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Newman Center to re-focus on student activities; community pushes back

Changes are afoot at the Newman Chapel at Fifth and C streets in downtown Davis. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

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From page A1 | September 06, 2013 | Leave Comment

Davis’ Newman Center is soon to undergo reconfiguration, but parishioners are asking that the church reconsider aspects of the change they deem unreasonable.

The spiritual organization has for nearly 50 years ministered to the Catholic community at UC Davis within the chapel halls at 514 C St. It has been a place of worship for students, faculty and staff on the secular campus.

But the Newman Center will now be centered on students and their faith development, instead of as a place for university-associated community members to attend Mass. The plan is to shift those parishioners to St. James Parish, 1275 B St., by the end of the month.

The impetus for this was a strategic planning process that Bishop Jaime Soto, who oversees the Diocese of Sacramento, initiated two years ago to identify areas of improvement in the diocese region. The issue that arose, primarily, was the youth programs.

“His concern was that there was a lot of non-students engaged in the Newman Center activities,” said Deacon Clark Goecker, who directed the Newman Center for 10 years. “The programs were scheduled to meet the needs of the community members, and not necessarily the students.”

Next came an examination of the facilities. The Newman Center is best suited to the sort of student-focused activities Soto had in mind, Goecker said, so the decision was made to designate St. James as the new place for regular community Masses.

What the faculty are opposed to — as UCD professor Kevin Roddy summarized in a letter of protest that he submitted Thursday to Soto — is taking community members who have long frequented the Newman Center out of the picture entirely.

“We’d love to help the transition, but we’re being excluded from that right now,” Roddy said. “Some of the changes are actually good; a closer connection between St. James and the Newman Center would be very useful.

“The problem is that in order to make this move, those of us who are faculty and staff can’t have any real contact with the students. And we also have to turn the chapel into a ‘Newman Hall.’ We feel that’s not appropriate.”

But the faculty and staff aren’t alone in their cause, as there are some UCD students who are equally unsettled by the planned changes. A student letter of disapproval also was sent Thursday.

The message was written by Amanda Calzada, a student and freelance journalist who collected more than 60 signatures in support of her sentiment. A majority of those were from UCD students, she explained, and the remainder were alumni.

Within her 1,600 word letter, she speaks of the reaction parishioners had when first apprised of the plan. She also discusses the meaning of Catholic as “universal,” and how that is inconsistent with turning Newman Center into a more exclusive place.

“These political happenings are not a reflection on the faith and the philosophical depth of Catholicism,” Calzada said. “And students are especially upset because we even didn’t know about this at all until maybe a week or two ago.”

John Troidl, another UCD faculty member, further expressed frustration about what he described as secrecy behind the project. Soto never met with the community to discuss the agenda, he said, which is at odds with words of the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church.

“The pope recently sent a direct message to the bishops of Brazil: You have to get out of your churches, and mansions, and go meet with the people,” Troidl said. “At the same time, Soto is launching this strategic plan, when, to my knowledge, he has never even visited the center.”

Troidl added that if there is an opportunity for the faculty and students — who he said are the stakeholders in this strategic plan — to have dialogue with Soto, there would be a request to hold off on reorganizing the Newman Center as “too narrowly focused on students.”

As Troidl sees it, it’s leadership missteps such as this that have accounted for a decline in local Catholic membership. He recalled a time in which the religious hub would be packed wall to wall on Sunday for Mass, with people lined outside the building and up the sidewalk.

Filling in for Goecker — as he’ll be taking a more active role at St. James — is Stan Cordero, a youth lay minister who is also acting as an assistant director of the area’s other two Newman Centers — in Chico and Sacramento.

Neither the students nor faculty take issue with Cordero, who designated some time after last week’s Mass to hear community feedback. In their respective letters, the students and faculty spoke highly of Cordero, and wish to experience his leadership under the same roof.

Because there has been no communication back and forth between the vested interests, a representative of the Diocese of Sacramento, Kevin Eckery, was surprised to hear this week that some parishioners feel put out.

“Some people don’t like change,” Eckery said when asked for a response in a phone interview Wednesday. “However, it’s Davis, and we’re only a short bike ride away at St. James — so in terms of how it works practically, there shouldn’t be much difference.”

He reaffirmed that the plans allow for new Newman Center activities, which he said may include retreats, small group ministry, Bible study, talks by Catholic faculty members on topics of student interest, praise and worship music nights, service projects, cultural celebrations, study hall time and social gatherings.

Introducing a diverse range of recreation into the environment, he said, helps to better achieve the stated mission of the Newman Center:

“Typically, Newman Centers are meant to serve students in the community,” Eckery said. “The care of that group’s spiritual needs is always the top concern of the centers. That’s an important age, during which people either re-commit to the church or move away from it.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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