The Catholic faith is steeped in tradition -- and when the new St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Newman Center officially open today the symbols capturing the stories and history of the more than 2,000-year-old-faith will be evident in every pane of glass, every tile and every woodwork carving.

More than two years have passed since the Diocese of Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tore down the old Newman student center and Catholic church on 16th and Q streets.

Since then students, parishioners and passersby have watched with curiosity as a giant hole hidden behind fencing and tarps emerged and climbed toward the skies -- a grand and regal testament to the growing faith and commitment to the Catholic Church and its future.

Sunday the church and center will be dedicated in an invitation-only ceremony for clergy, dignitaries and donors. In the three Sundays to follow -- 10 and 11:30 a.m. April 19, 26 and May 3, the public is invited to attend Mass and the receptions that follow.

The new church and Newman Center cost $25 million to build -- and mark not only a new commitment to religious education, but a vision for the future that will include the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture.

Since 1906 the Newman Center has served the spiritual needs of UNL students, becoming a “home away from home" for generations of students, said Father Robert Matya, pastor and chaplain.

The former Newman Center and church were built in the 1960s at a cost of $350,000 said Jude Werner, development director for the Newman Center.

“It was a classic for its time, and it really stood its test of time,” added Kevin Clark, lifelong Catholic and chief architect of the new Newman Center and church.

But as the student population grew -- especially among Catholic students, the space couldn’t keep up with the need, Werner said. Today one out of every four UNL students is Catholic, Werner said -- resulting in up to 6,000 possible parishioners.

The old church sat 300 people. Even with four separate Sunday Masses, services were always filled to overflowing, Werner recalled.

On holy days, lines went out the door.

The new church seats 650 people.

With more than 100 ongoing Bible studies, with 700 student members, groups were on waiting lists to use any available space in the old Newman Center.

“There are enough things on campus to keep you from living your faith, and we didn’t think the church should be one of them,” Werner said, of the need to grow.

Early discussions looked at renovating the 50-year-old building. But it soon became apparent, remodeling was not feasible financially or physically, Clark said.

The mechanical system was outdated.

“You couldn’t run a space heater and photo copier at the same time,” Werner said.

It also was not handicapped accessible.

But the biggest issue was lack of space.

But not any more.

With the new church and center, space will not be an issue for many years to come, Clark said.

At three stories tall, the new Newman Center features two lounge/gathering areas, classrooms, an acoustically designed choir room, offices, a chapel and a future library. It ultimately will be the home base for a new center for religious studies, a program Bishop James Conley wants to create with UNL. A large social hall fills the entire basement.

But the pièce de résistance of the building project is St. Thomas Aquinas Church. Majestic on the outside, inside it is reminiscent of Westminster Abbey and other traditional cathedrals.

From the start, Clark and his cadre of architects met with students to find out what they wanted. They made it clear they wanted a traditional-looking church -- one that looks like it has been there a long time.

The new St. Thomas Aquinas fits that bill with its 53-foot-tall domed ceiling, wooden pews and historical altars, Michelangelo-esque portraits of saints and stencil-like scripture banners.

Even as crews put the finishing touches on the church interior, the space exuded an awe-inspiring sacredness.

Artifacts, relics and rescued pieces from other churches enhance a sense of history and holiness.

Over the altar is a Rood Cross, with a life-size statue of Christ.

Behind the altar is a magnificent stained glass window -- shipped from Germany. The window was commissioned from Franz Mayer of Munich, a 158-year-old company known for its traditional stained glass works -- which includes hand-painting portions of the glass. The company blends modern technology with old-time tradition to create exquisite stained glass art.

The new church features two Franz Mayer stained glass windows: “Christ in the Heavenly Court” and “God the Father.”

Thirteen more windows also will be created by the Munich company as donations are made, Clark said.

The altar is actually two separate altars -- a Mary Altar and Joseph Altar, both from a church in Youngstown, Ohio. Look closely among the ornate wood carvings, and four crests adorn the piece -- one side featuring the crests of Pope Benedict and Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who supported the building project at its start, and on the other side the crests of current Catholic leaders Pope Francis and Bishop Conley.

A vessel within the altar contains a relic of St. Balbino.

Our Lady Chapel, a smaller chapel in an alcove off the nave, features another restored antique altar. Iron gates provide not only a separate entrance for smaller services, but additional security for people seeking peace and prayer during nonservice times.

The church’s pipe organ, Bedient Opus 8, came from the former Cornerstone Methodist Church, located on the UNL campus. Commissioned in 1973 by the Wesley Foundation, the organ had not been used for years, said Werner.

When the Methodists left the building, they left the organ.

Lincoln’s Bedient Organ restored the pipe organ and reassembled it in the new church earlier this spring.

The organ was built for a room two-thirds smaller than the new St. Thomas Aquinas Church -- and so Bedient has “voiced it up,” Werner said. Donors are still needed to add more pipes. The goal is to raise another $200,000 to $250,000.

But from an architectural standpoint, all is not as it appears. Although the church looks like those built hundreds of years ago, it is far more ecologically friendly and efficient.

Wooden ceiling beams are not wood at all, but painted panels. Lights in the chandeliers are actually LED bulbs -- and with any luck will not need to be replaced for 20 years, Clark said.

In terms of mechanics, the building is one of the most advanced in the city, Clark said.

Seventy-seven geothermal wells are buried 620 feet below the center and church. Frequently, these well fields are built under parking lots and areas adjacent to the building, but because the Newman Center and church are virtually landlocked, the only place to for the well field was down, according to Clark. There is a total of 19 miles of geothermal piping running beneath the church, center and the adjoining courtyard linking to the adjacent Catholic fraternity.

These are just some of the features of the new center and church, Clark and Werner said. There are so many stories behind the relics, the symbols and the traditions reflected in the building -- that a brochure is being created to educate visitors about the treasures within and the foundation of Catholicism.

But inspite of its awe-inspiring design and artifacts, the new Newman Center and St. Thomas Aquinas Church have a very simple purpose -- to educate and embrace students on their journey in faith, Werner said.

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

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