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A Newman Center, and a parish — St. Thomas More helps form faith
A Newman Center, and a parish — St. Thomas More helps form faith
A Newman Center, and a parish — St. Thomas More helps form faith
Jon DeBellis

EUGENE — Around these parts, pastor Dominican Father Daniel Rolland is known for his magic.

Frequently, after Mass, he can be caught performing magic tricks that he’s learned over the years on the front steps of St. Thomas More Parish, a Newman Center located across the street from the University of Oregon campus.

But even the priest knows it’s not his entertaining magic tricks that bring parishioners back. It’s the community that’s been built here over the years starting as a Newman Center in 1915, and becoming a parish in 1967.

“One of the things that struck me the most when I first came here, was that folks who come to church are here because they want to be,” said Father Rolland, who arrived as the parish’s pastor almost one year ago. Dominican priests arrived to serve at St. Thomas More first in 1962 and have ministered there since.

Although seen by outsiders mostly as a Newman Center for students attending the University of Oregon, St. Thomas More is also a thriving parish.

“We’re one community, but with segments of that community who have different needs,” says Father Rolland, who is assisted by Dominican Fathers David Orique and Augustine Hilander at the parish.

In addition to the Newman Center, the parish has ministries of visiting the sick, and bible study, and hosts several retreats throughout the year. Faith formation has also been a big focus for the parish. More than 20 people this year are entering the Catholic Church through the parish’s RCIA program.

Phil Rosebrook, 69, moved to Eugene from McKenzie Bridge in 1995. He came to know the Dominicans through their retreat center in McKenzie Bridge and was excited to learn he’d have them as parish priests again in Eugene. Rosebrook served on the St. Thomas More board for six years.

“The parish itself is a unique composite,” said Rosebrook. “You have the mission of the Newman centers — to spread the faith to the students — but there are also a lot of people that have gone to the church for years that have built it into a parish family.”

Named in honor of Cardinal John Henry Newman, Newman Centers are residence and Catholic ministry centers at non-Catholic universities throughout the world. They were inspired by Newman’s writings encouraging societies for Catholic students attending secular universities.

The first Newman Center was established in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania.
The centers provide pastoral services and ministries to their Catholic communities.

Rosebrook says the close relationship to the university makes for fine music at Masses, a valuable liturgical element and an inspiring population of youth.

Those youth include Christy Austin and Rocío Peterson. The two are peer ministers at the Newman Center.

Austin, 22, is a fifth year senior majoring in mathematics. She wants to become a high school math teacher after graduation. Peterson is a fifth year senior as well, studying anthropology and human physiology. She’s pretty sure she’s headed for a career in nutrition.

Austin says she fell in love with St. Thomas More when she attended the alternative spring break her freshman year — an outing where students give up their vacation to do social service. This year, Austin and Peterson are helping organize the trip, planned for Coachella, Calif.

“For me it was weird going from a private Catholic school to a public university, moving into the residence halls where there were scores of folks around me who did not have the same morals or beliefs or faith,” said Austin. “St. Thomas More has been a touchstone.”

Originally from Argentina, Peterson, 23, was living with her family in Memphis before enrolling at the University of Oregon.

“When I started college, I promised my mom that I would go to church every Sunday,” said Peterson. “When I found out the Newman Center was the closest one to campus, I started coming.”

The two students are now active in their faith, and as peer ministers they work with a team of student leaders to help plan all student events, mission trips and work to get the word out about the Newman Center.

“If the Newman Center wasn’t here, I wouldn’t feel as part of a community,” said Austin. “There’re so many of my friends here, and my faith is here. I think to a certain extent I would have sought it out myself, but I don’t think I would be as dedicated. Because of the Newman center, I feel stronger in my faith.”

Father Rolland knows that his parish is important in this sense. Students going to university for the first time need a strong community to continue their faith journey during those formative years.

“Sometimes they encounter professors or peers who may be against religion,” said Father Rolland. “It’s good to be in a place where you can be reinforced and encouraged in your faith.”

But that’s not just important for students.

Ask Keila Whittington. When she moved from the East Coast to work as an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Oregon, she was thrilled to find out that the Dominicans ran a nearby Newman Center and parish near the school.

“I think being the sister of a Dominican priest helped with my warm welcome,” said Whittington, whose brother, Father Paul Whittington ministers in Chicago.

She serves as a lector and eucharistic minister at the parish. “I’ll do whatever they need me to do, whenever I’m available,” she says.

Her job takes her out on the road quite a bit — coaching and recruiting — which she loves, but it’s also nice, she says, to have a parish home.

“The parish provides me easy access to Mass, yes, but I would say that it does more than that,” said Whittington. “For my own Catholic faith, I try and search to be a lay minister to all in everything that I do.

“It’s important for me to be a part of the Catholic community on campus, because I’ve always wanted my students and athletes to see me not only as a coach, but as a Catholic person. When you become an adult your faith doesn’t just go away — it’s up to us, who’ve had the faith as part of our lives, to share it with the younger generation.”

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