From South Bend to London Towne

Tucked away in a narrow street, just off bustling Trafalgar Square, next to the imposing National Gallery, is a six-story neo-classical building. This is the University of Notre Dame’s London Centre — a little bit of Catholic America in Merry Olde England.

It was back in 1981 that the University of Notre Dame dispatched a team from its Indiana home to help establish an undergraduate center in London. They set up shop in cramped premises near the Royal Academy of Arts.

Thanks to the generosity of the Fischer family from Texas, the center later moved into a larger and more suitable facility. The building was dedicated by Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, in 1999.

There are currently 130 students enrolled. Some 35 teaching staff, most part-time and all British, teach 50 courses. These range from music and English to electrical engineering and aerospace. Additionally, the center provides a year-long law program.

Some students are also offered internships at a number of prestigious institutions, including The Palace of Westminster (politics), The Fulbright Commission (education) and Warner Brothers (the arts).

Rev. Paul Bradshaw, an Anglican who serves as the center’s director, spent 10 years teaching at Notre Dame’s main campus. He says that many undergraduates arriving in London for the first time have preconceptions about the Catholic faith in England.

“A lot of students start with the assumption that there must be an anti-Catholic bias in London,” he says. “I often have a hard job convincing them that it isn’t always so.

“We run a number of theology courses, including the one I teach, ‘Christianity in Britain: Past and Present,’” he adds. “This basically provides a history of the Church in the first half and then looks at modern issues, such as ecumenism, church and state and anything which is an issue for Christians in Britain.”

The university is run by the Congregation of the Holy Cross, and creating a vibrant Catholic community is at the heart of the Notre Dame ethos, says Rev. Bradshaw.

“At the moment, we have Mass once a week in the chapel, but we haven’t always been able to do this because of the difficulty in getting a priest,” he explains. “A number of clergy have been involved with the university over the years. We have recently been developing a relationship with Father Peter Wilson, senior Catholic chaplain at the University of London.”

Since the London program began, more than 4,000 students have enrolled.

Catholic Community

At the beginning of February, Father John Jenkins, the university’s president, stopped off at the London center on his way back from a meeting in Rome and celebrated Masses for the students and alumni.

Associate Director Cornelius O’Boyle, a Catholic and a specialist in medieval history, says, “We want to develop the outreach from the undergraduate program into the broader community and immerse our undergraduate in British culture in general and in particular in the Catholic culture of London.

“One way we are doing this is through placing volunteers in inner-city Catholic parishes,” says O’Boyle. “Some are involved in the living-wage campaign run by London citizens. We’ve seeded some of our undergraduates into Catholic parishes to get the campaign rolling. The idea is to get our students to experience English Catholicism in various ways.”

Last year, the center hosted a major medical-ethics conference; a colloquium on Catholic social justice is on tap for this coming autumn.

“Undergraduates, law students and academics from all over Europe would contribute papers,” says O’Boyle. “This would be a way of strengthening our contact with the hierarchy. We have individual contact but we now need to create institutional contact.”

The university provides accommodation for some of the students in an apartment block off Edgware Road, the heart of London’s Arab community.

Mary Lynch, 20, from Philadelphia, who is studying English and philosophy, says, “It’s very different in London compared to the campus back home, where it’s easy to assume everyone is Catholic. Here, as soon as I leave my apartment, I see people of different faiths. But Notre Dame does a great job in creating a Catholic community. It would be much harder if I came here on my own.”

Pupils and Pilgrims

Apart from London, Notre Dame runs undergraduate programs in five other European cities: Dublin, Rome, Toledo and Angers (Spain) and Innsbruck (Austria).

In charge of campus ministry for students in Europe is Luke Klopp, a Notre Dame graduate and former student in the London program.

“I see my role as trying to integrate Notre Dame students with the culture they live in through retreats, liturgies and volunteer work in the community they live in,” explains Klopp. “We also form community through small faith-sharing groups and opportunities to reflect on their experience studying abroad through weekly meetings.

“My approach to helping students grow in faith while abroad is to introduce them to people of faith in their culture who can help them in their development while abroad,” he adds. “I give the students opportunities to experience life in their city more fully, in a faith-filled way. We attempt to bring the students to holy places in and around the cities they live in.”

Klopp explains that the students in each program make a retreat to a holy place each semester.

“The Rome program makes a weekend retreat to Assisi,” he says. “In London, we make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. In Dublin, we go overnight to St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough. With the students in Toledo, we make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela from Madrid at the end of their semester in May.”

One of the bigger events that involves students from all the programs is a pilgrimage to Rome for during the Easter Triduum, continues Klopp.

“We look forward to the day when we can take a group to the Holy Land,” he adds. “In each of these places, we introduce the students to faith-filled people with detailed knowledge of the place.”

The biggest challenge students face is adjusting to a new faith community. “After spending two years on campus in South Bend, the students become comfortable with their worshipping community and the people they share their faith with,” notes Klopp. “When the students come abroad, they must establish new relationships with different friends and a different setting. I am here to help them adjust to that new faith community.”

The most important thing in campus ministry, says Klopp, is presence. “The students need to know your there and be comfortable sharing personal issues with you,” he says. “Next is to lead by example. The students won’t take you seriously if they don’t see a commitment to your own faith.”

Greg Watts

writes from London.