In 1941, Northern Illinois State Teachers College had an enrollment of 1,008 students and 79 faculty members. At that time, there was no established Catholic ministry on campus. Dr. Marguerite O’Connor, a Catholic faculty member, approached Fr. Charles Quinn, pastor of St. Mary’s parish in DeKalb, and requested permission to begin a Newman Club. Dr. O’Connor wanted to provide an organization where Catholic students could socialize and be supported in their faith.
Fr. Quinn was very positive about this idea, so a meeting was set up at St. Mary’s rectory. Twelve students attended the first meeting and the Newman ministry was born. In effect, this was Newman’s first “ice cream social”, with Fr. Quinn supplying two quarts of ice cream and Dr. O’Connor providing two home-baked cakes.
Dr. Marguerite O’Connor
A House becomes a Home! St. Mary’s associate pastor, Fr. Charles McCarren, became the Newman Club’s chaplain in the late 1940’s. He believed that, for the Newman Club to flourish, it needed a gathering place on campus. When an old house at 618 College Avenue (the present site of NIU’s library) went up for sale, Fr. McCarren approached Fr. Quinn with the hope that St. Mary’s would buy the house for the student’s use.
He was not deterred when his proposal was turned down. With Fr. Quinn’s skeptical approval, Fr. McCarren borrowed $2,200 from his mother and $3,500 from the DeKalb Trust and Savings Bank to buy the house.
Rev. Charles K. McCarren
618 College Avenue- The Newman Club
The house was in rough shape at the time of the purchase. With the help of a contractor, the Knights of Columbus, some area residents, (mainly from St. Mary’s of DeKalb) and students, a basement was put under the house (dug by volunteers). Heating and plumbing was also installed.
Volunteers from St. Mary’s set up and took down folding chairs for Sunday Masses. This house became the Newman Center in 1951 and remained so until 1960.
Newman Club Advisory Council
During the late 1950’s, Northern Illinois University’s enrollment began to grow and it became apparent that there was a need to serve the growing number of Catholic students. In 1952, Fr. Hubert McGinn, a newly ordained priest at St. Mary’s was appointed part-time Newman chaplain. Fr. McGinn’s service became full-time in 1957.
That same year, a 2 1/2 acre parcel of farmland was purchased on Normal Road complete with farmhouse, sheep shed, and a crop of soybeans as the future site of a Newman Chapel and Center.
Fr. McGinn standing in the field of soybeans- the future site of the Newman Center.
Although the land was purchased as the future site of a Newman Chapel and Center, the farmhouse became the legendary “Newman Hilton” – a rooming house for Catholic students that remained in use until the mid-1970’s.
Fr. McGinn led the drive to build the Newman Center. This was accomplished with the eventual full support of Bishop Loras T. Lane, a dedicated Advisory Board, the Knights of Columbus, the Diocesan Council of Catholic Women and many other Catholic organizations.
The Knights of Columbus, along with parishioners from St. Mary’s, played a very important role in the building of the Newman Center. Councils from around the Rockford Diocese, contributing generously so that the Center could be built to serve the spiritual needs of Catholic students at NIU. The first liturgies were celebrated in the new 420- seat chapel in September 1960.
In 1964, Rev. Hubert V. McGinn, Newman’s chaplain, announced that ground would be broken in late June to begin the construction of the new educational wing for the Newman Center. Included in the plans for the wing were a book store, a publication room, two classrooms, four offices (two of which would be used for counseling), a seminar conference room to accommodate to 150-200 people, and storage space.
Ground Breaking for Newman Educational Wing- July 12, 1964
Artists rendering of new wing.
Final construction of the educational wing.
Since the college had not yet built a Student Center, the lower level of Newman became a gathering place for the entire campus. Its large cafeteria operation was used to serve meals and host large dances at night. The “Catacombs” was popular for its coffee-houses and shows that were put on by local adult talent and movies. The cafeteria was run by Fr. McGinn’s mother and became known as “Mom McGinns” by the students and faculty/staff.
A popular place – Newman Center’s Snack Bar – Bernice Klemm
The Newman Club of NIU Presents PINK CHAMPAGNE with music by D.J. Militello. Jan 14, 1961 $2.00 Donation
The Newman Benefit Dinner was held in 1962 and has continued uninterrupted until 2020! (COVID 19)
In 1964, credit classes in theology were added through NIU’s extension program with Loyola University. Students could earn up to 10 hours in transferable credit to NIU by taking up to five two-hour courses in Religious Studies covering The Bible, Church History, Morality, Social Teaching, and The Sacraments. The tuition price was $20 per course, and these classes continued to be offered well into the 1980’s.
In 1966, full parish status was granted to Newman under the fitting title of Christ the Teacher University Parish. Since then, Newman has been blessed with a wonderful mixture of students and permanent parishioners.
Newman’s Annual Benefit Dinner
In 1971, Fr. Robert Hoffman was named as the second pastor of the Newman Center. Early in his tenure, a mission statement was developed for the Newman Center: “A Faith Community Called to Worship, to Minister, to Educate, to Promote Peace and Justice.”
At graduation in the spring of 1982, NIU recognized Fr. Hoffman’s contributions to the entire university community by presenting him with the F. R. Geigle Outstanding Service Award.
In addition to developing many creative ministerial initiatives, (including an expanded Book Store under Rita Brown’s direction), Fr. Hoffman established the Newman Center’s endowment fund (initiated by a generous bequest from a diocesan priest, Fr. John Vaughn) to maintain and develop Newman’s ministries. (A bequest of $87,000 to a fund that now has grown to a million and a half dollars, enhanced significantly by a large bequest from Fr. McGinn’s estate.)
Fr. Hoffman greeting students!
In the fall of 1982, Fr. Don Ahles was named Newman’s third pastor. Under his leadership, the Center’s ministry continued to grow and increased participation in the governance of the parish was afforded to the permanent parishioner community. With Fr. Ahles’ support, permanent parishioner committees were established to advise in the areas of finance, personnel, building and grounds, and outreach activities.
Fr. Stephen Potter, (a student here when Fr. Hoffman was pastor) became Newman’s fourth pastor in 1988. Under his leadership, in 1991, the Newman staff was honored by NIU”s Student Affairs division with a recognition award “for extraordinary services extended to students and its impact on the quality of life on the campus.”
An elevator for the disabled was added to Newman’s facility in 1993.
Fr. Stephen Knox, an NIU student when Fr. Don Ahles was pastor, served as
Newman’s pastor from 1995 – 2004. Fr. Steve initiated the first Northern Illinois
Koinonia (“NIK”) weekend college retreat in 1996 for students to get away for the
weekend and grow closer to God and their Catholic faith. Students who have attended the retreat continue to lead NIK giving talks, leading small groups, acting in skits, and more. NIK retreats are held once each fall semester and once each spring.
Fr. Steve also expanded SMT’s role to include Welcome Back Weekend, the Ministry Fair, the Corn Boil at NIU football games, Thursday night cooking for the homeless shelter, Wednesday night Faith Enrichment, and other evangelization and service efforts that continue at Newman today. Under Fr. Steve’s pastorate, the number of Newman parishioners grew to over 400 families. At his departure, the Community Room name was aptly changed to The Knox Community Room.
After almost 40 years of heavy use, the Newman worship space was in clear need of a make-over. Fr. Steve led the two-year renovation effort with the help of parishioners, alumni, students, friends and other benefactors who responded with great generosity, raising over $960,000 for the renovation project. The tabernacle was moved to the adoration chapel, the altar and sanctuary were moved to the center, the pews were arranged so that worshippers could see each other, and beautiful new statuary was added to help us pray.
The first Mass was celebrated in the renewed worship space on December 4, 1999. That evening, 320 people gathered to attend 4:30 Mass and then celebrate at Newman’s 39th annual Benefit Dinner. In attendance was Fr. McCarren, who had bought the College Avenue Newman Center house with the help of a loan from his mother in 1951.
February 13, 2000 was set aside for the re-dedication of the renovated church, with Bishop Thomas Doran joining the Newman Community in celebrating the parish’s journey of faith and renewal. This was the Bishop’s second visit to Newman for such an occasion. As a young priest he was on the altar 40 years earlier assisting Bishop Lane dedicate the original