St. Paul University Catholic Center: Eager to embark on a new era Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Joan Carey, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
Everyone at St. Paul University Catholic Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is excited to bring a world-class Catholic student center to a world-class university. (Contributed photo)

MADISON -- St. Paul University Catholic Center stands on the threshold of a new era in its ministry to students on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus.

The leadership of St. Paul’s has given the green light to setting in motion plans that will replace the 50-year-old concrete chapel and century-old student center with a new building focused on students and their need for a beautiful, functional, and friendly space.

The final Mass in the current chapel will take place on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, and demolition will begin soon after the current space is vacated. Construction on the new building will start in early spring of 2016, with a target finish date of summer of 2017.

Designed for faith, friendship

It does not take long in conversation with Director Fr. Eric Nielsen for him to reiterate the importance of creating a space that is attractive to college students while portraying the extraordinary beauty of the Catholic faith tradition.

The new St. Paul’s will have an impressive façade with an eye-catching mosaic above Library Mall that will draw the attention of new and current students, prospective students, alumni, and people who are simply visiting State St.

“This work of beauty is designed to communicate the warmth and joy of the vibrant student community inside,” said Father Nielsen.

Walking through the front doors on the first floor of the new St. Paul’s, students will find themselves in an inviting and engaging student center.

After nine years of leading the campus ministry at St. Paul’s, Father Nielsen knows that most students, whether new or already involved, are looking for friendship and acceptance. The center will give students the space they need to form a community and get plugged into campus life.

Had a hard day and just want to relax? There are couches and cozy nooks throughout. Looking for a comfortable place to study? The fireplace near the entryway leads into a reading room that will quickly calm the senses.

Need a pleasant place to have fun with friends? The open space with a television and pool table will offer recreational activities that easily lead to faith-centered conversations on life and academics.

Struggling with self-confidence and meaningful friendships? Students, staff, and missionaries are always available to talk. Have a question for one of the priests? Their offices are only steps away.

New chapel

The chapel will be on the second floor, above the student center. The St. Paul’s lot, located between University Book Store and Pres House, has a very small footprint, noted Father Nielsen.

“With a tight lot, putting the chapel on the second floor maximizes its size, and the large and inviting student center on the first floor can act as a gathering area for the chapel,” he said.

The new chapel embodies the words of our Holy Father, Pope Francis: “In every age the Church has called upon the arts to give expression to the beauty of her faith and to proclaim the Gospel message.”

The design embraces traditional architectural elements of the Catholic faith, drawing students not only to a church filled with the energy of hundreds of peers, but also to an enhanced worship space that through its aesthetic beauty calls them into the deeper sacredness of the Mass.

The design will lift their hearts and senses closer to God by the beauty of its layout. “Students are confronted daily with transient and quick forms of entertainment,” commented Father Nielsen. “When it comes to God, they are looking for something that speaks of transcendence, beauty, and permanence.”

Great Hall

At the top of the new building, a Great Hall large-group space will accommodate 225 people at a sit-down meal, more than enough to grow the weekly student dinners on Thursday nights.

Students will be able to throw parties, attend lectures and dances, and even celebrate wedding receptions at the very place where they met their spouse.

This room, crowned by a 1,000-square foot rooftop garden terrace that overlooks Library Mall, Lake Mendota, and Bascom Hill, will certainly be a draw for large and small groups alike.

New opportunities for evangelization

Students currently worshipping at St. Paul’s are eager to see the project begin and even more eager to forge ahead with the Church’s mission of evangelization from a new and more attractive space.

Jordan Stombaugh, a junior who is double-majoring in history and French, remarked, “The current St. Paul’s has a beautiful community of people, and we are eager for a space and church that reflects that: a space where people really want to hang out.”

Annie Lord is a master’s student in environmental studies at the UW’s Nelson Institute and is keenly aware of how spaces function and how they are experienced.

She is also a part of the St. Paul’s graduate student group, Mustard Seed. “I notice that as a student, I like to be in the buildings that are not just utilitarian but offer better environments for hanging out. The UW campus has some really beautiful buildings, but others are not so inspiring,” she said.

“Students here at St. Paul’s who are trying to evangelize want to show the beauty and joy of being Catholic to our classmates.”

She agreed with Stombaugh that the new building would be a wonderful asset for evangelization, “It’s more appealing to invite a friend to a space that is friendly and hospitable, to go to Mass in a beautiful church that has a more familiar feeling, and to have better spaces for the work of formation of our more committed students.”

After many years of planning to replace the current facility, the students are eager to see a new Catholic home for students on campus. “We’re all really excited,” said Annie Lord. “There’s a lot of anticipation even among the students who won’t be here in the future when it’s completed. I’m graduating next year, so I won’t be here for the finish, but I love thinking about how future generations of college students will be blessed by having such a beautiful place to go.”

Jordan Stombaugh likely won’t be around for the finish, but that doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm. “It’s going to be exciting to see how the new church blesses ministry on campus. The new church will draw people in.”

Saying goodbye

Plans are in the works to give St. Paul’s community members, old and new, an opportunity to tour the building, celebrate a final Mass, and say goodbye before it comes down.

“I have mixed emotions about the demolition,” said Father Nielsen. “I’ve been here for nine years, and I love the place.” Father Nielsen also attended St. Paul’s as a student in the 1980s, so he has a long history with Catholic ministry on the UW campus.

“But,” he said, “I am looking forward to taking this next step. We can be truly excited about a chapel and student center that will attract students to our ministry by its beauty and warmth.”

A successful, ongoing campaign

In under three years, the Christ the Cornerstone capital campaign to garner support for the new chapel and student center has met over 80 percent of its goals and is headed for the finish line.

“The campaign is in a very healthy position,” said Scott Hackl, senior director of advancement at St. Paul’s. “We have been able to achieve key milestones throughout the campaign. We’re very excited to share the success of the project as well as call attention to the need that still stands to bring the project across the finish line and beyond.”

Hackl noted that it was a tribute to supporters’ belief in the importance of Catholic campus ministry that in the midst of the campaign, benefactors also rallied to ensure the center’s Annual Fund stayed in a strong position so that student ministry could continue unabated during the campaign.

“Many faithful people brought us here through hard work and a shared vision of providing an inspiring and student-focused building in the heart of our state’s flagship university,” said Hackl, who also noted that it wasn’t just Catholics supporting the campaign.

“I’m grateful that this groundbreaking project is a collaboration of people from different faiths and backgrounds. St. Paul’s has affected many individuals and families over the last century, and it’s exciting to see the confidence many have in this mission and what’s in store for the next hundred years with the new building.”

With $4 million left to raise of the $25 million project, Hackl emphasized the Christ the Cornerstone campaign would persevere to the end. “The sooner we conclude the capital campaign, the sooner we can pour all of our attention and resources into the work we do with students that is at the heart of this project and this mission,” he said.

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