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Newman Catholic Student Center celebrates 75th anniversary


Saturday, September 10, was a busy day for the Newman Catholic Student Center in Chapel Hill. If celebrating 75 years of Catholic campus ministry was not enough, it was also the day for the installation of its new pastor, Father Justin Ross, OFM Conv.

A large number of “Newmanites,” gathered for the 5:15 p.m. Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge. It was a diverse, multi-generational congregation that included current undergraduates, young families and those who have been part of Newman for more than four decades.

In his homily, Bishop Burbidge invited all the members of the Newman Center Parish “to rejoice and renew.” Specifically, he asked for a renewal of “the commitment to go out and find those who may be lost. Assure them that they will be embraced here,” Bishop Burbidge said.

That is the experience that many have had through the years. Melissa Walsh, a senior from Raleigh working on her education degree, described the Newman Center as “crucial” to her formation as a college student and a Catholic.

She started by just attending Sunday Mass her freshman year, and then the Wednesday night dinner for students. For her, discovering that there were many students going to daily Mass was “transformative.”

“It is a very enriching environment,” she said. “There is a very strong sense of community.” Her involvement grew over time; she is now assistant student minister coordinator.

Similar sentiments were echoed by others whose college life was far in the past. Zach Kelleher arrived in Chapel Hill in the fall of 1983. Now 53 and with a few gray hairs, he was one of the veterans running into old friends at the celebration.

“Newman blew my mind,” he said, recalling his days as a college junior transfer. “It was a place for both academic, intellectual challenge, and for spiritual challenge and support.”

The “home base” feeling Mr. Kelleher experienced was exactly what organizers and leaders tried to create.

George Lensing, a recently retired English professor, was one such leader. He arrived at Newman in 1969, the year after the current building was dedicated by Bishop Waters.

“It is very important for Catholic faculty, students and staff to have the sense of being a family in Christ, and in a relaxed setting,” he said.

For the last 30 years, Professor Lensing has been hosting a beginning-of-year picnic for students at his home. He also helps annually at a retreat for seniors, and reads them letters from previous graduates.

One of those graduates, Sean Maroney, class of 2006, was the guest speaker for the fund-raising dinner that took place at the Friday Center in Chapel Hill after the Saturday Mass. Mr. Maroney, 32, was very active at the Newman Center throughout his college life. Today he’s a news anchor with CBS North Carolina. He spoke of the peaks and valleys people encounter in life, and said that the Newman Center helped him reach new peaks.

“Thank you for welcoming me to your hearts,” he said to the audience. “Otherwise, the valley would have been much longer.”

Mr. Maroney discussed his alternative spring breaks with Newman, such as helping inner city people in Philadelphia or impoverished families in Eastern Kentucky, as a decisive influence in shaping “who I am and who I want to be.”

The journey to continue influencing college students for the better will now be led by Father Justin, a Maryland native who spent the last three years as part of the Campus Ministry team at Catholic University. With his parents in attendance, he was entrusted with the parish church by Bishop Burbidge.

“Thank you for your generous priestly yes,” Bishop Burbidge told him during his homily.

Pastoral Leadership, 1934- present

  • 1940: Fr. Francis Morrisey, first Catholic chaplain appointed for campus ministry
  • 1949: Fr. John Weidinger
  • 1967: Fr. John Huston
  • 1971-1980: Fr. Thomas Palko, OSFS
  • 1981-1986: Fr. Tim O’Connor
  • 1986-1988: Fr. John Durbin
  • 1988-1992: Fr. Ronald Rhodes
  • 1992-2006: Fr. Phillip Leach
  • 2007-2014: Msgr. John Wall
  • 2014-2016: Fr. Mike Lasky, OFM, Conv.
  • Present: Fr. Justin Ross, OFM, Conv.