Major transition ahead for St. Paul Catholic Center's bold future Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Joan Carey, For the Catholic Herald   
Thursday, Dec. 03, 2015 -- 12:00 AM
st paul catholic center rendering
Above is the rendering of the new St. Paul’s Student Center being built on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. It will offer an inviting place for students to gather. (Contributed graphic)

MADISON -- Each day brings St. Paul’s Catholic student community on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus a little closer to having a new place to call home.

The Student Center is buzzing with excitement as the clock ticks out the final weeks for savoring the happy memories associated with what will be soon known as “old St. Paul’s.”

Final Mass and a fond farewell

The final Mass in St. Paul’s chapel prior to demolition will be celebrated on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, by priests who served the St. Paul’s community over the years. Fr. Steve Umhoefer will preside at the Mass and Fr. Randy Timmerman will preach. Music will be provided by those who formed the choirs at St. Paul’s liturgies in the past.

A reception will be held after Mass so attendees may reunite, share memories, and say a fond farewell to the space where generations of students on the UW-Madison campus found a warm welcome, a loving community, and a lasting friendship with Jesus Christ.

Demolition of the building will begin in February.

An ecumenical transition

After the first hard hats appear to begin deconstruction, the work of keeping the ministry strong during a construction phase that will span three semesters will begin.

Celebrate the last Mass at St. Paul’s

When: Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016, at 2:30 p.m.

Where: St. Paul Catholic Center, 723 State St., Madison

Who: Everyone who would like to bid a final farewell to the St. Paul’s of the last 50 years.

RSVP: Strongly encouraged but not necessary. Contact Danielle at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it if planning to attend.

“We are going to stay firmly focused on our ministry and on the programs that benefit students,” said Director Fr. Eric Nielsen.

St. Paul’s has a great relationship with many partners across campus. “The leadership team is excited to move the ministry into different areas on campus, partnering with many Catholics and non-Catholics alike at the university,” said Father Nielsen.

St. James Catholic Church and Luther Memorial Church are within a few blocks of St. Paul’s and are both welcoming the St. Paul’s community to celebrate Mass there.

St. Paul’s students will be able to congregate and meet at Upper House, a project of the Stephen & Laurel Brown Foundation at University Square in the heart of campus. Ministry teams will operate out of this beautifully designed ecumenical space, only two blocks away from the St. Paul’s site.

A place to call home

The yearning for a relaxed place to study and gather is a common theme. The new St. Paul’s Student Center replacing the century-old cramped and narrow building is designed around the needs of students.

David Cupp, a junior studying neurobiology and global health, noted that many study spaces on campus are sterile and uninviting. Cupp is “super excited” about the spaces being planned specifically for students to hang out together. “It’s those simple little things that will plug people into the ministry that give students a place that feels like home.”

Cupp confesses that he had a hard time as a freshman feeling fully comfortable at St. Paul’s. “You can attribute some of that to the existing building,” he said. “As an overwhelmed freshman, you walk into a small, dark entrance space, and you just turn around and run right back out!”

Instead, the new design is meant to feel like home, encouraging students to be in community with each other. “That personal connection is critical for introducing somebody to the faith,” said Cupp. “Without that, I would not be practicing my faith, and a lot of my friends wouldn’t either.”

There will be ample “personal” space for students to gather in groups to study, talk, watch a Badger game, or just spend time together. That family feeling of hospitality is exactly what Father Nielsen hopes the new building captures.

“The warmer and more inviting we can make that first impression, the more willing they will be to come back for answers to the questions that brought them here in the first place,” said Father Nielsen.

A Great Hall for a great campus

Students are especially excited by the new opportunities afforded by the Great Hall, a spectacularly designed space above the chapel that will include a rooftop terrace with breathtaking views up State St. to the State Capitol dome and across Library Mall to Memorial Union and Lake Mendota.

“We will have a premier reception hall in the middle of the constant bustle of Library Mall,” said St. Paul’s Senior Director of Advancement Scott Hackl. “It will be a resource for the entire Madison community, including the diocese and organizations within the university that need an inspiring and elegant large group space that is centrally located.

“The intersection between the faith and higher education is exceptionally powerful,” he explained. “UW-Madison is a true world leader. We’re very proud to be a part of this great university and very proud of the young people who come here.

“They are asking questions about faith, morality, justice, and how to make a lifelong impact on the world around them, like being honest in the workplace, giving back to their local communities, or being willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others.”

Hackl continued, “This building through its natural beauty will send the message that God loves them, that they are not alone on this huge campus, and that the mistakes they make don’t have to define them: they can be forgiven and can move forward with people who genuinely care about them.

“The Great Hall will allow St. Paul’s to attract a variety of people for a myriad of programs that will continuously form a vibrant student community.”

For the students, the Great Hall will promote a clear expression of community. “There’s going to be a ballroom on the top floor,” shared excited sophomore Erin Guarnieri. The swing dances sponsored by the Badger Catholic student group are famous and draw not only Catholics but many other students.

“I love swing dancing,” Guarnieri said. “It builds community, and it would be so fun to have it in the same building as the student center and chapel.”

The Great Hall space will also be available for lectures, receptions, and many other events. Recently, America’s Next Top Model contestant Leah Darrow visited campus to witness God’s grace and faithfulness in her life as a professional model in New York City.

Guarnieri explained, “Leah was phenomenal -- it was so cool to her hear message on the secular version of ‘imitation love’ vs. God’s ‘authentic love.’ But her talk wasn’t at St. Paul’s.”

Looking ahead, she is excited about the events that will be hosted in the new building. “Students won’t just come to our talks and then leave,” Guarnieri noted. “Instead, they’ll get the information from the talk but also get introduced to our mission and our space.”

Students anticipate a whole new St. Paul’s

Sarah Wilkin, a Lutheran student from Iowa, moved to Madison to pursue a master’s degree in occupational therapy. She happened upon St. Paul’s while seeking spiritual support. “I noticed the sign outside that said St. Paul’s prays the Rosary every day at 4 p.m., so one day I just got up the courage and walked in.”

She found the current space to be a deterrent at first. “The first time you go up those stairs, it’s dark and not really clear where to go.” But she persevered, found the community room, and said to the student tending the front desk, “I don’t know how to pray the Rosary, but I’d like to learn. Can you help me?”

Wilkin laughed. “I’m an adventurous person. I’m not sure everybody could have taken that step.” Then she related how the student gave her a Rosary and a prayer card and introduced her to the group. “The community just radiates warmth,” Wilkin smiled. “With the new building, you’ll be welcomed from the first moment you open the door!”

In her training as an occupational therapist, Wilkin is aware of how structures welcome people or put up barriers, especially for those with disabilities. She’s excited that the new building will be a manifestation of the community’s values to welcome people, engage them in community, and provide a place for worship, prayer, and the sacraments.

“The Gospel is for everyone, and we all have disabilities. St. Paul’s wants to welcome anyone who is genuinely searching for truth and holiness. That’s what I came here for. I’m not Catholic, but in this community, the table is set. I only have to bring myself here, and Christ meets me.”

It seems very clear that the new building will meet the needs and desires of a whole new generation of college students.