FARGO — In a sense, the expansion project now underway for North Dakota State University’s St. Paul’s Newman Center started 38 years ago.
It was in 1982 that the Rev. James Cheney, a young man who’d grown up on a small dairy farm in northern Minnesota, arrived on campus ready to begin his life’s mission.
“I was going to play football for the Bison and fly jets for the Air Force,” Cheney says.
He couldn’t have imagined a future that would include leading a multimillion-dollar endeavor to enliven the university and its students’ souls. Cheney’s first semester was “a disaster.”
“I began looking for meaning in my life, and I knew God had something to do with that,” he says. “That’s what brought me to the doors of the Newman Center.”
After experiencing a Together Encountering Christ retreat, Cheney’s life began to “radically change.” He got involved in music ministry at the Newman Center, worked there as a janitor and soon, “the Lord began to lay the grace of the priesthood on my heart.” In 1995, Cheney was ordained. He spent two years at a parish in Devils Lake, N.D., another eight in the Cooperstown area and, in 1997, became a chaplain for the U.S. Navy.
“I ended up being deployed and went all over the world,” he says, something he hoped to continue doing. But Bishop Samuel Aquila asked him to oversee the Newman Center of his alma mater instead. Cheney willingly jumped in “full throttle.”
The ministry already had part-time peer ministers, complementing the bishop’s vision of adding a Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) outreach.
“We started with four FOCUS Bible studies, and from there, things just took off,” Cheney says. Around 50 Bible studies happen weekly on campus now. Around 95 percent of all Catholic students will attend a state university, Cheney says. By the time they graduate, 80 percent will have abandoned their faith.
“It’s like a tsunami,” he remarks. “I began to see that this really does deserve the best efforts by the church.”
He knew offering free hot dogs and pizza to draw students wouldn’t be enough, he says. “We began to envision the future of serving the minds and hearts of students for the next 75 to 100 years.”
An increase in sacramental offerings, along with mission trips, campus events, retreats and education, became part of the growth. In 2010, the “bisonCatholic” branding went into effect. Hundreds of students were showing up for daily Mass.
“The fruits have been just crazy,” Cheney says.
Over the last 15 years, the campus has generated close to 100 FOCUS missionaries, around 30 seminarians, eight religious sisters and “tons of tremendous marriages.”
Bryan Wilburn, the center’s director of development and a 2011 graduate of NDSU, came from a rural parish in Montana. At best, his faith was lackluster initially, he says, but an invitation to be part of a Bible study, led by fellow student Jayson Miller, now a priest at Holy Cross Church in West Fargo, introduced him to Christian life at NDSU. Beyond that and Sunday Mass, however, he admits his life “was not very Catholic.” But things changed after attending a FOCUS conference with around 3,000 youth on fire for Christ.
“I no longer had the ignorance I had before, and I knew I couldn’t go back to the way I had been living,” he says.
Though he says he was grateful for those earlier experiences, the former building was outdated, small and rather dark. The new one will be the opposite, he says, and include a beautiful 450-seat chapel as its centerpiece, “a jewel for the whole campus.”
Wilburn says he hopes the art and acoustics within will draw not just Catholic students but all who need spiritual reprieve.
“We’ll be providing a quiet, prayerful space that anybody can walk into and utilize. Just having a chance to have that intimacy with God, you can’t even put a price on it,” he says.
Planners also hope the housing wing can be open to the general campus population, using a model that’s been successful at the University of Illinois in Champagne’s Newman Center.
‘Awaiting the promised land’
For now, a temporary building at 2505 N. University Drive provides a space for some of the students’ needs. “We are embracing the nomadic nature of our ministry right now,” says Bernadette O’Keefe, campus minister.
Every Sunday, Mass is offered to students at 11 a.m. at Century Theater on campus. A partnership with nearby Holy Spirit parish provides an additional 5 p.m. Mass on Sunday evenings. Additionally, a Saturday afternoon option at 4:30 p.m. takes places weekly at the temporary location.
O’Keefe says she was “positively impacted” by the Newman Center growing up when her family began worshiping there for a time.
“I have memories of my mom playing music for Mass, and a Christmas play we did that the students came to watch,” she says. “I was an angel, and my brother was a shepherd who had a towel wrapped around his head.”
Now, she feels as if she’s “awaiting the promised land,” she says.
“We’re small right now, but we’re about to get very big, and I’m learning to deal with that elasticity. I’m very excited for the new building,” she says.
Paige Hall, a peer minister and senior, will graduate by the center’s projected July 2021 completion, but she shares her gratitude for the enrichment she’s received at the Newman Center, including through visiting the adoration chapel and “taking time with Jesus,” a practice that was new to her as a freshman.
“I found a lot of amazing friends here and grew out of my shell. I’m much more extroverted now than when I first came to campus,” she says, noting that she wishes more students could experience, as she has, how “you can have a good time without partying every night and losing your mind.”
Affirming Hall’s experience, Cheney says practiced religiosity leads to a healthier life.
“It gives young people some semblance of hope and contributes a lot to the overall happiness of a person,” he says.
Scientific studies show that faith leads to stronger relationships, higher addiction-recovery rates and better coping strategies and work habits, he adds.
“This isn’t the Bible guy preaching on the corner,” he says. “There is a battle for the minds and hearts of our young adults, and the shifts we see in the culture start at the university level.”
Cheney says the $21.5 million project, a labor of love which has come through years of prayer and effort, will ultimately build a broader base value at NDSU, increasing the quality and caliber for the entire campus.
“What happens when students are encouraged to become virtuous people who have a semblance of personal integrity?” he asks. “The encounter with Christ changed my life, and I want that for every student because I know what happened to me. My life was a mess, and it completely changed.”
Desiring the best possible life for all NDSU students, he says, drives the project at its core.
“These are our future leaders.”
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on Feb. 28, 2020.]