The St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Newman Center has been a place of worship for Illinois State students since the late 1950s. Alumni across generations have fond memories and strong ties to the fellowship of believers, who have gathered at “the large tan warehouse behind Avanti’s” since the 1960s.
That space has undergone significant change. A $3 million project to expand and transform the center began with a groundbreaking ceremony in April of 2008. Work is expected to be completed later this year.
Father Antonio Dittmer knows the project will impact the Illinois State students who worship at Newman Center, which also serves students at Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland Community College.
The demolition and rebuilding work will result in a new 300-seat chapel, along with recreational, library, classroom, and office space. Dittmer is especially pleased that the changes will clearly separate the worship and recreation areas. Both activities are valued, as evidenced by Newman Center’s “play hard and pray hard” motto.
“It is important for the students to be social and spend time with their peers, and it is also important to spend time in prayer,” Dittmer said. “Students attending the center have come to know the importance of prayer in their lives, and they enjoy the time spent in prayer. The students also participate in activities such as cookouts, formal dances, movie nights, and volunteer work that is undertaken both locally and in other states.”
There are approximately 4,000 Catholic students at Illinois State. Many not only visit Newman Center for the Sunday service, but return for activities that are held throughout the week. Dittmer estimates that there are at least 50 to 100 students that come to the center each day. It’s not unusual for students to just “hang out” at the center and enjoy spontaneous activities.
“This is their home,” Dittmer said, noting the strong ties remain long after graduation. Newman Center is remembered fondly by alumni from generations. The center provides a comfortable environment to get together with friends, join in activities, and just hang out. The bond created brings alumni back to visit, with many staying involved after they have graduated.
“A lot of students consider themselves to be primarily St. Robert Ballarminian alums over Illinois State alums,” he said. “These alums make a point to stop by the center when they are in the area, or are visiting Illinois State campus.”
Newman Center has provided a “home away from home” feel for students since it was founded in the late 1950s. “There has been a center almost as long as Catholics have been in the area,” Dittmer said. “There was a time when the area was predominately Protestant, and Catholics weren’t exactly welcome.”
Eventually there became a large enough concentration of Catholics in the area for a place of worship to be built. The Newman Center was created for university students in 1967. It then became a permanent place for Catholic students to gather.
While the location has shifted and improved over time, the center’s mission remains unchanged: “The St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Newman Center is dedicated to the intellectual, spiritual and apostolic formation of university students for their own salvation and for the building up of the Kingdom of God on earth.”
Intellectual, spiritual, and apostolic elements are the three key aspects of the center’s mission, which Dittmer said ultimately exists so that students may “know Christ, love Christ, and share Christ.”
The educational goal is achieved by staff providing various opportunities for students to gain a deeper understanding about their faith. Free classes are offered. The spiritual facet includes prayer, as well as spiritual counsel and direction from staff members. Students are encouraged to share their faith with those around them.
Dittmer has seen the results of the ministry in many tangible ways over the years, including the decision of 13 students to become priests. There have also been many marriages between students who met at the center, not to mention friendships that remain strong over decades.
Dittmer hopes that alumni who return to the Newman Center will appreciate the improved space. He knows they will find that although the center’s appearance has changed, the foundation is the same from their collegiate days. Newman Center remains “a very special place to be involved spiritually,” Dittmer said, “as well as a place to make connections that will last a lifetime.”
Editor’s note: Father Antonio Dittmer has been reassigned to Immaculate Heart of Mary Seminary in Wenona, Minnesota. The change occurred as a result of cuts made to the Newman Center staff in July. He hopes to return to campus when the chapel is dedicated next spring.