OSHKOSH — The Newman Center on the UW-Oshkosh campus is a spiritual and physical home-away-from-home for college students at a critical time of development and grounding in their lives.
“This college age is when they’re defining who they are going to be,” said Fr. Jason Blahnik, Catholic Campus Ministry director on Feb. 26. “We are a thriving Catholic community devoted to forming missionary disciples.”
About 90% of the center’s expenses are supported by the Bishop’s Appeal, funding the building as well as salaries of the pastor, musician and secretary. It also partially supports missionaries of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), who help to lead students to live a lifelong Catholic mission and lead lives of purpose.
“We wouldn’t be able to do this without the Bishop’s Appeal,” Fr. Blahnik said. “We’re very grateful for it.” About 70 students attend Mass each Sunday at the Newman Center, and 67 students attend one or more of 16 Bible studies held at the center every day of the week. Nine of those Bible studies are led by students.
In addition, there are 21 “discipling” relationships between students and missionaries.
College students face many challenges in being away from home, Fr. Blahnik said, such as homesickness, loneliness if they haven’t yet formed new relationships, pressures from studies and uncertainties about how to behave socially.
“Everybody has their own story of how they end up here,” he said. Some hear about the Newman Center by word of mouth. Some are prompted by their parents. Some attend a campus cookout the Newman Center holds at the beginning of each year, or they are invited by campus missionaries and current Newman Center attendees.
“They come because they feel lost,” Fr. Blahnik said. “They don’t always know why they come. Sometimes their friends are coming. Some come for a meal. A lot of things come together. It’s about building relationships.”
Activities such as meals, parties, game nights, social outings and Bible studies challenge the students in their faith and allow them to make like-minded friends. The focus is for them to connect to their faith and form a relationship with Jesus.
John Collins, a senior from New Berlin who is majoring in criminal justice, started coming to the Newman Center when his volleyball teammates formed a Bible study together.
“The biggest thing the Newman Center offers is that there are so many people in the university who don’t know what they’re doing and don’t understand the ramifications of what they do,” he said. “This was a great outlet for me to discover myself as a person and as a child of God. It set me free from so many pressures.
“You don’t have any pressure except for you to be yourself,” added Collins. “Everyone is accepting of who you are as a person. That is the cultural foundation through the word of God. It’s a safe space of acceptance to practice their faith and get to know the Father’s love for them and get to practice that outside of the Newman Center on students in our university.”
Ellen Sterns, a junior from New London, came to the Newman Center because “I was desiring a community and a place to continue growing in my faith,” she said. Because she commutes to campus, her ability to form new friendships was more limited.
“Having the stability of the life of a parish was vital,” she said. “This is your parish family now, and there is a comfort in that. Being able to do a holy hour between classes is super. … It’s such a gift to have that place on campus to meet the Lord in prayer and find him in others. The Newman Center is a beacon of light on campus, and (we can) go out on campus and be that light for others.”
Sterns said people on campus are hungry, both physically and spiritually, and the Newman Center meets those needs. On a recent Tuesday evening when a free meal was served, the chapel was overflowing for the Mass after the meal, and attendees spilled out into the hallway.
Collins has been so comforted by the guidance he received from Focus missionaries at Newman Center, that after graduation he will begin a two-year service as a Focus missionary to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ on college campuses. “This is the most practical way for me to reach so many people when they’re at a crossroads in their lives,” he said.