$1.25M donation will transform University of Maine's Newman Center chapel

University of Maine Newman Center An artist's rendering of the planned renovation of the University of Maine's Newman Center chapel. | Courtesy of Pepperchrome

Situated among fraternity houses along College Avenue, the University of Maine’s Newman Center in Orono, Maine could easily be mistaken for another Greek house.

Save for the sign out front displaying Mass times, and a “RUSH JESUS” banner on the side of the building, there is little that indicates the Newman Center is the spiritual home of the university’s Catholics. 

There’s no tower, no church bells, and no visible stained glass windows or other things one would typically associate with a Catholic church. 

But now, thanks to an anonymous $1.25 million donation, that will all be changing soon, as the center plans on breaking ground next year on a “truly Catholic” renovation of the building. 

“The spiritual state of the Newman Center is amazing. There is so much good happening there for so many,” Fr. Kyle Doustou, pastor of The Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord and priest at the Newman Center, told CNA on Aug. 27. The Newman Center is one of the churches in the parish’s cluster. 

The physical state of the building, however, falls short of amazing. In addition to the structural problems inherent to a building dedicated in 1969, the center is “impossible to heat efficiently,” and is liturgically problematic as the building’s chapel is open to the rest of the Newman Center, Fr. Doustou said. 

“With our new plans, the structure will be rebuilt to handle the Maine winters, reconfigured so that we have more space for all of our formation programs, and we will have a separate chapel with beautiful stained glass windows, statues, etc.,” Fr. Doustou explained. 

In addition to Mass, adoration, and other sacraments, the Newman Center is a place to “pray, study, play, and serve,” and is the closest Catholic church to the University of Maine’s campus. Fr. Doustou told CNA that the renovations will be key in establishing the church’s identity and helping with the mission of evangelization. 

According to the Diocese of Portland’s website, the planned renovations include a “quiet, beautiful narthex where one can transition into the presence of God;” different entrances for the chapel and for the main hall, a separate chapel “featuring a new sacristy, tabernacle, altar, ambo, and main crucifix,” a steeple with a bell, a Marian garden, and spaces for students to have meetings and foster community.

“The building is essential. We're right on College Avenue, right in the midst of all the frat houses, right in the the midst of all the traffic and energy,” Fr. Doustou said.

The church building, he said, does four important things: It sends a message that the Catholic community exists at the University of Maine; it evangelizes; it “physically provides a roof over our heads as we engage in our mission” and, as the closest tabernacle to the university, “it houses the mysteries of God, particularly the Eucharist.” 

Fr. Doustou told CNA that it was particularly important that the chapel transform into a “truly sacred” place.

“[The chapel] needs to be a place where our students can experience something different, other-worldly, and supernatural,” he said. “They need a place that is quiet and contemplative to pray, but also one dripping in Catholicism so that they can learn the faith.”

Maine is one of the least-religious states in the country, and surveys have found that Mainers report praying less than any other state, and only 48% say they believing in God. The Pew Research Center reported in 2016 that 22% of people in Maine say they attend a weekly religious service, and barely a third of the state says that religion is “very important” in their lives. There are seven seminarians in formation for the diocese, and only two of them are Maine natives.

That, coupled with Gen Z’s apathetic feelings on religion, means that Fr. Doustou and the campus ministry staff at the Newman Center have their work cut out for them. But Fr. Doustou said that even so, he has “a little miracle happening on College Avenue.” 

“People often think I'm exaggerating about what goes on at the Newman Center. They see Maine as so secular,” he said. 

“I have multiple young men discerning a vocation to the priesthood, and two will likely go to the seminary next fall. I have young women discerning religious vocations. I have many young couples getting married and choosing to stay in the area because there's such a robust Catholic community here,” Fr. Doustou explained.

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