Rebuild and Elevate: New Catholic Center at Kansas State Aims to Bring Students to God
‘A Place to Encounter the Living God’
There’s a quote from Jerome Tang, head coach of the Kansas State University (KSU) basketball team, that Father Gale Hammerschmidt likes.
“I didn’t come to rebuild. I came to elevate,” Tang said after taking the team’s helm last year. (His team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament last spring after making it to the Elite Eight.)
Father Hammerschmidt, chaplain at St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center at Kansas State, said he thinks “elevation” is an appropriate word for what the Catholic community he leads is doing right now. On Jan. 28, the local bishop dedicated the Catholic center’s brand-new, $20-million church — a project more than two decades in the making.
But now that the new church is open, the real work of bringing the Catholic faith to students on campus can continue. The grand new church presents an opportunity to “elevate everything we do here at St. Isidore’s,” Father Hammerschmidt told CNA.
“We know that the work is just now beginning. And if we’re going to create a beautiful space, we want to be able to do beautiful things in the space. And nothing is more beautiful than a soul encountering the living God,” the priest told CNA.
Father Hammerschmidt, a Kansas native and 1995 Kansas State alum, was ordained to the priesthood in 2012 and was assigned to St. Isidore’s in 2017. The Catholic center sits just across the street from the Kansas State campus, which is itself the lifeblood of the small city of Manhattan. There had been discussions about the need for a new church building for several years before he arrived.
“I already knew that there was a need to build a new church. This is something that had been talked about for probably 20 years, honestly, even since right around the time that I was graduating from college,” Father Hammerschmidt told CNA.
Part of the reason was that the population served by St. Isidore’s had outgrown the old space, which sat about 400 and was regularly filled to bursting on Sundays, with overflow seating in the student center library.
Grace Gorges, a K-State student studying graphic design, got involved with the Catholic community at the college as soon as she arrived on campus. From the get-go, “the Masses were always crowded, always overflowing,” she said, adding that the fallout from COVID made things even worse, when parts of the sanctuary had to be roped off for distancing purposes.
The campaign to raise money for a new church was dubbed “Home Away from Home.” About $5 million had already been raised before Father Hammerschmidt’s arrival, and the campaign ultimately raised nearly $20 million for the project, he said. Some 1,500 individual donors contributed to the campaign.
Nebraska-based lead architect Kevin Clark came to Manhattan in 2017 and began asking the community what they wanted their new church to look like. Countless students requested a beautiful interior, “traditional-looking in nature,” the priest said.
“We want this to look like a church that has been standing forever and will stand forever,” he recalled students telling him.
“We wanted to make sure that it was an epic-looking building,” with an interior that would raise hearts and minds “to the beauties of heaven,” he said.
Given her involvement in the community and her interest in beauty and design, Father Hammerschmidt asked Gorges to serve on the building committee, which meant she would have a say in the church’s aesthetic. Gorges said she was invited to help design the church’s tile flooring. She researched churches online for inspiration and also drew from her personal experience of visiting numerous beautiful sacred spaces on a trip to Italy.
Ridge Pinkston, a fifth-year senior when CNA spoke with him, studying medieval history, was also chosen to be on the building committee. He told CNA that the committee — which included Father Hammerschmidt, diocesan board member Doug Hinkin and others — was given almost complete control over the look of the new church.
He said the committee had numerous meetings with the architect to figure out the look of everything in the new church — they spent an entire two-hour meeting designing the look of the altar, for example. He said the building committee “represented the body of owners” to the architect and designers, similar to how when a family builds a house, the architects and contractors consult them on how they want it to look. He said it was a “huge privilege” and a great learning process to be a part of the committee as a student.
Despite his interest in medieval architecture, the churches that Pinkston primarily drew inspiration from were mainly stateside; most are located in the Archdiocese of Denver. They included the medieval revival-style chapel at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception and Holy Ghost Catholic Church, both in downtown Denver.
Ultimately, the architects and designers of St. Isidore’s produced a neo-Gothic interior with pointed arches that dropped many a jaw when it was unveiled. The interior also features numerous instances of vine imagery — an image of Jesus himself, but also a subtle nod to the college’s agricultural heritage. Evergreene Architectural Arts, a renowned design studio in New York, provided the decoration, Father Hammerschmidt said.
Not everything in the interior is entirely new, however. Father Hammerschmidt said, at the request of students, stained-glass windows depicting the seven patron saints of the seven original colleges at Kansas State (the university was originally Methodist-founded) were saved and incorporated into the new church. Among those saints are the church’s namesake, St. Isidore — an 11th-century Spaniard and patron saint of agricultural workers — as well as the namesake of the student center, St. Robert Bellarmine. A much-loved crucifix that hung over the tabernacle in the old church was also used again in the new church.
Gorges said she loves the triumphal arch over the altar in the finished church, which draws one’s eyes toward the focal point of the crucifix and onward to heaven. A beautiful church, she said, is “not the end-all-be-all by any means. But if it’s at all possible, beauty matters. And we should be trying to live that in our daily lives.”
Pinkston said his favorite design element in the new church, apart from the ceiling of the apse, is the new altar itself, which he said really strikes him as being designed in a way that calls to mind a place where sacrifices are made.
“Rightfully, that should be one of the most beautiful features,” he said of the altar.
The designers also took care to design the exterior of the church to match the native limestone buildings of Kansas State, in an effort to make the church an integral part of the campus it serves.
Bishop Gerald Vincke of Salina, Kansas, dedicated the diocese’s newest church on Jan. 28. The 14,000-square-foot structure can accommodate about 700 for Sunday Masses.
Father Hammerschmidt said daily Masses at St. Isidore’s were already attracting nearly 200 students on a regular basis. A key part of the Catholic center’s success, he said, is the presence of missionaries from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS). FOCUS maintains a presence on college campuses, with the goal of winning people to the Catholic faith through authentic friendships and forming others to go out and do the same through Bible studies, small groups and retreats.
“We also work closely with the high schools in the state of Kansas, especially the Catholic high schools. And we have many strong Catholic high schools in our area. And so we just have students who, the first day they show up in Manhattan, they already know about us,” Father Hammerschmidt said.
In addition, he said, the Catholic center is in cooperation with the local Diocese of Salina and the nearby Diocese of Wichita, whereby Wichita — which has been blessed in recent years with large vocation numbers — sends a priest to serve as Father Hammerschmidt’s associate. Large numbers of students come to KSU from Wichita — Gorges among them — who get involved with the Catholic center thanks to strong word of mouth.
“It’s good for them to have one of their own priests looking after them. … I think it’s working phenomenally well.”
Working at St. Isidore’s, Pinkston said he has gotten to know “the regulars” that came to the church before the rebuild, but now with the new church, he said he sees many more people coming in to pray whom he has never seen before. He also said it was inspirational for him to see a friend — a man who is joining the Catholic Church this Easter — weeping openly when he first saw the new church’s interior.
“That was really the first time I’d ever seen him express emotion. … That’s definitely a huge blessing, to be able to see that happening,” he said.
Father Hammerschmidt was almost overwhelmed by the support of the many students, alumni and others who made the new church possible. Months on from the chapel’s opening, the 9:09 p.m. daily Mass is always well attended, with about 300 students attending regularly. As of September, St. Isidore’s has 40 student-led Bible studies with around 400 Bible study participants.
“The outpouring of joy and gratitude has been incredible. The number of people who we will just see walking through the church from out of town is unbelievable,” Father Hammerschmidt said.
“And then beyond that, we had so many more hundreds of people praying for the project, and we just have been supported unbelievably well.”
Father Hammerschmidt said he wants the students and community of Kansas State to take ownership of the magnificent new church and to use it for their spiritual benefit.
“We want to let everybody in Manhattan and on K-State’s campus know that we built this church for them,” he said, “if they just need a place of encounter with God, to just come in to be seated, to be immersed in the beauty and the silence, and to just let God speak. That’s our hope. For the Catholics, for the non-Catholics, for the students, for nonstudents, just for anyone who needs a place to encounter the living God, this would be the place for them.”