By Laura Welch
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Last year, Temple University junior Karen Bonanno lived with 21 fellow students who had a lot in common: they were all best friends, they all made a commitment to live a life centered on Christ and they were all a part of the Temple University Newman Center.
“At the Newman Center, you find students who are not just looking for the next party,” said Bonanno, who is the communications coordinator for the group.
The Temple University Newman Center, which has been in operation for more than 85 years, provides a place for students and staff to attend Mass and receive sacraments, live a spiritual life, serve others and form meaningful bonds with students who share similar values.
When the director of the Newman Center, Father Shaun Mahoney, first came to Temple in June 2005, he realized that for students living in many different parts of Philadelphia, coming to the Newman Center on North Broad Street could be an inconvenience.
Through talks with local realtors, Father Mahoney was able to secure a building that would be occupied exclusively by Newman Center students. Last year, 22 students lived in seven apartments occupying an entire building directly across from the Newman Center.
“The strong resident community infuses the Newman Center with life,” Father Mahoney said.
The residence is known to have a waiting list and is spoken of fondly by its occupants.
“Father Mahoney asks that the residents live the safe life for Christ,” Bonanno said. “And living there is a lot of fun.”
While not all of the Newman Center’s members live together, there is plenty to keep every student involved. Mass is celebrated twice on Sundays at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m., along with daily Mass at 12:10 p.m. and night prayer at 9:15 p.m.
In addition, missionaries from FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) hold Bible study sessions weekly. FOCUS is a national campus outreach program comprised of recent college graduates. The FOCUS missionaries assigned to Temple play a large role at the Newman Center.
“[The missionaries] are here constantly … they are very, very active and very good,” said Sister of St. Joseph Helen Victor, assistant director of the Newman Center.
There are also several social activities sponsored by the Newman Center ranging from open mic nights and ice cream socials to formal dances.
Community service is another important aspect of the organization. Twice a month, students cook meals and deliver them to shut-ins as part of the Aid for Friends program.
Last spring, Newman Center students performed community service in the town of Colcord, W. Va., for an entire week during an alternative spring break trip.
“The trip was the highlight of my college career,” Bonanno said. “It made our own community stronger while reaching out to others to help make their community stronger as well. It was very rewarding.”
Previous alternative spring break trips took the students to Massachusetts and New York. This year the group plans on helping people in the Philadelphia community.
Although the Newman Center gathers for many different spiritual, social and service-based events, the purpose of everything they do is the same.
“The center of everything we do is Christ,” Bonanno said. “Father Mahoney always keeps us focused on the real purpose of the Newman Center, which is helping people see God.”
In January, the students threw Father Mahoney a surprise birthday party to show their gratitude.
“The students had to do some conniving and they got me there. I was completely surprised,” Father Mahoney said.
Bonanno says that although Father Mahoney prefers not to have the attention on him, he deserves recognition.
“Father Mahoney is one of the best men I have ever met, hands down. He is so genuine,” Bonanno said. “He is a great role model and always there for the students.”
Bonanno and her family faced a very difficult time last year during the death of her grandparents. Father Mahoney showed constant support throughout and helped celebrate her grandfather’s funeral Mass.
“When he showed up during the viewing it was a wonderful thing for both myself and my whole family, who have gotten to know him as well,” Bonanno said.
The relationships formed by the students and staff at the Newman Center are meaningful and especially unique on a non-religious campus. However, that does not mean that there are not challenges that come with being a religious organization at a secular institution.
“Catholic college students on a secular campus are being exposed to a greater variety of values and extremes that question beliefs and touch the conscience,” Father Mahoney said.
This questioning of beliefs that is so common in college-aged students, he said, can result in two outcomes: a fall to the challenge of secular drift or a reclaimed conviction of faith.
“Questioning can result in reflections that awaken students to faith in a way they might not have been before. It reaffirms their faith,” Father Mahoney said.
Catholic students at secular universities are also challenged regularly to defend their beliefs in the classroom.
“Sometimes there are different things taught in the classroom that do not align with Catholic faith, and the students get mad,” Sister Helen said. “They will then come to Father Mahoney and I to talk it out … they later go back and state their faith with conviction.”
Sister Helen, who has been a part of the Newman Center for 11 years, says the number of students involved is growing every year, which she credits to the enthusiasm of Father Mahoney and the students. Of course, she says, the free food might also play a role.
“If you have food the students will be there,” Sister Helen said.
Last November, Sister Helen was honored for her service and dedication at the biggest meal of the year, the Newman Center’s annual Thanksgiving dinner.
“Sister Helen is a very important part of the Newman Center,” Father Mahoney said. “She has a wonderful presence and bond with the students and a wonderful sense of humor.”
Bonanno says that the time she spends with her friends at the Newman Center is always fun and full of laughter, but their strong connection comes from something deeper.
“Your friends’ middle ground is not just that you have a class together. You met while finding Christ. That creates a bond greater than other friendships.”
Bonanno recognizes that the stresses and challenges of faith associated with college life can be difficult, but she has a bit of advice for her fellow college students and friends at the Newman Center for when things become too much to handle alone.
“Just remember,” Bonanno said, “God’s office hours are 24/7.”
For a list of Newman Centers in the Archdiocese, visit www.archdiocese-phl.org/catechetical/resources/newman.htm.