OSHKOSH — With the challenges of a pandemic and the transition to a new chaplain, it’s a new day at the Newman Center on the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh campus. Yet, meeting the physical and spiritual needs of young people who are at a defining crossroads in their lives remains the focus.
“We create a space for the students to feel loved and feel free to ask questions without being judged,” said Fr. Zach Weber, the new Catholic Campus Ministry director. “Students have a place where they’re excited to have their friends come. A lot of what I do is be present and be available. Good coffee goes a long way.”
The Newman Center provides a “home away from home” for college students at a critical time of development and grounding in their lives. The majority of the center’s expenses are supported by the Bishop’s Appeal, as well as salaries of the pastor, musician and secretary. It also partially supports missionaries of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), who mentor students, as well as calls them into discipleship and to lead lives of purpose.
“The student missionaries also take seriously the call to discipleship, and love being Catholic followers of Jesus,” Fr. Weber said.
There are daily Masses, daily hours of adoration, Bible studies and fun activities such as meals, parties and game nights designed to challenge students in their faith and allow them to meet like-minded friends.
“The diocese has been super-supportive of what we’re doing,” Fr. Weber said. “It can be scary for students right now. A lot of them don’t even want to leave their dorm rooms. A lot of what we’re doing is to let them know we love them and allow them to (practice their faith).”
A group goes every Friday to offer service at Father Carr’s Place 2B, a life enrichment center that ministers to the poor. “We are faithful to serving the poor,” Fr. Weber said. “That need doesn’t go away during a pandemic.”
Fr. Weber grew up in Howards Grove, near Sheboygan, the youngest of four children. He graduated from high school in 2005 and started college at Madison Area Technical College in 2005. He graduated from Upper Iowa University in 2009 with a liberal arts degree in psychology.
He said he understands what it’s like for students to feel confusion, uncertainty and pressures about their paths in life and what it’s like to feel they don’t have a community to belong to.
It was during his sophomore year when he said he felt the calling to be a priest. While attending a Men of Christ conference in Milwaukee, he realized, “I wasn’t happy with the person I was becoming,” he said. This moment “called me out of my boyhood into manhood,” he said.
He said he felt a physical change within himself. “I felt so much love. It broke through everything in my life,” he said, as he felt the call to priesthood.
Fr. Weber served three years as parochial vicar at Antigo Area Catholic Churches, working with Fr. Matt Simonar. “One thing that stands out from when I was in Antigo is (that) there was a connection with college students,” he said. “When college students were on break, they wanted to hang out with me. Bishop David Ricken asked me, ‘What are your thoughts about campus ministry?’ ‘I have a heart for it and an energy. I like the faster pace,’” he said he replied.
He started at the Newman Center in mid-July 2020.
“I prepped for this assignment in many indirect ways,” Fr. Weber said. During seminary, he attended several FOCUS conferences and has served as a mission partner for FOCUS missionaries. He has also taken mission trips and participated in the March for Life all three years he was at Antigo.
He also credits the assistance of Sara Scheuneman, the UW-Oshkosh campus ministry administrative assistant and a consecrated virgin, for helping him to become a better priest.
He loves working with the students at Newman Center and feels great urgency about influencing the direction of their faith and their lives. “They have to own up to what their life is going to be about,” he said. “We are very conscious about our time with our students. There is a lot of hidden work and prayer for them that they don’t see.”
“There is so much joy in serving the world. We put our focus on our free meals, Bible study, confession, anointing the sick, serving the poor. We want people to know who Jesus is by doing human things and eventually going into discipleship. My hope for these students is that their joy, their formation, prepare them to help the parishes,” he said.
This joy has transformed him, as well. “I love being a priest and I love what I do,” Fr. Weber said. “I feel very supported by the diocese and awestruck by the generosity of the people.”