Beauty in Nebraska: College’s transformed church hopes to help students be saints

Ceiling of St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the Newman Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Credit: Clark Architectural Collaborative.
Ceiling of St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the Newman Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Credit: Clark Architectural Collaborative.

.- On a Friday night in spring of 2010, nearly 150 Catholic students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln gathered at their Newman Center to share their ideas for a rebuilding project.

With iPhones in hand, the students found photographs of churches around the world and pointed out their favorite features: soaring arches, intricate stained glass, communion rails.

Over the next five years, artisans and donors from across the world worked diligently to help the dreams of these Nebraskan students become a reality.

The resulting St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church and Newman Center is a bow to tradition and a beacon of hope and adoration of God in the heart of a secular campus.

The original mural of storm clouds behind the altar has been replaced with a massive, awe-inspiring stained glass window. At the center of the window is a youthful Christ with an exposed sacred heart. Fourteen saints and blesseds are gathered in adoration around Christ. Students hand-picked each of the men and women, with the exception of Saint Albert – the 13th century saint stands to the left of his student Saint Thomas Aquinas to depict the importance of student-teacher relationships.

The simple, gold tabernacle that used to stand alone behind the altar is now housed in a grand, repurposed 125-year-old altar of repose with gold, red, and blue detailing. An outdoor courtyard on the north side of the Church has been replaced with a Marian chapel.

A new dome floods the Church with natural light. The dome’s pendentives mirror those in St. Peter’s Basilica: depicting St. Longinus, St. Veronica, St. Andrew, and St. Helena.

Above the altar hangs a crucifix handmade in Italy by 4th generation wood carvers, who were reportedly surprised to hear that they were making the crucifix for a Church on a college campus in Nebraska.

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln dedicated the new church on Divine Mercy Sunday. He dedicated the also new Newman Center complex on Thursday after a highly anticipated student Mass.

In his homily at Sunday's dedication of the church, Bishop Conley said he believed the new church will inspire students to become the saints of UNL.

“This church is a witness to the universal vocation of holiness,” Bishop Conley said. “Behind me, in this stained glass, are ordinary men and women who were made holy through God's mercy...These saints lived different vocations, in different times, in different circumstances. Together they point to an enduring truth – in Jesus Christ, holiness is possible. And holiness can transform the world.”

Lead architect Kevin Clark told CNA St. Thomas Aquinas Church is transforming everyone’s understanding of what a church can be.

“A renovation of a church doesn’t have to follow trends,” Clark said. He explained that UNL students desired a church rooted in tradition; a church that could offer stability in the midst of tumultuous college life.

St. Thomas Aquinas Church was offering that stability even before its renovation.

“The Newman Center is more than just a place. It's a community,” said UNL senior Travis Barrett. “When so many students have the choice to fall away from their faith, the Newman Center offers that steadfast support during this crucial time in people’s lives.”

Barrett said he had a solid foundation in the faith when he arrived at UNL as a freshman. And through his years of involvement at the Newman Center, that foundation has evolved into a personal relationship with Christ.

“I'm a better man for getting involved at the Newman Center,” he told CNA.

Recent UNL graduate Hannah Gokie echoed Barrett’s reflections in a recent blog post.

“Some say the heart of evangelization has to do with all these new forms of reaching people…But I have to disagree. To me, the New Evangelization, what St. John Paul the Great called us to, is based primarily through relationship.”

“And that’s what I found at the Newman Center.”

The primary relationship Gokie developed at the Newman Center was a relationship with Christ. But she also had the fortune of meeting her now-husband, with whom she attended Sunday’s emotional dedication Mass.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ thriving Newman Center was the driving force behind the entire rebuilding project; the old church building and Newman Center simply could not handle the crowds of students at Masses on Sundays and feast days.

UNL is home to more than 6,000 Catholic students. Nearly half of them are actively involved at St. Thomas Aquinas. A whopping 26 young people joined or entered full communion with the Catholic Church at this year’s Easter Vigil.

“Having a space that could truly handle a crowd was important,” Clark said. The new church has more than double its original capacity of 300 people.

The new Newman Center complex is also geared toward accommodating growing demand. The building boasts two student lounges, a library for studying, and four classrooms for the more than 100 student-led Bible studies on campus and non-credit classes on catechism and morality. A credited Catholic Studies program is also in the works. The program has a potential launch date of fall of 2017.

There are offices for three resident priests – the Newman Center currently has two – as well as FOCUS missionaries, local religious sisters, and even a counselor from Catholic Social Services of Lincoln. A social hall features a built-in dance floor with a DJ sound system. There is also a small oratory for private reflection.

Even with its cosmetic make-over, the heart and soul of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center remains the same.

“I know that this new church will serve many more students just like I was – looking for a place to call home, a place to find Him,” Gokie said. “In place of the old building is a new space to love for students for years and years to come.

“Other hearts besides mine will be changed there...More trials and growth of souls than I can count will happen in this new church, and for that I am in awe and so very grateful.”

Tags: Catholic News, Catholic education, Nebraska