MADISON — Since the turn of the 20th century, the Catholic student organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been there to provide outreach to college students seeking more than the academic formation offered by the secular institute.
Much of the St. Paul’s University Catholic Center building has been there since then, too.
While the chapel and the front of the converted house next door were renovated more than 50 years ago to accommodate the growing number of students attending Mass in the inadequately sized chapel built in 1909, the buildings no longer suit the needs of this ever-expanding organization.
To address this need, St. Paul’s is currently in the process of seeking approval from the City of Madison to replace their current building with a Catholic residential college. The proposed building requires approval by the city’s common council and needs community support to make that happen.
At a public informational meeting held at Edgewood College February 10, St. Paul’s officials addressed the reasons for the project and, in particular, why its various aspects — including a chapel, a large student center, offices, and residential rooms and apartments for students — were necessary to the organization’s future outreach. Fr. Eric Nielsen, pastor of St. Paul’s, was offering a similar presentation to the state bishops at their meeting in Milwaukee the same day.
For instance, while initial feedback on the building at informational presentations to the city planning committees that will make recommendation to the common council were overall positive, one of the major concerns raised has been its height. The proposed building, which would stand 14 stories, is approximately the same height as recently built apartment buildings on University Avenue only one block away, and only 30 feet taller than the current Memorial Library directly across the State St. mall. St. Paul’s location, however, has concerned some that its height may overshadow the well-known Library Mall.
The Catholic alternative
The project, its proponents say, will offer a space for the growing sacramental life at the student parish and the catechetical, vocational, philosophical, and professional formation that form a growing part of the St. Paul’s experience. In May, for example, St. Paul’s and Edgewood College are beginning the Lumen Institute of Integrated Studies, accredited and credit-transferrable courses that will integrate the Catholic viewpoint on justice, reason, and morality into the topics of humanities and social science.
In an age increasingly devoted to secularism and reason without faith, the programs and sacraments offered at St. Paul’s strive to build, strengthen, and provide a solid moral foundation to these students who will become the Catholics in the pews and parishes around Wisconsin, the nation, and the world.
“If we want to form the next generation of Catholic leaders . . . the best place to do it is the University of Wisconsin-Madison, because that’s where they are,” Msgr. Kevin Holmes said, pointing out that the number of self-identified Catholics at the university is 24 to 28 percent of the 42,000 that attend. This number is greater than the number of Catholics attending each of the three top U.S. Catholic universities — Notre Dame, Georgetown, and Boston College.
In addition, UW-Madison produces some of the top people in their fields — more Fortune 500 CEOs than any other public university (tied with Harvard University) and more Peace Corps volunteers than any other university.
Monsignor Holmes, who as bishop’s delegate to the St. Paul’s Board of Directors was speaking in place of Father Nielsen, said that all of the bishops in the state have a stake in having well-formed graduates come out of the university — and not just those who would go on to work in the Church.
“It’s the people working in the world who will shape the culture, who will be in the parishes in the diocese, in the state, who will receive intellectual and spiritual formation at St. Paul’s,” said Monsignor Holmes, pastor of St. Raphael Cathedral Parish in Madison.
To achieve that aim, St. Paul’s is seeking the support of the community to gain approval by the city.
“We really don’t need you,” said Fr. Eric Sternberg, director of student ministries at St. Paul’s, indicating that the Lord was doing wonderful things with St. Paul’s, “but we really do need you.
“We need your constant prayers and support . . . and construction companies don’t get paid in novenas, so we do need the financial help,” he said.
But the fundraising, which draws from the base of UW and St. Paul’s alumni around the state and the nation rather than the diocese, is not as important as having the community supportive of the need for the new project. Bishop Robert C. Morlino, the bishop of Madison, has stated that while not as important a project as a new cathedral, it is a more urgent matter.
“The rubber is going to hit the road,” Father Sternberg said. “As Monsignor Holmes said, blood will be spilt, in the figurative sense. We will need the support.”
Father Sternberg urged people to do three things in support of the project:
• Talk with friends about St. Paul’s and its mission and outreach.
• Come to St. Paul’s and see the work being done there — Mass, especially, offers an opportunity to see how students are affected by St. Paul’s ministry.
• Be at the public hearings and register in support of the project. The more the community rallies behind the project, the more the city will recognize the importance of its approval.
For more information on the project and to sign up for e-mail alerts, which will include notice of dates and times for public hearings, visit www.uwcatholic.org and click on the “New Building” link. If interested in bringing the informational presentation on the new St. Paul’s project to your parish, contact Scott Hackl, development director, at