Centers of Attention: Secular Colleges’ Newman Centers Provide a Place of Encounter
Some have been so successful that they’re expanding their facilities to better meet student demand. Three large research universities are starting their first academic years with brand-new churches and Catholic student centers.
Newman Centers and Catholic student centers are flourishing at large, public universities, where they minister to students hungry for the truth. They’re seeing packed Sunday Masses, large OCIA classes, and even crops of vocations.
Some have been so successful that they’re expanding their facilities to better meet student demand. Masses have become standing-room-only even at obscure hours, and aging facilities just can’t keep up with the vibrant campus life fostered by the Church in a new era. Not a bad problem, but a problem nonetheless.
Three large research universities are starting their first academic years with brand-new churches and Catholic student centers. The Register caught up with Catholic leaders at Kansas State University, Texas A&M and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst about their developments.
One of the major themes of the three new churches gracing these campuses is a focus on beauty and tradition.
“There was no doubt that we were going to build a traditional-looking church because we believe there’s a particular beauty to it,” said Father Gale Hammerschmidt, pastor of St. Isidore’s Catholic Student Center at Kansas State University in Manhattan. “We know that beauty can captivate the soul. ... And we know the Catholic Church to be one of those pillars that will remain steady and has remained steady. And so to build a church like they were built 500 years ago, 1,000 years ago, seemed to make sense.”
Before the remodeling, St. Isidore had been surpassing its maximum capacity of 425 seats for more than a decade, and Sunday Masses usually accommodated several dozen more people in an overflow room. As an alum of the school, Father Hammerschmidt knew this problem well when he returned as pastor in 2017. He quickly set about raising $11 million toward the project, and the new church was dedicated last January.
The planning team polled the students about what they wanted their new church to look like and seriously considered their input.
“And 99% of those students said, ‘We want our next church to look like a church,’” Father Hammerschmidt said, as in, they didn’t want anything too modern. “They would say as a subsidiary comment, ‘You know, like those churches in Europe.’”
The new building seats 650 and is ready to welcome more curious students seeking answers to life’s big questions.
Farther south at the largest university in the country, St. Mary’s Catholic Center of Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, dedicated a new church in July. Mark Knox, the director of campus ministry, took a break from welcoming Aggies back to campus to chat about the massive project.
“The church that we built in 1958 is now too small. We were having about eight Masses a weekend for many years, since I was a student in 2003,” he said. “And there were so many students we needed to build a bigger church, so we didn’t have to have so many Masses, and we could all sit. There were literally Masses where all the side aisles were full of people standing.”
The new St. Mary’s is nearly double the size of the old one, seating 1,500 people instead of 800. Everything’s bigger in Texas, and the fundraising campaign was no different. The team raised $33 million to buy the land and build the church that could better minister to the thousands of Catholic Aggies.
“We have three principles that were a guiding force to our design of our church, and that is beauty, encounter and tradition,” Knox said. “We wanted the church to be beautiful. We wanted the students to be able to encounter the Lord in their worship in that space. And we also wanted to bring in the tradition of the Church.”
There’s now room to minister to the hundreds of students who come to receive penance each week and the roughly 5,000 faithful pilgrims who come each Sunday. But the work is never done, Knox said.
“We’re pulling off a population of 5,000 out of 75,000. I’d say there’s a lot of room for us to grow. I mean, ideally, I’d love to see all 75,000 Aggies coming to Mass here, and there’s probably around 17,000 Catholics on the campus who we’re not reaching.”
But just having enough space at Mass is a step in the right direction, providing fertile ground for the seed of faith.
In New England, a region known for lovely little chapels, the newest gem is the chapel of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom at the Newman Center of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Father Gary Dailey, the center’s director, designed it himself.
The deteriorating condition of the old Newman Center made the new building a necessity. Father Dailey said it was costing too much in maintenance and repairs, having been built nearly 60 years ago.
“The chapel in our old building was built in the ’60s, and, you can imagine, nobody really enjoyed it,” he said. “But we have a more traditional chapel now. And the students and everyone who walks in the chapel — their first word is ‘Wow.’ So that’s always a good sign. The focal point of the Newman Center is really the chapel.”
Through the generosity of the community, Father Dailey quickly raised $2.4 million out of a $2-million goal. The construction was a different story. Shipping delays caused massive issues, including a crucial electrical piece that was missing for about a year. Only after Father Dailey asked two cloistered communities in the area to pray for the project did the piece show up.
The new center is smaller in square footage than the old one, which was sold to the university, but much more fitting for the center’s mission. The priests’ residence has been moved to a different location, and lower maintenance costs mean more money for student programming. There are places to hang out, study and form community, but the main focus is the chapel.
“The only thing that students asked was, ‘Father, could we have an altar rail?’ So we put an altar rail in,” Father Dailey said.
Ultimately, these places are about reaching searching souls who are at a formative age. Religiosity is declining around the country, and so fewer and fewer students have meaningfully connected with their faith or any faith by the time they reach college.
“Working with students is really amazing because they’re hungry. They’re hungry for the truth,” Father Dailey said.
A beautiful church is a good way to spark their interest and awaken their minds to the transcendent. “Our first hope is that people will simply stumble upon us based upon their hearts’ inquiry for beauty,” said Father Hammerschmidt. “They’re going to hear our church bells. They’re going to be interested in hearing from others about the beauty of this place. They’re going to be invited in, whether Catholic or not, and then once they get in, we do honestly believe that the beauty of this place will capture the heart even more.”