Fr. Bill Kempf

Director Fr. Bill Kempf talks with a student at UMSL’s Catholic Newman Center, which turns 50 this year. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The charming house on the corner of West Drive and Natural Bridge Road is one of the oldest gathering places at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. It’s the UMSL Catholic Newman Center, and this year Newman turns 50.

Some things have changed since 1964 – like the computer lab and the wiring that Director Fr. Bill Kempf installed to accommodate all the new devices and charging stations.

But in a way, the place has always been a charging station.

Stop by and you’ll find a student studying at the dining room table, making a sandwich in the kitchen or taking a nap on one of the too-comfortable-to-leave couches. It’s this tradition of being present for students, whether they have difficult life questions or just need a snack, that is Newman’s legacy.

The UMSL Newman Center is part of a national network of Catholic ministry centers on more than 400 university campuses. Cardinal John Henry Newman, a 19th-century Catholic theologian, is the organization’s namesake.

The UMSL Newman Center began when UMSL was just a year old. Its first director, Fr. Don Dahmhorst, was adamant that faith and academia should complement each other.

The way to accomplish this was through fellowship, not just worship. For many years, Newman was the only social, non-academic building on campus and provided a gathering place, even hosting faculty happy hours in the 1960s.

At the time that Mark Wilhelm, BSBA 1976, chose UMSL, fraternities like his Pi Kappa Alpha provided a unifying element for students who juggled full course loads and part-time jobs.

Students share a meal at UMSL Newman Center’s communal dining room.

Newman wasn’t a Catholic fraternity, so it was surprising when then Director Fr. Bill Lyons offered the center for the Pi Kappa Alpha weekend retreat. That was the first time that Wilhelm and about 50 of his fraternity brothers saw the Newman Center.

“I can’t say enough good things about the Newman Center,” says Wilhelm. “Fr. Lyons had a way of encouraging conversation from us – a group of mixed-faith college-aged guys who were really not interested in deep discussions – that allowed us all to come away from the retreat as better people.”

Wilhelm’s busy schedule did not allow him time to attend Mass, but after that weekend, he made it a priority to attend retreats. Despite a demanding life now as the CEO of Safety National, Wilhelm keeps in regular contact with his UMSL friends. And when his children left for college, he made sure they knew where the Newman Center was on their respective campuses.

Today the Newman Center remains a special place for student experiences. Thanks to an active group of student officers, its calendar is full of soup dinners, service projects, game nights, trips to the Saint Louis Zoo and much more.

Liz Hampton, a sophomore psychology major, was an officer last semester. She commutes to UMSL from South St. Louis County and uses the center to work on homework between classes. But the best part of her experience has been reuniting with one of her best high school friends at a Newman retreat.

“I had no idea that she even went to UMSL,” says Hampton. “But now I don’t know what I’d do without her! I’m so thankful for the Newman Center.”

Gratitude is literally part of the groundwork. Alumni purchased rocks for the new conversation garden with sayings that reflect their experiences at the Newman Center. One reads, “A Great Place to Meet Your Spouse”– a reputation well earned as Fr. Kempf has married at least 10 couples who

met at the Newman Center and even baptized several of their children, affectionately referred to as “Newman babies.”

The fellowship, service and friendships of the Newman Center have made it a campus charging station for 50 years. Here’s to another 50.

This story was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of UMSL Magazine.

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