CHARLESTON — In 1939, Father Thomas Connolly and Dorothee Coleman had the vision to gather 13 students in her living room to form and shape a community that has grown and changed over these past 80 years. One constant amidst all these changes: inviting students, faculty, and staff into transforming relationships with Christ and one another. Milestone years like this one are an excellent occasion to pause and ask ourselves what kind of church and what kind of community do we want to be on the campus of Eastern Illinois University (EIU)? We catch a glimpse of this from a note left by an EIU student on a white board at the center:
“Dear Newman: The people I have met at the Newman Center have been by far the most caring and loving people I have met in my lifetime. For all that you say and do it has made an impact on myself. Remember how amazing you truly are and how much you mean to me. L.”
We found out who “L” was one semester later when he joined RCIA and became Catholic.
St. John Henry Newman wrote, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Indeed, this community has grown over the past 80 years and will continue to do so. However, one constant theme threads its way throughout and over the decades: God has claimed us as his own. It can be seen in every small group, every Mass, every mission trip, and retreat. It can be witnessed as we gather for events and parties. It is celebrated in lives transformed, in faith deepened, in our “Amen” at the Eucharist, in love of neighbor, and in the quiet of prayer.
During these past 80 years, we truly are seeking a change of heart, and a way for our students, faculty and staff to live the joy of the Gospel not just at EIU, but for a lifetime. And so, we celebrate a community striving to be light and salt for the world, however imperfectly. St. John Henry Newman has another quote stating, “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”
We are invited by our God to live our callings deeply. To listen to the promptings of God so we follow through with new resolve, and new patterns. In reflecting on the past, we find a community desiring to be all that God dreams for us, a community deeply committed to Christ, giving witness to his boundless love for us on our campus.
So whether it is the fall of 1939 when 13 students gathered with Father Connolly and Mrs. Coleman in her living room, or the fall of 1959 when students had to walk to St. Charles Borromeo every Sunday for Mass, or the spring of 1979 when 1,500 students celebrated the start of Lent in the university ballroom at Ash Wednesday Mass, or 1999 when 157 students traveled to 17 sites throughout the United States to be in mission over spring break, or 2019 when dozens of students gathered without fanfare each and every week to break open God’s word in our small groups. We see in these faces our very selves in all those examples of faith.
We see a Newman community alive and vibrant. To quote one of our past chaplains, Father John Titus, “God has placed on every human heart a desire to return to God, and to do so with joy and thanksgiving.” This is what we will encourage our students, faculty, and staff to do as we create avenues for heart to speak unto heart. For more information about EIU’s Newman Center, go to eiunewman.org.
Maureen Smith is director of Development at Newman Catholic Community at Eastern Illinois University.