When things get difficult for Father David Ruchinski at the University of Florida’s Catholic Student Center, he need only think of a predecessor. What Father John Francis Conoley went through puts things in perspective.

Father Conoley, who founded Catholic campus ministry at UF, had plenty of friends on the Gainesville campus, Catholics and Protestants alike. That included Florida’s president, Albert Alexander Murphree, a Baptist.

But Father Conoley also had enemies — the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1924, a year after Father Conoley established a student center and residence hall for UF’s 30 or so Catholic students, Klansmen abducted the priest, beat and castrated him, then left him on the steps of a Catholic church 30 miles east in Palatka, Fla.

His crime? He was accused of evangelizing to Protestant students.

“Trying to turn them into Papists,” Father Ruchinski said.

The priest assigned to replace Father Conoley arrived to find the Knights of Columbus outside of the church, armed with shotguns in response to the KKK’s threat to burn it.

The story, documented on the Catholic Student Center website, CatholicGators.com, is the most extreme example of anti-Catholicism on Florida’s campus. But not the only one.

About 60 years ago, Father Ruchinski said, one of Florida’s presidents swore publicly that he never would allow a Catholic faculty member on campus.

“This was a resolute Protestant and a Protestant university,” Father Ruchinski said, “and Catholics were not welcome.”

Certainly, the atmosphere has changed. In 1967, for instance, Catholic former UF Newman Club member Stephen O’Connell became president of the university. And today there are about 10,000 Catholics among the university’s 53,000 students.

And the Catholic Student Center is as needed as ever.

“Now the threats aren’t really physical violence and open hostility, but there’s ambivalent secularism, certainly, and (an) anti-religion mentality that pervades secular universities,” Father Ruchinski said.

There’s also a pervasive party atmosphere, where the weekend sometimes starts on Wednesday and speaking out against immoral behavior — alcohol abuse, drug use, sex — is the only taboo.

“I think if we’re going to encourage our young people to persevere or, in fact, to develop and deepen their Catholic identity and their relationship to Christ and the Church, we need to be here because they are here,” Father Ruchinski said.

Mission and More

The University of Florida is something of a melting pot in the mostly Bible Belt, Baptist-heavy northern part of Florida. As the university system’s flagship campus, it attracts students from all over the state, giving Catholic numbers a boost — and other faiths, too. Father Ruchinski guesses that the largest faith group on campus is Jewish. Among Christians, Baptists comprise the largest denomination. But evangelization to Jews, Baptists and other faiths on campus is not the Catholic Student Center’s mission.

“Really, there are so many lapsed Catholics that even if we focused all of our efforts on trying to bring those folks back, it would be full-time,” Father Ruchinski said.

The Catholic Student Center also ministers to students at Santa Fe College, a local community college. Father Ruchinski also is pastor of St. Augustine Parish and its 4,000 households (3,300 registered parishioners are students). The center and church were dedicated in 1959 and include a large meeting hall, library, offices and a residence for priests. The facilities sit just across the street from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — “The Swamp” — where the beloved Gator football team plays.

The center is a hive of activity. There are two daily Masses. The six weekend Masses attract about 3,300 parishioners and students. Confessions are heard five days a week and typically spur the most life-altering moments.

“A lot of them happen in the context of our retreats, as you’re hearing the confession of somebody who maybe hasn’t gone to confession in a long time and who, after kind of following a very different course in life, is ready to give his life over to the Lord,” Father Ruchinski said. “That’s probably … one of the most life-giving aspects of this ministry.”

The four annual retreats, Father Ruchinski said, are “packed to the gills,” attracting hundreds of students.

Newman Club members serve a free dinner to 150 students each week. There are nearly two dozen different Bible study/sharing groups. A Hispanic prayer group meets weekly. There is a music ministry, spring mission trips abroad and at home (to the Appalachians in Kentucky), service projects, intramural sports, a charismatic prayer group and religious education for area youth. The RCIA program typically has 25 people entering the Church each year. There’s also marriage preparation, weddings, funerals and baptisms.

Focus — the ever-expanding Fellowship of Catholic University Students — arrived in Gainesville two years ago and draws students to the center as well.

All that is managed by three priests, a deacon, a dozen staffers and a budget of $1.2 million. Most of that — about $750,000 — comes from weekly collections at St. Augustine. The center’s second-biggest source of revenue comes from its parking lot, where Gator football fans pay to park.

Transformed in Christ

Among those transformed during her time in Gainesville was Sister Mary Margaret Taranto, now with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, Tenn., and a fifth-grade teacher at St. Mary’s School in Jackson, Tenn. But from 1997 until graduating in 2001, she was a UF student.

She was raised Catholic, “but I didn’t take my faith seriously,” she said.

Until arriving in Gainesville.

“It was not until I was a freshman at UF that I finally responded to the grace of Christ by opening my heart and my life to him,” Sister Mary Margaret wrote via email. “The Catholic Student Center was right there — literally across the street from all my classes. Proximity was key in the growth of my spiritual life. I was able to go to daily Mass, frequent confession and be surrounded by Catholics who loved their faith and loved life.

“I was able to get to know the priests there as well as the staff, who were always willing to answer my many questions. In many ways, the Lord first took hold of my heart during my four years in Gainesville.”

She attended Eucharistic adoration for the first time at Florida, joined other students in a weekly Rosary, and became involved in youth-ministry work.

She entered college with plans of becoming an accountant or occupational therapist. After graduation, though, she attended World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, and, while there, she began considering a religious vocation. She returned to Gainesville, spending another year there, and continued to nourish her vocational seed “with Mass, community, the Rosary and the priests.” She worked with youth around the country at conferences and retreats.

Eventually, she met the Dominican Sisters in Nashville in 2003. She made her first profession two years ago and will profess final vows in three years.

Father Ruchinski said that 10 Florida students have entered seminary in the last five years and that 19 former UF students are in formation overall. Often, because the university attracts students from all over Florida, those students have entered priestly formation for other dioceses. Last year, however, two of those candidates entered for the local Diocese of St. Augustine.

Why is Florida’s campus ministry a boon to vocations?

“People ask me that, and the best answer I know is: It’s the work of the Holy Spirit,” Father Ruchinski said. “God is active and alive and working, just doing amazing things here in the state of Florida, from every corner. As I talk with the campus ministries, I see such a flourishing. There’s an increased devotion among young people, and we’re out there actively inviting.”

Anthony Flott writes from Papillion, Nebraska.