Catholic Newman Center near ISU adds new space, even as consolidation study continues
Young-adult Catholics celebrated the unveiling of their renovated Newman Center near Illinois State University on Sunday, even as their church leaders continue consolidation planning that could lead to the closure of Bloomington’s Holy Trinity Church.
Lou Tylka, bishop of the Diocese of Peoria that includes Bloomington-Normal, was on hand for Sunday’s rededication and blessing of the St. John Paul II Catholic Newman Center. The renovations include a new quiet study space, a new kitchen where students who live in the dorms can cook together, a large rec room, and office space, among other improvements.
“Compared to how it was before, it’s like a night and day difference,” said Will Kieffer, a senior history major at ISU. “Everything’s just completely reworked. It’s all got a fresh coat of paint. New tables and new chairs. Everything looks so great in there.”
Another major investment came last year, when the church placed Father Kyle Lucas as the Newman Center’s first full-time priest since 2009.
“Our priest resources are very precious resources. And yet we have to maximize those resources in ways that will have a very significant impact on many people’s lives,” Tylka said.
That shortage of priests is partly what prompted the Peoria Diocese’s ongoing restructuring planning, called Growing Disciples, which is expected to lead to fewer parishes. A draft plan released earlier this month called for merging three Bloomington parishes into one: St. Mary, St. Patrick and Holy Trinity. Under the plan, St. Mary would be the primary site, St. Patrick would the secondary site, and Holy Trinity is recommended to be “not in use.”
Tylka stressed that Holy Trinity's closure is just a proposal at this point. Final decisions are expected in May.
“And believe me, I’m getting feedback. Folks from Holy Trinity have written to me to express their concerns and their hopes as well,” he said.
“The reality of the process that we’re doing will strengthen the church in the long run. But it’s going to require some difficult decisions,” Tylka added. “We also have to be very creative in looking at all the factors that go into a decision and discerning what is the right way. It’s not just about the current reality. It’s about the bigger reality of the church of the future – what is sustainable, what is vibrant, how our priest resources can best be utilized. We’re looking at this whole process in a holistic way.”
The argument is that pruning a few declining churches will allow others to grow.
Holy Trinity, which was built in 1933, has an average weekly Mass count of 426. That represents a 61% drop in attendance since 2015, the largest decline of any Catholic church in McLean County.
The three combined parishes – St. Mary, St. Patrick and Holy Trinity – would share two priests, according to the proposal. That proposal says one of them should be a Spanish speaker; St. Mary is the center of Hispanic ministry in Bloomington-Normal, Tylka said.
Tylka said the church is not a place, though Holy Trinity is a special one: The art deco building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
So what are the options for the building if the parish closes?
“A space can be sold. It can be torn down, depending on the building’s condition. The land could be sold. All of those things are determined by the local community, in consultation with the diocese, once the process of relegation is done,” Tylka said.
Meanwhile, the church is investing more in the Newman Center, which serves college students from across Bloomington-Normal, most for just a few years while they’re away from home.
Lucas said his placement as a full-time priest is showing some early returns – and that the relationships he’s building could even help the church rebuild its ranks of clergymen.
“Without a priest full time, day in and day out, sharing a life with them, being a normal human being with them, but also trying to love God above all things … Now guys can look at a full-time priest here and say, ‘This life is (able to be imitated). It doesn’t seem so mysterious,” Lucas said.
The Newman Center renovations are the first significant changes to the space since a major expansion 13 years ago, just across the street from the ISU campus.
“There’s a really high-quality café, a coffee bar area – and students are drawn in by caffeine, of course,” Lucas said.
The Peoria Diocese points to Pew research that showed nearly 80% of former Catholics leave the church before age 23.
Maeve Billing, a senior elementary education major at ISU, was there for Sunday’s rededication and blessing. Billing said she’s grateful to have found a home like Newman Center – and the relationships that come with it.
“The center was wonderful before, but it makes so much sense for the diocese to invest in Catholic young adults, because we’re the future of the church,” Billing said. “College is such a vital time to make that decision about what you want to do with the rest of your life.”