said there are many Connecticut students “with the desire to become a Focus missionary.”

Other St. Thomas activities at UConn include the Loyola Colloquium, a lecture series promoting university-church dialogue; mission trips to the Appalachian Mountains in Eastern Kentucky and to Haiti; social events; and several retreats of varying length. At the Aquinas Center, students can socialize, relax or grab coffee and snacks while studying.

Confessions are heard regularly, and daily Mass attendance is flourishing. When Father Antonelle arrived, the noon Mass attracted about a dozen worshippers — few of them students. Now, about 50 people attend that Mass, three-quarters of them students. The four weekend Masses typically are standing-room only in the chapel, which seats about 250 people.

As for converts, the St. Thomas Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults program, run by parishioners, welcomed six catechumens into the Church last year.

And, finally, there are encouraging signs for vocations. Father Antonelle said he is not aware of any former UConn students who became priests or religious as a result of campus ministry prior to his arrival. But one student who was about to graduate when Father Antonelle arrived has since entered the seminary; he attributes his vocation to off-campus priests.

Today, Father Antonelle meets every other week with eight men discerning a call to the priesthood. They use the discernment booklet “To Save a Thousand Souls” as their guide.

Such change, Father Antonelle said, is what Bishop Cote envisioned when the diocese took over UConn’s campus ministry.

“The young people here are at a time in their lives when they’re making decisions for the rest of their lives, and we just want them to be aware that a religious vocation is something to be considered as well,” Father Antonelle said. “Being a part of that is ... very rewarding. Seeing their energy, the students’ openness and searching for answers is a wonderful opportunity for me to be a part of and interact with them to help them along that path.”

At the University of Connecticut, that path now often begins on Religious Row.

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.

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