New Catholic church planned for UNL campus

2013-03-29T01:00:00Z 2015-01-22T13:56:07Z New Catholic church planned for UNL campusBy ERIN ANDERSEN / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com

Final Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church will be held Saturday and Easter Sunday on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus.

The 53-year-old church will be demolished and in its place a new 650-seat St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church will be built at the corner of 16th and Q streets.

The new church, a $12 million investment, is expected to open in late fall 2014.

In the meantime, the church's ministries and liturgies will be moved to a temporary location -- the former Cornerstone Church at 640 N. 16th St. Sunday Masses will be held in the UNL Student Union during the school year.

The church is the second phase of a $25 million comprehensive expansion effort that includes a new Newman Center as well. The first phase included a 68-bed Phi Kappa Theta Catholic fraternity house at 17th and Q streets. The fraternity will be ready to open in late summer, in time for the 2013-14 academic year. The third phase is a Theta Phi Alpha sorority house, which will be built at the former Cornerstone Church site.

Another $1.3 million in campaign contributions are needed before construction can begin on the new Newman Center. The hope is the new 30,000-square-foot center can be completed at the same time as St. Thomas Aquinas Church, said Jude Werner, director of development for the Newman Center.

UNL is home to 6,000 Catholic students, and over the past 15 years, the Newman Center has experienced unprecedented growth -- stretching its facilities beyond capacity, Werner said. On Ash Wednesday, people spilled out onto the sidewalk because there was no room inside the building, he said. Even with four Masses offered each Sunday, the church frequently is overflowing with student parishioners, he said.

There has been talk of expanding the Newman Center for seven years.

"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.

"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," he said.

This past fall, the church announced plans to tear down the current Newman Center and build a new one -- twice the size of the original. The new center will provide increased ministry space, a social hall, offices and enhanced technology services, Werner said.

UNL has had a Newman Center since 1906. Located on college campuses across the United States, Newman Centers -- named after Cardinal John Henry Newman -- are designed to meet "and grow" the spiritual needs of students as they grow academically, Werner said.

UNL's Newman Center has experienced unprecedented growth since 1999, he said. That growth is attributed in part to the FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) program, as well as a changing demographic. According to Werner, about one in four UNL students is Catholic.

UNL's FOCUS program has 11 full-time missionaries who coordinate more than 100 weekly Bible studies on the campus, Werner said.

In addition to a shortage of space, the current Newman Center's mechanical and electrical systems are antiquated.

"I can't make a photocopy and run my air conditioner and have the lights on at the same time," Werner said.

Also, the facility is not entirely handicapped accessible.

"It does not create the welcoming environment that our students deserve," he said.

A fundraising campaign for the new complex began in July 2010.

Among notable donors are campaign honorary chairmen, Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini and volleyball coach John Cook.

To date, $13.5 million in donations have been committed to the Newman Center's "A Great Problem to Have!" campaign.

Recent anonymous donations of $2 million and $500,000 allowed the church's construction to begin in April, Werner said.

Among campus Catholics, demolition of the old facility to make way for a new one is bittersweet, especially for those who got married or had their religious conversion at the center, Werner said.

"But there is far more enthusiasm," Werner said. "Most people have said they had a great personal experience here and they want other students to have that experience."

Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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