Expanded, renovated Newman Center at U of I dedicated

Photo Caption: Bishop Jenky and other dignitaries applaud as Father Gregory Ketcham cuts the ribbon outside the expanded St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois on Sunday.

By: By Tom Dermody

CHAMPAIGN — Calling St. John’s Catholic Newman Center a “beacon of hope” on the University of Illinois campus, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, of Peoria capped a weekend of grand opening activities Sept. 7 by blessing the center’s expanded and renovated complex.

“So many dreamed and sacrificed to make this happen,” said Bishop Jenky of the $40 million project that more than doubled the student housing capacity at the largest Newman Center in the United States. About 600 students now live in Newman Hall, and the center itself serves a campus Catholic population of more than 10,000.

“May this be a house built of living stones with Jesus as the cornerstone,” said Bishop Jenky at the close of a Mass of Dedication that drew an overflow crowd to St. John’s Catholic Chapel.

Bishop Jenky then walked through the new construction, sprinkling holy water in dorm rooms, a new dining facility, a “Newman Club” gathering area, an “Illini Market” store, and ministry offices. A ribbon cutting ceremony followed outside the new six-story facility adjoining the original complex built in 1927.

The rooms of the original Newman Hall were renovated and the chapel air conditioned as part of the project, which was funded by an “Opening New Doors” campaign including private contributions and the sale of 30-year bonds.

“With more room brings more souls that will be reached by Jesus Christ via the ministry of St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois,” said Father Gregory Ketcham, director and head chaplain, during a gala dinner on Sept. 6 that drew 200 supporters to the Illini Union ballroom.

“Certainly, it has been God who has been our builder — often using you to make all of this feasible,” added Father Ketcham. A series of speakers also expressed gratitude to builders, planners, staff, and all involved in the project.

Among other highlights of the grand opening weekend was the dedication of the original building complex in honor of Msgr. Edward Duncan, chaplain emeritus, who guided Catholic campus ministry at the University of Illinois for 54 years and is credited with establishing St. John’s as a national model for Newman ministry. The dedication took place on Msgr. Duncan’s 93rd birthday.

“I appreciate this memorial which connects me in a visible way to the Newman Foundation and St. John’s,” said Msgr. Duncan in remarks after a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the building’s Sixth Street exterior.

Calling his association with the Newman Center “a life’s work,” Msgr. Duncan expressed gratitude “for the sentiments and good will of thousands of Catholics who lived in this hall.”

Newman Hall’s former cafeteria was remodeled into an assembly room that was renamed for another former director and chaplain, Msgr. Stuart Swetland, who served here from 1997 to 2006. Msgr. Swetland, now vice president for Catholic identity at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md., returned to give a keynote lecture in the room now beating his name.

In a talk entitled “Ministering to the Millennials,” he said this generation of college students is “thirsty for answers” to life’s deepest questions. Msgr. Swetland called it critical that the church accompany young people at this formative stage, offering answers “at the right time and the right way” that are “challenging and true, rooted in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Attending the ceremonies on Sunday was B. Joseph White, president of the University of Illinois, who called the dedication “a landmark event on this campus.”

The new facility, which took four years to plan and 21 months to build, addressed both an increasing demand for housing at Newman Hall — the original dorm had a waiting list of nearly 200 — and a lack of program space for outreach to Catholic students at the university. The center is staffed by five full-time priests and three women religious, and has a full-time lay staff of 55. In addition to the residence hall and chapel, the Newman Center is also home to the Institute of Catholic Thought, which now offers a master’s program as well as certificates in Catholic theology.

Sara Maletta, a junior music education major from Rock Island who represented students during the ribbon cutting ceremonies, said it was a “blessing to have this Catholic community” at the heart of campus.

The students were frequently asked for input during the planning process, said Maletta, and when she arrived on campus in late August and saw the results of the completed construction “it was even better than I expected. This is exciting.”

Eric Nyberg, a senior who is a resident adviser in the new facility, agreed.

“I am one of the luckiest guys in the world to spend four years in the greatest dorm probably in the United States,” he told the crowd at Saturday’s dinner.

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