On a chilly fall Sunday evening, the well-lit sign saying “Catholic Campus Ministry Center” and the lights of the charming brick house behind it beckoned in the darkness to students from the University of Hartford in West Hartford.
Inside, students were greeted by the delicious smells of a roast turkey dinner wafting from the tiny kitchen. Sandi Smith, the Catholic campus minister, invited newcomers to grab a plate and help themselves.
Students sat at two long tables in the dining room, where they ate and chatted. Once the meal was over, a few said goodbye, but most stayed on.
The creative ones remained in the dining room to paint ornaments for a tree they planned to donate to the Wadsworth Atheneum Festival of Trees. The Newman Choristers headed to the white-paneled living room turned worship space, where they began practicing for the 7:15 p.m. Mass. At the same time, a group of young men headed upstairs to the Newman Lounge, where they held their first young-adult Knights of Columbus council meeting.
An hour later, the group functions came to an end. There was another flurry of activity, as some students left and others arrived.
Then the bustling house quieted down and more than 30 students gathered for a reverent celebration of the Sunday Mass. Father Patrick Kane, the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Catholic chaplain for the University of Hartford, officiated.
After the Mass, Smith announced upcoming group activities, including a coat drive. She also invited everyone to return on Tuesday for the 12:15 p.m. Mass and a turkey soup lunch.
These activities and many others are now possible at the Archdiocese of Hartford’s new Catholic Campus Ministry Center, which opened last October to serve students at the University of Hartford.
In May 2017, the archdiocese purchased the former home at 207 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford after the University of Hartford put the property up for sale.
Leaders in the Archdiocese of Hartford had already determined they wanted to grow campus ministries in the archdiocese, and this particular home was located directly across the street from the main entrance to the University of Hartford.
“The opportunity was presented to us and the archbishop thought it was good timing, so we took advantage of the opportunity,” said Sister Mary Grace Walsh, provost of the archdiocese’s Office of Education, Evangelization and Catechesis.
The new center is supported by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, she said, which is also a major supporter of campus ministries at various colleges and universities in the archdiocese.
“We realize it’s very important for the Church to accompany young people during the college years. We’re sort of the transition from home through college or university to living on their own,” Sister Mary Grace explained.
The new center is a place where students can get a respite during the day and also develop spiritually.
“It’s nice for students to have an oasis to come to, but it’s also filled with faith,” Sister Mary Grace said. “It provides a place for prayer, for service and for conversation.
“And it’s a good place for accompaniment in the faith,” she said. “Truly, that’s what the campus ministers are doing.” They’re connecting students with their faith, she explained, and are helping them to grow in their relationship with Jesus.
After the purchase, the first priority was to prepare the home with students’ health and safety in mind, Sister Mary Grace said. Last summer, Paul Connery, archdiocese director of property and assets, and Stephen Fiasconaro, facility director, took the lead in adding a handicapped-accessible ramp, alarm system, outdoor lighting and air conditioning on the first floor. A sidewalk was added along the road, and the facility was inspected by the archdiocese’s Office of Safe Environment.
Archbishop Leonard P. Blair blessed the center on Oct. 18. It officially opened three days later, just in time for parents’ weekend at the university.
The center hosted 75 parents at an open house. Some were so appreciative of the new center, Smith said, that they mailed in small checks and gift cards to help support the venture. One mother from New Mexico even shipped a vase to be used for flowers at Mass.
“Everyone wants it to succeed,” Smith said.
Since the opening, the center has seen an uptick in the number of students at Mass. Attendance at the Sunday evening Mass has averaged about 30 students, an increase of 10 students from the previous school year, Smith observed. By late November, attendance surpassed 30, and a few people had to sit in a hallway.
Father Kane, who was assigned as chaplain in August, said, “There definitely has been growth. We were filled to capacity tonight. It’s a nice problem to have. There’s more activity, and the students are starting to get excited.”
Father Kane believes in the value of campus ministry centers. As a music major at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) in New Britain, he felt something was missing from his life. He joined the activities at CCSU’s Newman House, where he eventually found his priestly vocation.
He said he thinks the new Catholic Campus Ministry Center at the University of Hartford is a great place for students “to pray, to study and to talk if they need to.” In addition to celebrating Mass at the center every Sunday and Tuesday, Father Kane hopes to join the students for meals and to make himself available for confessions, as his schedule permits.
“I see them as my flock,” he said, “and will care for each of them as best I can.”
Father Kane is also the parochial vicar at St. Teresa of Calcutta in Manchester.
The new facility itself offers many other benefits, namely greater permanence, visibility and convenience.
Before it opened, Masses were held in various rooms on campus and the Catholic campus minister’s office was hidden in the basement of the Gengras Student Union.
“Unless you were specifically coming to see me, you’d never pass by it,” Smith observed.
Housed in a Tudor home built in 1919, the new Catholic Campus Ministry Center offers a worship space, chaplain’s office, campus minister’s office and kitchen all in one building, plus a dining room, lounge, small library and an outdoor patio, where students can relax. The entryway and hallways afford space for posting event notices and signup sheets, as well as a place to display Catholic books and brochures.
The students said they appreciate the permanence of the center and the homey new venue.
Jillian Pelletier of Bristol, a junior at the University of Hartford and secretary of the Newman Club, said she has been attending Mass on campus since she was a freshman, but has always longed for a permanent place for prayer and worship.
“That was the one thing I wished they had here and now it feels like we do,” Pelletier said. “It’s permanent and it’s always here. We don’t have to set it up and break it down.”
Pelletier, a physical therapy major, said joining the Newman Club and attending Mass twice a week have both helped to deepen her faith. “I actually go to church more than I ever did at home,” she admitted.
Javier Melecio, a junior and a mechanical engineering student from Middletown, has been part of the Newman Club for two years.
“This house is a great upgrade,” he said. “It’s a much bigger space and more welcoming. It’s a great space for anyone to find themselves in a place of faith.”
Melecio was born in Puerto Rico and attended Xavier High School in Middletown, but said he did not begin practicing the faith until about five years ago. With Smith’s help, he made his first Communion while at the University of Hartford and is now studying with her weekly to prepare for his confirmation in the spring. “Sandi is always here to talk to about Catholicism,” he said, “and she makes great food.”
The Catholic Campus Ministry Center is officially open from noon to 9 p.m. on Sunday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday. On Sunday, parking is available directly across the street in university Lot A.
The center is also open for specific events, such as Monday evening for a small faith group meeting, Tuesday evening for Choristers practice and on some weekends for occasional retreats and socials.
Smith said she tells students that the center is open anytime her white Volvo station wagon is parked in the driveway.