Helping college students become lifelong Catholics

Students participate in Newman Catholic Student Center’s spring retreat earlier this year on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City.

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

IOWA CITY — Keeping the faith in college can be challenging, said University of Iowa senior Sam Conlan. “Moving away from home and to a new school like the University of Iowa places you in a setting that’s filled with thousands of different people with different opinions about faith. That being said, it is a struggle for college students who grew up religious to continue to live out their faith, especially if their new friends have different priorities.”

The Newman Catholic Student Center on the U of I campus offers the 7,000 self-identified Catholics an opportunity to find fellowship and grow their faith. “We’re preparing disciples to go back into parishes, not just in our diocese but throughout the world, to be active, participative members of the church,” said April Rouner, the Newman Center’s development director.

The faithful of the Diocese of Davenport have an opportunity to support Newman Center’s mission through a special collection Oct. 9-10 in all parishes. Bishop Thomas Zinkula hopes the “Surround-Support-Strengthen,” collection will help the diocese reverse the trend of young people leaving the church. The Pew Research Center reports that as many as four in five Catholics who leave the church do so before the age of 23. Those who participate in campus ministry are much more likely to remain in the faith and transition into active parish life following graduation.


“Older Catholics often wring their hands and lament the fact that many young people ‘check out’ of the church in their late teens and early 20s,” Bishop Zinkula said. “Besides praying about this, there are other things we can do about it as well, like contributing to this collection. It is imperative that we make strong outreach efforts to students on their faith journey during this very formative time in their lives. The Newman Center is committed to fostering intimate relationships between University of Iowa students, Jesus Christ and his church.”

Newman Center offers prayer opportunities, Bible studies, sacraments, discernment groups, retreats and a variety of ministries in which to get involved. Funds from the collection will go to outreach and education opportunities. “We are in a battle for the hearts and minds of young people at a very transitional time of their lives,” Rouner said. “We need to be there for them … we need to meet them where they’re at.”

Recent graduate Lucero Manzanares said she was heavily involved in her Catholic faith prior to college. “I went to Mass every Sunday with my family and volunteered at my parish. Anything you can think of, I did it.” She assumed she would maintain her faith at the University of Iowa.

“Instead, I got tested.”

With the newfound freedom of being away from home, Manzanares began to “focus on everything but my faith. I became a person I did not recognize — selfish and angry at the world because I was trying to fill a hole in my heart that only one individual could fill (Jesus), but I tried every other alternative.”

Manzanares’ heart was hurting as she entered her third year of college, and she began to test out the waters at Newman Center. “It was the best decision I could have made. The Newman Center gave me life, it gave me best friends and people to look up to, it helped me remember who I am and to whom I belong, and it reminded me of my calling to be a missionary disciple for the Lord.” She is now a FOCUS missionary serving at Temple University in Philadelphia. “I can confidently say that I wouldn’t be who I am without the Newman Center.”

Newman Center is 100% self-funded, with primary income coming from donations, investments, grants and the annual gala. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on Newman Center financially, Rouner said. Reduced Mass attendance during the pandemic has led to a drop in donations, though adult community members are “slowly but surely” coming back. Also, the 2020 and 2021 galas had to be modified due to safety precautions.

This five-year annual collection replaces the annual Cathedral Sunday Collection that took place from 2015 to 2021 and helped raise funds for a diocesan/parish center. “After consulting with various constituencies, I decided to shift this collection to the Newman Center since it is 100% self-funded and, as we all know, college students generally don’t have a lot of money,” Bishop Zinkula said. “As the chair of the Newman Center Board, I can attest that the funds that are collected will greatly aid the mission of the Center, which is to prepare disciples for our Church and our world.”

Father Thom Hennen, pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral and the diocese’s vicar general, recently wrote a letter in the cathedral’s bulletin pointing out that, like the previous collection, the Newman Center collection serves a wider diocesan need. “We are blessed that the state’s second largest university is in our diocese, but this also means ministering to the many young Catholics attending the U of I. …The Newman Center has been doing great work in evangelizing young Catholics, forming their hearts and minds,” he wrote.

Conlan said he is grateful for the role Newman Center has played in his life. “It gave me friends that I never thought I would have. They are my faith community that I can connect with, grow with and stay grounded with. Additionally, the Newman Center helped me to become more of a leader personally with student position opportunities, which is especially impactful now that I am a senior in college. I hope to continue to impact new students in the same way” by helping others to learn “how God loves us and desires to be with us in our lives.”

Rouner said Newman Center gave her peace of mind as a parent of four sons, all of whom attended the University of Iowa. “It was such a blessing to know there was a place that, as they were making their own decisions about their faith lives, offered a faith community and a faith family.

Students at college are finding a sense of who they are and where they belong. They can really find a home at the Newman Center.”

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