Msgr. Stewart Swetland has more confidence in college students than most. So much, in fact, that this Oxford-trained, former Lutheran Naval officer turned Catholic priest, decided to devote his life to evangelizing a group that statisticians have cynically dubbed “Generation Y.”
Msgr. Swetland came to Champaign-Urbana in 1997 and immediately began to build up the University of Illinois’ already long-running and nationally respected Newman ministry.
This fall, ground will be broken for a substantial expansion to the Newman center, which already constitutes a full residence hall with cafeteria, colonial-style church and scores of priests, nuns and laypeople ministering to university students.
The St. John’s Newman Center is not only the largest of its kind in the country, but it has been called the standard to which many other Newman centers and ministries model themselves.
Established in the early 1920’s with a far reaching vision, and thanks largely to the work of Msgr. Swetland, 350 students, along with 6 full time priests and three religious sisters currently live and work at the 75-year old facility.
With a packed waiting list of students wanting to get in, and a rapidly aging residence hall to refurbish, the first phase of expansion plans include a large addition to the existing dorms and a religious convent to be built across the street.
Mark Randal, Director of institutional advancement for St. John’s spoke to CNA this week, and quoted University of Illinois president, B. Joseph White, who said recently that he wants to make U of I the top research university in the world.
If that’s the case, Randal said, “we need to have the best Newman ministry in the world.”
Of the more than 40,000 students at the University, he speculates that some ten to twelve thousand are Catholic.
“Right now”, Randal said, “we serve 2,500 students at weekly Mass.” On holy days like Ash Wednesday, he pointed out however, “that number has jumped to 5,000.”
He noted out that St. John’s simply doesn’t have the facilities to minister to this burgeoning population in the ways they would like to.
“We want the cafeteria”, he said in particular, “to be a central gathering place for students on campus.”
Indeed, St. John’s location--in the heart of campus--makes it desirable real estate even for non-Catholic students.
There is a dual function, Randal said. “To feed students physically, but also spiritually.”
He added that the major thinking of the ministry is that “you can minister to a student who lives with you much more effectively than if they just come here for Mass once in a while.”
The current project, which is slated to be completed in June of next year, is being billed at an estimated $40 million dollars.