Keeping the Faith on College Campuses

New wave of Newman dorms could represent evangelization breakthrough.

The Phi Kappa Theta Catholic fraternity house in Lincoln, Neb., is taking shape, with an expected opening in August.
The Phi Kappa Theta Catholic fraternity house in Lincoln, Neb., is taking shape, with an expected opening in August. (photo: HuskerCatholic/Facebook)

LINCOLN, Neb. — Prepare for a new chapter in keeping the faith with college-bound Catholic youth: A new wave of Newman student housing is hitting public universities in 2013, and campus ministers say it could mark a real breakthrough in evangelizing the college scene.

Catholic bishops and campus ministers are taking up the ideas of 19th-century Blessed John Henry Newman in addressing the serious problem of the loss of Catholics to the faith during college.

“Many make the wrong assumption that young Catholics lose their faith because of intellectual reasons,” said Adam Koll, director of the Diocese of Corpus Christi’s Office of Youth Ministry in Texas. “They are leaving because they are losing the support to live out their faith.”

Nearly 30% of Catholics in the Millennial generation (young adults currently aged 18-24) have left the faith, according to a 2012 study from Georgetown University’s Berkley Center. The study shows that Catholic youth are leaving the faith at a higher rate than other religions and are helping fill the ranks of the 25% of Millennials who don’t identify with any religion.

But Catholics have broken ground on three large-scale student-housing projects at public universities that will bring hundreds of students living together in a Catholic environment served by nearby Newman Centers — all based on Blessed [John Henry] Newman’s idea that Catholics should live and learn together in community at secular universities.

“Having and developing a community at the university helps give young people an experience of the faith,” Bishop Michael Mulvey of Corpus Christi said. “It gives them a chance to experience the word in practice. Being together, in communion with each other, strengthens the soul.”

Most Catholics attend public universities. Five million Catholics attend secular colleges, according to the Catholic Campus Ministry Association, while just 500,000 Catholics seek their degrees at Catholic institutions.

Both Bishop Mulvey’s Corpus Christi Diocese and Bishop John Noonan’s Diocese of Orlando, Fla., broke ground in 2012 on faith-based housing sites that include brand-new Newman Centers and chapels. The Newman Center dorm at Texas A&M in Kingsville will house nearly 300 students and could expand in the future to house some 900 students. The Newman dorm at the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne will serve 140 students. The Newman Student Housing Fund, LLC is building both dorms, which will open in August 2013.


Illinois Example

“If we could build large-scale housing for our Catholic students at public universities, we would see a transformed Church,” said Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, chaplain at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

St. John’s first pioneered the idea of building student housing for Catholics at public universities in 1927. St. John’s Newman Hall houses close to 600 students — most of them are Catholics who come to college with a strong faith — and campus ministers freely walk the halls. Msgr. Ketcham said the St. John’s model allows his team to engage the students on site and provide them easy access to confession, Mass and retreat programs.

“When you have that housing element — where students can live with one another and form relationships — you can really help them give their hearts to Jesus,” Msgr. Ketcham said. St. John’s turns out an average of 10 vocations to the priesthood or religious life per year.

Ryan Mattingly, a first-year seminarian for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., said he entered Newman Hall a lukewarm Catholic and graduated from the university in 2012 with a renewed faith, having found his vocation.

“I started living out my Catholic faith for the first time in my life, really,” Mattingly said. Friendships and the welcoming environment of Newman Hall inspired him to rediscover the faith, sacraments and prayer and give up a party lifestyle. “It gave substance to my faith — just living out the faith in an everyday manner at a large, secular university, where the faith isn’t that encouraged.”


‘Greek’ Catholic Students

The Newman Center at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln is trailblazing a housing model that could help campus ministries break into the Greek community at secular universities.

Under the direction of Father Robert Matya, chaplain for the UNL Newman Center, the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity (founded in 2005) and Pi Alpha Chi sorority (founded in 2012) are challenging the Animal House mentality with a Newman-based idea of Greek living — where Catholics can live, learn and grow in their faith and evangelize others.

Father Matya said the vast majority of UNL students live in fraternities or sororities, so it made sense to build a Catholic community at UNL on the Greek model.

“If you are 18 and come to college and you want to stay on the straight and narrow, you do that by finding other (like-minded) friends,” Father Matya said.

The fraternity and sorority houses will serve 120 residents (60 residents per house) when complete. The Phi Kappa Theta house will open its doors in August 2013. A Newman Center and chapel built in the English-Gothic style will go up in 2014. The sorority house for Pi Alpha Chi is projected to open in August 2015. The chapel construction just got under way. The last Masses at the former church were the Easter vigil and Easter morning Masses on March 30 and 31.

Already, the fraternity that made its unofficial motto “Be a beacon, not a bunker” of the Catholic faith is helping other Phi Kappa Theta chapters renew their Catholic identity.

“We know other chapters around the country are now modeling their recruitment and operations after us,” said Matt Litt, a UNL 2009 graduate and founder of the UNL chapter.

“From the beginning of our discussion to expand our facilities at the Newman Center, the focus has always been to serve the students in such a way that they may encounter Christ and live their lives in union with him,” said Father Robert Matya, pastor and chaplain, in a March 28 statement. “To meet that goal, it became obvious early on that we needed a larger chapel to accommodate the many students who attend various liturgies at the Newman Center. And so it is with great excitement and joy that the time has come for us to begin construction of this chapel. I am grateful to almighty God and to all of our benefactors, who, through their encouragement and support, have brought us to this moment. I ask for your continued prayers, that, as we finalize the plans, we will not only build a chapel that will accommodate more students, but, more importantly, will foster their encounter with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 


Raising Funds

For campus ministers and dioceses, raising funds provides an enormous obstacle. For some, the Newman Student Housing Fund offers an option, as the private equity company builds, owns and operates the faith-based student housing when it is finished, leaving the formation of student life up to campus ministries.

Others might follow the route taken by UNL’s Newman Center, which launched a $25-million capital campaign and has already raised $10.6 million from 1,700 donors, according to Jude Werner, the Newman Center’s director of development. Werner said the Diocese of Lincoln provided seed money to begin housing construction, which will be repaid in installments. Once the housing is complete, he said, the rent collection will allow the Newman Center to turn a profit that will go to maintain the site and fund future expansion.

University officials say that the faith-based housing is a win-win that helps relieve crowding on campus and helps prospective students choose them over academic competitors.

“We compete with a lot of schools, including some private Catholic schools, so it really helps us in recruitment and retention of students,” said Juan Franco, UNL’s vice chancellor for student affairs. “We’re seeing students themselves becoming a little more religious, and having that kind of religious-based community is attractive to them.”

Ultimately, the Church’s long-range hope for building a living-learning Catholic community at secular campuses is to put Christ back in the center of public life, said Bishop Mulvey.

“It’s a start to building a better world of justice and peace,” he said. “I’m very hopeful and confident about what we are doing. I’m looking forward to seeing it evolve, and, hopefully, I’ll get to see it continue to grow from heaven.”

Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.