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 | Mitchell Palmquist

Newman Center Bursting at the Seams

Driving up to the Newman Center at Eastern Washington University (EWU) on a Wednesday night, you would not know it from any other house near campus in Cheney. A large banner welcomes students into the unassuming house that has become a bustling center for faith on campus. Walking inside, you will have a hard time finding a place to stand, much less sit. It’s Newman Night.
Newman Night is a weekly event at the EWU Newman Center. Students gather for Mass, dinner, and a talk on faith, followed by praise and worship music. The community room, formerly a small living and dining area of the bungalow, is prepped for dinner while the students are in Mass in the chapel — a converted garage. As the students pour in from Mass, Father Paul Heric, the chaplain, sneaks into his office/sacristy/confessional room to remove his vestments from Mass. The students begin filling their plates, say a blessing, and everyone eats where they can — on couches, leading against walls, or on the few rows of chairs in the middle of the room. On an average Newman Night, 60 to 70 students squeeze into the small house.

Father Paul Heric described the evening as a “build” activity, borrowing from the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ (FOCUS) lexicon. FOCUS’ model is described, in short, as Win, Build, Send. Win people for Christ, build them in the faith, and send them out with a missionary spirit. Newman Night serves some of the more engaged students at the center. Students who are usually at Sunday Mass are also often involved in Bible studies, and there are many who choose to spend time at the Newman Center during their downtime. Relationships are also formed at the center.

FOCUS missionaries who assist in the evangelizing work of the Newman Center say it is clear that the relationships and community built at the Newman Center are a big part of the ministry. Missionary Steven Debolt from Orange, California, said the most meaningful part of his ministry is “the small stuff.” Steven said one student he had worked with later invited him over to play video games at his apartment.

As the missionaries work to share the Gospel with students on campus, they first open themselves up and begin to build authentic friendships with students. When students invite the missionaries and the Newman Center staff into their lives, sharing the Gospel is no longer an imposition, but part of the natural sharing between friends. Another missionary, Yvette Herrera from Lake Stevens, Washington, said putting in time to build community is meaningful and effective. She noted, “In this quarter, there is less of me reaching out and more of them reaching out.”

The Newman Nights themselves are opportunities for friends to gather and for real learning and catechesis to occur. Each academic quarter has a theme. In the fall, Father Heric and his team present talks on identity in Christ. During the winter quarter, they focus on maturity in Christ; and in the spring, they will challenge the students to purity in Christ.

While the Newman Nights are a great success, one missionary said that for some students, they can be a bit overwhelming. “It can be claustrophobic,” Herrera said.

Debolt agreed: “We may be capped in its growth.” The missionaries said Bible studies and other small groups often have to meet in rooms at the university library because of lack of available space at the Newman Center. Debolt went so far as to say, “Our biggest obstacle to spiritual multiplication here is the space.”

But compared to a few years ago, the growth at the Newman Center has been astronomical. Daily Masses in the student chapel that used to be attended by five or six students now routinely see 20 to 30 attendees. Sunday Masses no longer fit in the student chapel, but take place in a larger room on campus.

Aaron Filzen, another missionary at EWU, said, the Newman Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato, where he attended college, was similar to EWU’s Newman Center, but, “During my freshman year, we opened a new building and our numbers doubled, tripled.”

The growth of the Newman Ministry on campus is wonderful, and many people throughout the diocese often ask what they can do to support the ministry. Father Heric is clear on this point. The Newman Center is expensive to run, yet has dreams of building a bigger center with space for community gatherings like the Newman Nights, space for students to spend downtime between classes, and a chapel.

Shanna Filzen said the most important thing people in the diocese can do to help the EWU Newman Center is to pray.

“Please continue to pray for the youth,” she said. “Once they have encountered Jesus, it transforms their lives. They will be our future Catholic leaders, priests, and parents. Pray for them and support them.”

Steven Debolt agreed, emphasizing the importance of the Newman Center in vocations. “If we are going to get priests, they are going to come from the Newman Centers. So many missionaries have already come from EWU — priestly vocations will follow. We need the support and the space.”

If you would like to financially support the Eastern Newman Center visit