Students Who Stay Together ...

For Ann Marie Tschanz, a college dormitory is more than a place to sleep and study. The senior nursing student has lived at Newman Hall, part of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, throughout her college sojourn. 

“Newman’s been a home to me; that’s why I’ve lived here for four years,” says the Libertyville, Ill., native, who serves as her dorm’s head resident adviser. “I wanted a small community where I could get to know people and grow in my faith. Newman’s been that. In college, it’s so important to have a community that shares your morals and that will help you grow in and deepen your faith.”

St. John’s Newman Hall is the only Catholic residence hall at a non-Catholic college or university in the United States. The dorm, which was built in 1927 in the heart of the Big Ten campus, houses approximately 300 students, most of whom are Catholic. The facility was a male dormitory until 1998, when it became co-ed by wing.

Now St. John’s is in front of what seems to be a trend, as other Newman Centers around the country establish faith-friendly residences of their own. More on some of those below.

In Champaign, an approximately $40 million two-phase expansion and renovation project is under way. St. John’s determined an addition was needed to meet the increasing demand for housing — the current waiting list is nearly 200 — and to remedy the inadequate ministry space available for St. John’s Catholic chapel. This serves the close to 12,000 Catholic students at the university and a nearby community college, Parkland College. When both phases of the project are complete, the St. John’s residence hall complex will house 561 students.

“We’re very excited,” says Father Gregory Ketcham, chaplain and director of St. John’s. “We can do so much more for students living onsite. We’ll also have more space for nonresidents to hang out, study and participate in our ministries.”

Ground was broken in December for the 127,000-square-foot, $26 million addition. Slated to open in time for the 2008 fall semester, the new section will feature greatly improved living and common areas. A second phase will bring improvements to other facilities, including the chapel, by 2009.

This project will help St. John’s fulfill its mission, says Father Ketcham.

“When students are living onsite, we can minister to them on a deeper level,” he adds. “It’s a ministry of presence amongst a community.”

Fostering Fellowship

The Newman Center at Urbana-Champaign may be at the leading edge of this trend, but it’s already got some good company.

This fall, a “Catholic interest” floor, co-ed by wing, will be available for students of Northern Illinois University at University Plaza, a private residential housing complex in DeKalb, Ill.

“It’s a new adventure,” says Msgr. Glenn Nelson, pastor of Christ the Teacher University Parish/Newman Catholic Student Center at Northern Illinois.

Msgr. Nelson knows that college living can prove challenging.

“It’s hard to go from living in a strong, Catholic, family environment to living in an environment that can be the opposite of that — or even hostile to those values and lifestyle,” he says. “It can even be discouraging, leaving one to wonder, ‘Am I the only one who is living my Catholic faith?’”

Encouraged by the success of St. John’s downstate, and with the support of students and parishioners, Msgr. Nelson decided to look into Newman-sponsored housing. He was thrilled that University Plaza was open to the proposal. 

Now he’s leaving the endeavor in God’s hands. “The idea is solid, and it’s worthy of the effort,” Msgr. Nelson says. “We’ll see where it goes through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.”

Farther south still, this past fall St. Mary’s Catholic Center at Texas A&M University acquired an apartment complex. Father David Konderla, pastor and director of campus ministry at St. Mary’s, which also serves nearby Blinn College, says St. Mary’s and the Diocese of Austin will soon decide if the building will continue as a Catholic-themed apartment complex, or if a dormitory will be constructed in its place.

“It is exciting, this whole prospect of students being able to assert their faith while living in a community,” Father Konderla says. “It’s a great opportunity for students and ministries where it’s developed.”

Church Next Door

Other Newman ministries are interested in housing. St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Center on the campus of Illinois State University in Normal, Ill., is developing a plan for a new Catholic center, to include a new church as well as a residence hall. St. Robert Bellarmine also serves students at Illinois Wesleyan University, Eureka College and Heartland Community College.

“It’s important to evangelize to students face-to-face, in person, and a residence hall is a great opportunity to do that,” says Father Antonio Dittmer, chaplain and director of St. Robert Bellarmine. “There’s more of an opportunity to evangelize to students when you can share meals with them and there’s a church next door.”

Also interested is St. John Student Parish at Michigan State University in East Lansing. “An intentionally Christian living community is a great opportunity for students,” says Father Mark Inglot, pastor of St. John.

Father Inglot hopes Catholic housing continues to grow in popularity. “This really could raise the bar nationally in Catholic campus ministry.”

None of the Newman housing planners doubt that their patron, Ven. John Henry Newman — author of the 19th-century classic The Idea of a University and a candidate for beatification and canonization — is praying for an outcome like that.

Amy Smith writes from

Geneva, Illinois.