FLUSHING — A lot has changed in the past year for the Newman Center at Queens College. New leadership, renovations, and community outreach efforts have brought new life to the center, all in a concerted effort to curb the trend of Catholic students leaving the faith during their college years.
On Monday, Sept. 18, Bishop Robert Brennan celebrated a Red Mass of the Holy Spirit at the center, which drew an audience of around 50 people. It commemorated the start of the fall term at Queens College and showcased both the physical and spiritual transformation of the Newman Center.
Madeline Liu, president of the Newman Club, said having Bishop Brennan celebrating Mass there was “surreal. I didn’t think the college would be so supportive of us.”
When Liu came to campus as a junior last year — her previous semesters having been held online due to the pandemic — the college’s Newman Club was barely in existence. Along with a handful of peers, she got the club rechartered. Now, as a senior, she is looking to make the space more welcoming and break the trend of Catholic students falling away from their faith.
The secular lures of New York City can make it “easy to forget about God,” said Liu, a lifelong Flushing resident. To combat this, she doesn’t shy away from talking about her faith, if fellow students are open to listening.
“Religion is not something that is old fashioned,” Liu said. “It’s a thing that everyone needs. You can be religious and be an intellectual. You can be religious and have a wonderful personality and be a caring individual.”
The Newman Club at Queens College has reached out to local parishes, high schools, and the diocese, all in an effort to keep its young adults in the faith, shared Omar Cortez, director of faith formation at Queens College.
They are taking on a behemoth of a challenge — 79% of former Catholics left the Church before the age of 23, according to the Pew Research Center.
It’s the youth and their energy, Father Jose Diaz said, that makes serving as the chaplain for the Newman Center so invigorating. Father Diaz needed support to attract students to the Newman Center, and Bishop Brennan turned to FOCUS to give him that resource.
FOCUS places missionaries on campuses across the United States to keep students guided toward their faith during their college years. Four missionaries have been assigned to Queens College this year to do outreach.
“Frankly, the best way I think to invite people is to nourish those who are coming and encourage them because they are the best salesperson,” said Bishop Brennan, who interacted with the FOCUS program on the SUNY-Stony Brook campus.
Father Diaz, whose pastoral assignment is at Mary’s Nativity Church in Flushing, said the involvement of the FOCUS missionaries was a definite plus. “Instead of them seeing a guy with a collar here all serious, they see peers. They see people who are normal, but are faithful,” he said.
Katie Mossbarger, the team director of the FOCUS missionaries at Queens College, said the missionaries interact with students on campus, handing out flyers, playing games with the students on campus, and simply being a presence to encourage students to continue to embrace their faith.
“Being able to encounter just one student who wants to know the faith more — that’s been just incredible to see,” Mossbarger said.
The joy of FOCUS is contagious, Father Diaz said. Their presence makes an impact, as they can create a connection with students in a way he, as a priest, could not do.
Brendaliz Leon, a freshman, agreed, saying, “As soon as you come in, the missionaries have bright smiles on their faces and you feel welcomed. That’s what you need, I feel, most of the time in college.”
Another freshman, Genesis Enriquez, found the Newman Center on Instagram. She was looking for a way to grow her faith, and was happy there was a resource on campus that was easily accessible. She immediately loved the center and the neighboring chapel.
Anyone who has made the journey to the second floor of the student union building in years past will find a very different space than they once knew. The walls were once painted a dull green that Father Diaz considered very unappealing, so he had the university repaint them blue, and he had the room undergo a deep cleaning.
They installed a new altar this semester — a gift from St. Ann Church — and have added a coffee bar and seating to make the space more welcoming.
“We wanted to create a space at least to let most people know that when they come in here, even those who are not Catholic, that this is a sacred space,” Father Diaz said.