Bishop of Columbus Shifts Direction of Ohio State Newman Center
To implement a more student-focused vision for campus ministry, Bishop Earl Fernandes has appointed the diocesan director of evangelization to direct the center, in place of the Paulist Fathers.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A change in the direction of the St. Thomas More Newman Center at Ohio State University that will end the 66-year-old ministry of the Paulist Fathers here is being decried by some and welcomed by others.
Just a month after his installation, Columbus Bishop Earl Fernandes announced June 30 that he was appointing Father Adam Streitenberger, a diocesan priest who is director of evangelization, executive director of the OSU Newman Center. The Paulist Fathers declined an offer to keep two of their four priests at the center as chaplains for a year under Father Streitenberger, and all will be leaving July 31.
The announcement said the new director will implement a student-focused vision for the center that will include building a culture of vocations and fostering Catholic intellectual life. Bishop Fernandes, ordained and installed May 31, recently told WCMH in Columbus that this reflects his two main priorities as bishop: evangelization and promoting vocations. Columbus did not ordain any priests this year.
Although Newman Centers were begun to serve the spiritual needs of Catholic students attending non-Catholic colleges, Ohio State’s center has a large “resident community” of alumni, OSU faculty and staff and others. Those opposing the change are largely members of this community, and they have been vocal in expressing their disappointment on social media, in comments to reporters and in letters to the editor of The Columbus Dispatch.
A June 30 Facebook post about the bishop’s decision on the St. Thomas More Newman Center page generated 400-plus comments and more than 200 reactions, most of them negative or sad.
“There are no words to adequately describe the grief and betrayal felt by so many of the beloved Newman Center community members over this terrible decision by Columbus’ new bishop,” wrote Marianne La Rosa in one post. Added Megan Mellquist in another, “I just called my dad and told him that I think this is the end for my relationship with the Catholic Church. I literally cried reading this.”
Additionally, in a July 8 letter to the bishop, 280 people identifying themselves as students, alumni and members of the center’s resident community said they were writing “to communicate our sorrow, disappointment and confusion at the decision.” Attached to the letter were 203 personal testimonies, seven of which were from students.
Meanwhile, support for the bishop’s decision has been enthusiastic or at least hopeful, though much of it has been expressed on individual social-media accounts. Will Matthews, for example, responded to a post on a friend’s Facebook page that said, “Revival is coming to OSU!!” by adding, “We are excited! Praised be Jesus Christ for His Excellency!”
Matthews, a 23-year-old accountant who lives near the Newman Center, told the Register that after attending a few liturgies and being told in confession that it wasn’t necessary to confess certain things, provided he had acted according to his conscience, he sought out another church for more traditional worship. He now attends St. Leo Oratory in Columbus for Mass but has remained involved in the center’s other activities.
“I think it will be a rough transition but for the best in the long term,” he said of the change.
John Dosen, who graduated from OSU in May, also thinks the bishop’s decision was a good one for the future of the Newman Center and said most of his friends concur. Although he commends the Paulists for being sacramentally available to the people of Ohio State and has been involved in the center’s “Buckeye Awakening” student retreats since his sophomore year, his biggest concern has been with the Masses, which he found lacking in reverence. He went to the center for Mass on Sundays from his freshman through his junior year, but by senior year, he was going more often to the Dominican-run St. Patrick’s parish in downtown Columbus.
Added Keira Williams, who will return to campus in the fall as a sophomore finance major, “I’m definitely welcoming the change, and I’m actually looking forward to the possibility of having a more traditional liturgy.”
Williams said she loves the Paulist Fathers and thinks they have created a welcoming environment at the Newman Center, but said that she prefers a more reverent celebration of the Mass with traditional music. Currently, the Newman Center Masses feature contemporary songs played by a piano and/or guitar, drums and other instruments.
However, Liz Day, a 28-year-old doctoral student in vision science, a teaching assistant in the College of Optometry and a signer of the letter to the bishop, said she finds the music at the center to be both familiar and soul-stirring. One of the first things she noticed was the level of participation by the congregation.
“When I went back to my home parish, I couldn’t hear anyone singing,” she said. “And I’ve been in some congregations where all the lay responses are kind of murmured. That’s not the case at the Newman Center. It’s an enthusiastic participation in the Mass by the laypeople who are there.”
Day said she will be sorry to see the Paulist priests go because they not only have served the Newman Center well but made themselves available to the nearby OSU Medical Center and to other parishes in the diocese. Additionally, she is concerned about what a student-focused vision for the center will mean for those like herself and her husband, who met through the center’s “Young Professionals” group and now are part of the resident community.
“My husband and I personally had a vision of continuing to serve there and raise our kids there and have them exposed to college students who are on fire for the faith,” she said. “If there is not a way for us to continue serving, we have started to talk about where else we would go.”
Also, Day said, some members of the resident community who have struggled with the Catholic faith but have wanted to remain in the Church found with the Paulists an expression of the faith they could hold on to and now are questioning whether they will be able to continue to be part of the Church.
Indeed, a woman who is “married” to her same-sex partner posted on a personal Facebook page that she and her partner have been attending the center for more than 30 years and that with the change they are facing the loss of their spiritual community. The center is one of two places in the Columbus Diocese on New Ways Ministry’s list of “LGBTQ”-friendly parishes and faith communities.
Asked what makes the center “LGBTQ”-friendly, Day said, “There is nothing overt about it, but I think that the Paulists create an environment where someone would feel comfortable being there.”
Although some Newman Center members have alleged the changes are being made because the center welcomes those who identify as “LGBTQ,” Bishop Fernandes has denied this, saying his decision is strictly because of his pastoral priorities of evangelization and promotion of vocations.
Day said she understands that it is the bishop’s prerogative to act as he has, but added that she wishes it had been handled differently and in a way that would have given the Paulists more time to consider the bishop’s plan.
“I mourn for the changes, but I mourn even more so for the way it went about,” she said. “I ask more from my Church leadership — that they be more pastoral in their decisions, even the hard ones.”
Paulist Father Ed Nowak, director of the center, said he only learned of the plans for a new director when Bishop Fernandes met via Zoom June 21 with Father Rene Constanza, the Paulists’ president, who had just been installed June 7.
“The bishop never met with or even spoke with me as the director of the Newman Center about any of his plans for the center,” Father Nowak said. “He never visited our community. He never experienced the dynamic ministry we have here.”
As for the bishop’s offer to have two priests remain, Father Nowak said, “Not having any say in how the ministry would happen here, there was no reason for us to remain.” Bishop Fernandes has said that he invited the Paulists to be partners in the center’s mission and that, when they declined, he complied with their request for a letter terminating the relationship.
According to Father Nowak, the OSU Newman Center community is made up of about 53% students, 30% resident community members, 5% OSU faculty and staff and 12% visitors. During the school year, the center has five weekend Masses serving about 1,400 people and nine daily Masses a week with attendance of about 50 students each day. The center also collaborates with the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) and St. Paul’s Outreach on Bible studies and other events and offers a weekly student night, Eucharistic adoration and retreat programs.
This is not the first time the Paulists have had to leave a campus community they have served for many years. In 2020, Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas, made a similar decision about the Catholic Center at the University of Texas, turning it over to diocesan priests and leading to the departure of the Paulists, who had been there since 1908.
Paul Snatchko, Paulist spokesman, said it is possible the Paulists will take on another campus ministry somewhere else in the country after they leave Ohio State, adding that they have had three invitations from other campuses in recent years. Currently, the Paulists also serve at UCLA, the University of California at Berkeley, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.