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New Catholic Center at Tulane becoming a reality

To be a vibrant “hub of Catholic teaching and spiritual formation” is the vision of the Catholic Center at Tulane University.

     First formed as a Newman Club in the 1930s, the Catholic Center has executed its mission in a two-story, wood-framed house at Zimple and Audubon streets bought by the Archdiocese of New Orleans in the 1950s, said the center’s director of development, Victor Hernandez.
    Not only has the Catholic Center outgrown the 105-year-old building, but time and flood waters from Hurricane Katrina took their toll, leaving the center at a crossroads on how to best serve today’s active college Catholics.
    
Dominican Father Charlie Johnson credits Archbishop Gregory Aymond’s interest in archdiocesan youth and his 2009 visit with Catholic students and the faith community at Tulane University with spurring the community to recognize the need for a new vision.

    “It was a fantastic experience,” Casey James, student president of the Catholic Center and member of the Student Leadership Committee, said about meeting Archbishop Aymond. She said he truly listened to them and “encouraged us to look to the future,” suggesting immediate ways to implement the Catholic faith and Christ in their ministry.
    Father Johnson, Hernandez and James said the archbishop procured Petrus Development to help the center formalize a strategic plan that will lead to the building of a new center on the current site. Previously, plans had been made to renovate the existing building.
     With “Vision Day 2010,” the Catholic Center identified essentials to facilitate growth: a larger chapel to serve as the spiritual center of the building, modern classrooms (to accommodate teaching of Tulane-accredited courses), sufficient study areas, kitchen and social areas, office space, accessible restrooms and more opportunities for faith sharing and Catholic studies.
    “It will bring more students in the center (automatically) because they will have classes here,” Hernandez said of the proposed new center.
New building
    A just-released architectural rendering of the new Catholic Center incorporates the features the students wanted. The Catholic Center leadership worked with Argus Architects and Tulane architecture students Jen Wickham and Melissa Longano to devise the proposed three-story, 8,400-square-foot center. It features a welcoming front porch, second-floor balcony facing Zimpel Street and a cross, instantly identifying it as Catholic.
    “We wanted it to stick out that it was Catholic but wanted it to blend in (on Tulane’s campus) like it was home,” James said.
    Father Johnson sees the new center as a “tool” for evangelization, a way to attract additional Catholic students, alumni and faculty. Currently, the center  reaches an estimated 25 percent of campus Catholics, averaging 200 students attending weekly Masses.
    The center also is looking to bolster its ministry with a lay campus minister.
What made it possible
    A recent $1.2 million gift by an anonymous Catholic donor to the “Renewed in Faith Capital Campaign” has sped up the construction schedule for the new Catholic Center, with a start date scheduled sometime this fall. The center now has $2.7 million in cash and pledges toward its $3.2 million goal. The center will be named after the late Dominican Father Val McInnes, who is considered the “spiritual patriarch” of Catholics at Tulane.
    “It’s a capital campaign but a campaign to revitalize the ministry here,” Father Johnson said. “The building will be the visible sign of the revitalization.”
    Hernandez and James said the campaign will not only pay for the estimated cost of the new center and its furnishings but also for demolition of the current center and will bolster the center’s ability to sustain itself without relying on the archdiocese. The archdiocese is currently responsible for the center’s operating budget.
    Father Johnson sees the center’s growth coinciding with the current renaissance at Tulane University.
    The center will “bring to fruition the desire to improve the ministry and have a new and improved center and also the recognition of our obligation to reach out to the university and to evangelize,” he said.
    The Catholic Center is currently in dialogue to secure a space for continuing its ministries during the construction phase. Its ministries include weekly sharing groups; Mass and adoration; speakers; social events; and planning for local service projects and a mission trip to San Pedro Sula, Honduras.
    “The students have a lot of questions (about faith),” Hernandez said. “We are here to answer some of those questions.”
    The center also is working to align itself with the national Fellowship of Catholic University Students program that has been a successful evangelization tool on other college campuses.
    One student commented on the center’s website that he hopes the new center will be as popular with students as the nearby bar called “The Boot.”    
    “If that’s called the Boot, then this will be the sandal (of Christ),” Father Johnson joked. “This is a field for the Lord. We need to sow the seeds and do the harvesting.”
    James sees the new center as the medium to reach untapped souls, a way to give life to the Catholic faith and to better serve others. She wants other Catholic students to experience the joy she’s found by being involved with the ministry, for others to make the Catholic Center at Tulane their “home away from home.”
    “We want more people in here,” James said. “We want to bring Tulane students closer to their faith. We want to get people excited. We are bursting at the seams. We are growing with the university but can only grow so much inside. Having a larger space would be such a blessing and enable us to reach that goal.”
    To find out more or help the campaign, call Hernandez at 214-7588, 866-0984 or visit www.catholiccenter tulane.com.    
    Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion herald.org.