Newman Catholic Center evolves to sustain faith through pandemic

By Edward Trentzsch

Crucify him. Crucify him. 

Voices reciting ancient demands for an execution blare through the speakers in the parking lot of Newman Catholic Center. Newman is a Catholic parish and campus ministry on the western edge of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus, neighboring both residential and sorority houses. The Catholic Center contains a unique congregation where a diverse mix of children, undergraduates and senior citizens combine to celebrate the Catholic faith.

On April 2, no one was celebrating.

Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!

The day marked Good Friday, a Christian holiday signaling the torture and crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. Families and college students alike spread out across the black asphalt, sitting on lawn chairs and seat cushions instead of traditional church pews. Winter hats and blankets accompanied the parishioners who had smartly anticipated the unusually cold weather.

At the direction of the head priest, everyone in attendance rose to their feet to voice the commemoration of the Lord’s Passion, narrating the persecution of Jesus until his final breath.

“It is finished,” Jesus said. And bowing his head, he handed over his spirit. 

Following the mass, the revving of car engines provided the only sound as hordes of churchgoers dispersed in somber silence. A thick cloud of sorrow seemed to envelop the church, but every member of the congregation looked forward to the miracle of Easter Sunday.

Rising above the pandemic

Miracles manifest when amazing acts occur in unexpected ways. Over the past year, the Newman Catholic Center has battled with the unexpected just to survive.

Beginning in March of 2020, COVID-19 wreaked havoc on religious institutions across the country as states restricted gatherings of people. For previous Easters, people lined up outside Newman’s front door to catch a glimpse of the service because the sanctuary was packed to capacity. Last year, officials decided to cancel the service and livestream it without any in-person spectators.

Although the livestream celebrated how Mary Magdalene discovered the empty tomb of Jesus, the jarring sight of an empty chapel signaled a new reality for the small campus church.

“I had to look around and think to myself, ‘I hope this isn’t the way things are going to be forever’,” Deacon Kevin Sullivan, a staff member at Newman, said. “Everything was so strange.”

Unable to gather during the pandemic, Newman completely evolved how parishioners could attend worship services. In addition to streaming every service on social media, the staff at Newman spent countless hours developing a robust outdoor environment where the spirit of the Catholic community could thrive. After consulting with experts from the UNC School of Public Health, Newman became the first parish in the Diocese of Raleigh to reopen.

Being bold and creative

Everything changed to accommodate for the pandemic, including the offertory at mass, where church members now donate by scanning a QR code on their service pamphlets. Over six loudspeakers, a makeshift altar and a temporary stand for the band were all bought or created to allow the parish a chance to experience mass while staying socially distanced.

The community of a church exists within the hearts of its believers, not within the walls of any building.

“The pandemic has given us a new opportunity to start over and rethink our strategy of reaching more people,” Kevin O’Reilly, Associate Director of Campus Ministry at Newman, said.

O’Reilly is the first person to enter Newman in the morning and the last person to leave, the kind of guy who can recite The Apostles Creed in his sleep. Before every mass, he arrives at least two or three hours early to start transforming the parking lot into a place of worship. Wrestling with the sound equipment is the hardest part, with each speaker and microphone connecting into an audio board through a tangled mess of black wires. He then works with different student leaders to set up the liturgical altar before checking on those participating in the mass at Newman’s temporary staging room.

O’Reilly goes to great lengths to remind people of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the Catholic church, with the virus recently claiming the lives of at least 50 active parishioners at St. Sebastian in New York City. Every day is a gift, and every day brings another opportunity to do things better and safer than the rest.

“I have been thinking a lot on this quote by Pope Francis about our church, where he says ‘I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their respective communities’,” O’Reilly said.

Creating hope through adversity

For Francis Lauzier, a senior at UNC majoring in chemistry with plans of attending medical school in Detroit, the community at Newman has been a pillar of support long before the pandemic. Lauzier first encountered Newman during his first weekend at UNC when he attended Carolina Kickoff, a UNC orientation program for first-years. As Lauzier looked around the room at the other smiling faces and cheery freshman, he felt consumed with homesickness. He went to grab his bag and walk back to his dorm at Ehringhaus before a program counselor approached him.

“I don’t know if you are religious, but would you like to join me when me and my friends go to church? I’m Catholic,” the counselor said.

Lauzier has been a regular sight in the Newman pews ever since.

“Before, being Catholic was like much more of a cultural connection than a personal one,” Lauzier said. “But being here has made it a personal connection, especially since I’ve had the opportunity to talk with wonderful students and staff.”

Although this Easter marked the first services of in-person worship for many churches in North Carolina as vaccination rates climb to 18 percent, Newman has persisted with its outdoor services. Unlike on Good Friday, the sun burned brightly on Easter Sunday families flocked to Newman to ditch their hats and blankets for sundresses and short sleeves. Instead of the cold solemnity of the Friday service, a warm hope now shone on the faces of everyone listening to the gospel under Carolina blue skies.

“The environment was super welcoming, and you couldn’t ask for a better vibe for a great day,” Melissa Alexis, a junior at NC State and Chapel Hill native, said with a smile. Despite moving to Raleigh, Alexis still made the 30-minute drive to be at the Newman mass.

The mass has ended. Go in peace! Allelujah! Allelujah!

As the mass reached its conclusion, O’Reilly quickly climbed multiple flights of stairs to the roof of the church to photograph the amazing turnout Newman had received. As he looked over the crowd, he felt a peace come over him. Through faith and determination, an ordinary parking lot had been transformed into a shining symbol of hope through adversity.

“This world now is a puzzle with missing pieces,” O’Reilly said. “Every person who comes to Newman is an important and beautiful piece to God’s wonderful puzzle picture of life.”

Edited by Megan Suggs