Comprehensive Expansion Plan

The 'Great Problem'

A crowded Mass at the old St. Thomas Aquinas Church

“We have some great problems at the Newman Center!” This is a phrase that was heard with increasing frequency by the Newman Center’s staff and students in recent years.  There were simply too many students for the previous building to handle.  Through God’s grace and blessings, the Newman Center – St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has experienced unprecedented growth over the past twenty years, both in its scope and in the impact of its ministries and programs.  Adding to the “problem,” the University’s projections indicated a continually growing Catholic student population into the foreseeable future.

Although four Sunday Masses were offered each week, the original St. Thomas Aquinas Church was routinely filled to overflowing, forcing many students to stand across the back and in the side aisles.  Others chose to leave.  Similarly, the Newman Center’s social hall was consistently filled to capacity during parish events, making it difficult for first-time students to feel welcome.  Ministry groups, including the FOCUS Bible studies, Knights of Columbus, RCIA classes, Phi Kappa Theta Fraternity, Pi Alpha Chi Sorority and others, were limited in their use of the facility due to the demand for space.  Furthermore, the former Newman Center’s accessibility was severely limited for handicapped or elderly parishioners and guests.  Lastly, the original mechanical and electrical systems had begun failing and could no longer adequately support the demands of a modern facility.

For nearly fifty-five years, the Newman Center – St. Thomas Aquinas Church had served Catholic students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln well, and was ideally located on the campus.  Relocating the ministries would have been detrimental to its marketability and overall student impact. 

The Plan

Therefore, in 2010, the Newman Center’s leadership, including its permanent staff, students and volunteer Leadership Council, developed a comprehensive campus expansion plan to address its programmatic, structural and fiscal needs for the foreseeable future.  Central to the proposed changes was the construction of a new St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center.  The new church was designed to more than double the church’s previous seating capacity, and the student center would provide greatly expanded and modernized ministry space.  The comprehensive expansion plans also included the acquisition of additional land, the construction of a sixty-bed Catholic fraternity house, a sixty-bed Catholic sorority house and the preservation of the long-term fiscal stability of the Catholic campus ministries at UNL.

The programmatic concept is to provide a breadth of ministry opportunities sufficient to appeal to our large and diverse student population, while at the same time providing the adequate depth of evangelization and catechesis in order to engage students on a life-changing level during their formative college years.  It is our belief that, especially during the influential college years, a solid Catholic moral formation should complement a student’s academic and intellectual formation.  During this critical life juncture, students are faced with countless moral choices, their vocational discernment and the decision of what role faith and religion will play, if any, in their adult lives. 

The Buildings

The structural component of the Newman Center’s comprehensive expansion plan addressed the current and long-term facility needs of a growing student parish.  This began with the acquisition of the necessary land, strategically located to accommodate the construction of a new Newman Center – St. Thomas Aquinas Church, as well as a Catholic fraternity residence and a Catholic sorority residence.  The Phi Kappa Theta Fraternity’s first chapter house was completed in July of 2013, and has been nearly full each year since. The Newman Center, completed in December of 2014, has provided the ministry and administrative space necessary to support a dynamic and growing campus ministry.  Completed in April of 2015, St. Thomas Aquinas Church has more than doubled the church’s seating capacity, increasing from 300 to 650 seats.  Combined, the Newman Center – St. Thomas Aquinas Church facility is sixty thousand square feet, utilizing the latest in geo-thermal technology and is entirely ADA accessible. 

The Architectural Design Matters

Architectural design matters.  Good design should not only reflect the reality of that which occurs within its boundaries, but impact the attitudes of those who encounter it.  Many of the curent generation of Catholic students are longing for something greater than the unpredictable, ever-changing, virtual world that they know.  The traditional, transcendental truth, beauty and goodness found in the Catholic Church resonate with these students.  For this reason, the Gothic architectural design of the new St. Thomas Aquinas Church has sparked considerable interest among students.  Its impressive exterior facade and 120' bell tower is easily noticed by students, staff and guests of the University and Downtown, Catholics and Non-Catholics alike.  The front door to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will forever be enhanced with this Catholic architectural treasure. 

The Capital Campaign

The Newman Center’s financial plan emphasized funding the comprehensive expansion plan through a $25 million capital campaign, which was launched in July of 2010. To date, $23.5 million has been raised.  However, because construction costs for the Newman Center and church exceeded our original budget, a renewed effort is currently underway to not only reach, but exceed our original campaign goal in hopes of fully retiring the expansion debt. Emphasis has also been placed on strengthening the Newman Center’s long-term fiscal stability by developing diverse sources of operational support and decreasing its existing level of dependency on charitable donations. Diversification of funding will be achieved through generating fraternity and sorority-related tenant revenues, securing additional endowment investments and broadening the number of engaged donors through the capital campaign process.   

The comprehensive plan, although not yet fully implemented, has already significantly improved the Newman Center’s ability to serve the spiritual, social and leadership formation needs of the over 6,300 Catholic students attending the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, while preparing it for continued growth for decades to come.  

Find out how you can help with the Capital Campaign here.