When Sofia Falter started at Grand Canyon University three years ago, there was no Catholic Church within walking distance of her dorm room. She started watching Mass on television for a few Sundays, and eventually found a ride with another student to the local parish.
Her life changed when a GCU Newman Center opened just one street over from student housing about a year ago. Falter is now able to attend daily Mass, regular Bible studies and fellowship events, and is also a student leader.
“For me personally, being Catholic is the foremost thing in my life,” Falter said.
Newman Centers are Catholic campus ministries based on non-Catholic college campuses. According to the Newman Connection, there are more than 2,000 Newman Centers serving on university campuses across the country. In the Diocese of Phoenix, there are Newman Centers on three campuses — Arizona State University in Tempe, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and the recently added Grand Canyon University.
Grand Canyon University
When praying for the GCU Newman Center, Fr. Joseph Francis LePage, a Franciscan Friar of the Holy Spirit, keeps in mind a Pew Research study, which found that almost 80 percent of the Catholics who leave their faith do so before the age of 23. The Newman Center director said he sees himself “on the front lines of evangelization.”
In 2015, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted tapped the newly formed Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit to start the Holy Spirit Newman Center at GCU, an interdenominational Christian-run university. By last August, they purchased an old 2,500-square-foot house next to campus. Holy Spirit now draws more than 60 students for worship. In addition to overflowing Masses, they also saw six of their students brought into full communion during the Easter vigil.
“It is our desire to help young people encounter Christ through His Church,” Fr. Joseph Francis said. “We believe that it is not simply a matter of devotion, but includes a personal relationship with God.”
Arizona State University Newman Center
Built on one of the largest universities in the country, the All Saints Newman Center at ASU started on campus in 1932. Today, the student population at the Tempe campus is more than 50,000 with a little over half in residence. The ASU Newman Center serves about 5,200 students annually — a stunning number that keeps director Fr. Rob Clements busy, yet almost always available.
“We are trying to offer and to allow students an opportunity to connect and not feel lost in a big place,” Fr. Clements said. “If you lack hope, just connect with young people. In them there is an immense amount of hope for the future.”
They offer six Sunday Masses including a “last call” 9 p.m. Mass, with Confession five days a week. The students are welcomed into small group Bible studies, formation nights, social nights, service opportunities, Adoration and retreats.
Jimmy Barrios was a freshman when he first made the 10-minute walk across campus from his dorm to attend Mass at All Saints.
“There is a strong, tight-knit community. The students have a really cool relationship with each other,” said Barrios, who is now a senior and a member of Phi Kappa Theta, a Catholic fraternity. “There are a lot people to fall back on, because college gets rough.”
Last year he interned at the Newman Center where he said he gained leadership skills while evangelizing.
Northern Arizona University
In her freshman year, Kylie Armstrong was just looking for a place to attend Sunday Mass when she found the Holy Trinity Newman Center at NAU.
The recent graduate was so influenced by her experience that this September, she leaves to devote two years of her life to serve as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
FOCUS expands to 15 more campuses this semester
Holy Trinity currently hosts four missionaries — one of the many programs it supports to evangelize college students.
Armstrong said attending a Newman Center retreat her sophomore year, joining a Bible study and connecting with great Catholic friends helped to shape her future.
“Two of the biggest things that crafted my college experience were the Newman Nights and daily Mass,” she said.
Fr. Matt Lowry, director of the NAU Newman Center, looks at a statistic that claims about half of millennials who once were Catholic no longer affiliate with any religion. He said despite a rich Catholic upbringing, they often get lost quickly in college.
“And yet if they connect with the Lord and the Church, kind of on their own terms instead of their parents’ term
s, that connection can be for their lifetime,” Fr. Lowry said.
Many Newman students are committed to evangelizing others, he added.
“These are the leaders of tomorrow,” Fr. Lowry said. “If we can reach them and help them connect to Christ, they will be the leaven