The Oldest Newman Center In The Country

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Celebrating 125 Years

Serving the University of Pennsylvania since 1893

We are an apostolic Catholic community, entrusted to Mary, that works with the university community and families to live a full Christian Life as missionary disciples, helping them encounter Christ, grow in their faith and their reconciliation with God and themselves, and sending them to serve, from one heart to another.

Birth of the Newman Movement

It was in 1893 that Timothy Harrington, a graduate medical student at the University of Pennsylvania, together with John J. Gilbride, James J. Walsh and his brother Joseph met with Father Garvey, pastor of St. James Parish, to explore ways of providing students with an ongoing enrichment of Catholic faith. The fruit of their work was the establishment of the Newman Club and eventually the Newman Apostolate, a recognized ministry within the Catholic Church. Newman Centers take their name from John Henry Cardinal Newman, the 19th century theologian whose insights placed theology at the heart of the university experience.

Nothing would be done at all if one waited until one could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.
— Cardinal John Henry Newman
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 The Newman Legacy In Philadelphia

A Brief History

By John Ortega, SAS’20

Pope Francis once said, “A Christian without memory is not a true Christian but only halfway there: a man or a woman, a prisoner of the moment, who doesn’t know how to treasure his or her history, doesn’t know how to read it and live it as salvation history.”

The Newman Center exists today because of a memory – in fact because of many memories. Upon reflecting back upon their experiences, upon their memories of the Newman Center, students have had various ways to describe this place. Some people call it “… a parish away from home” (1995, The Record). They say it “… is worship-centered, with students and others on campus finding their way into activities that flow out of the common worship” (1970, Parish Bulletin)

One of my favorite descriptions comes from the 1972 edition of The Record, the University of Pennsylvania’s yearbook, which states that this place “ … offers you friendship, God-talk, good food, good noise, quiet if you want it, conversation … the Spirit, ping pong, prayer, a chance to help … comfy chairs, someone to talk to if you need it, books of all sizes, Mass on Sunday, a nice place to study, and maybe a little shine when things look dark” (1972, The Record).

These quotes, in many ways, describe the Newman Center, the physical building in which we are now in – a place that is sacred to many Catholics on campus … including many of you. Although that is true, I believe that these descriptions point to something much more than that. They point to the presence of a community – the Newman Community.

And I am not just talking about the community here that includes Penn, Drexel, USciences, and the Restaurant School. I am talking about a universal community of Newmanites around the world – united by their common interest in the Catholic faith.

This community is turning 125 years old later this year. 125 years of a devotion to spreading the mission of the Catholic Church at secular universities around the world. 125 years of history … of memories enriched with faith and love.

Yet, prior to 1893, the year that the Penn Newman Club was founded, this universal community of college students did not exist. And it is within that year, 1893, where I will begin to recount the story of how the Newman Community came to be.

There is one person who is key to the Newman community’s narrative, and this person was like many of us in the room. He was a Catholic. He was a student. He was part of the laity. He was Timothy Harrington, the founder of the first Newman Club in the United States.

Timothy Harrington attended the University of Wisconsin for his undergraduate years and it was there where he attended an extracurricular club that was essential to Harrington’s vision for the Newman Center’s identity; it was called the Melvin Club.

The inception of the Melvin Club was in 1883 at the house of a Mrs. Melvin. The inspiration for the club came from John McAnaw, a pre-law student, who had openly contested what he considered slanderous speech by one of his professors. Mrs. Melvin encouraged a group of students to meet at her home in order to learn about their faith so that they could defend it in such situations. Thus, a Catholic community was formed. And it was there where young Harrington was given the opportunity to participate in his Catholic faith with his peers by partaking in intellectual discourse on Catholicism while enjoying sleigh rides, oysters, lemonade, and cigars. Harrington received a Bachelor of Science degree and would later become a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1892. It was during a lonely Christmas break away from home in Philadelphia when Harrington read Cardinal John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a defense of Newman’s religious opinions, and it spurred his interest in Newman’s life and teachings. Spiritually reinvigorated, Harrington, when students returned from break, suggested to some that “they organize a Catholic club on the pattern of the Melvin club.”

That following fall, he gathered around 18 fellow students to his room to found what he insisted should be called the ‘Newman Club.’

Harrington would later write, “ … [after] finding no organization of Catholic Students at the University of Pennsylvania my mind naturally turned to the possibility of forming an organization that would give the Catholic students of this university a chance to come together, to know one another, to discuss subjects of interest to Catholic students and possibly to increase somewhat the opportunities for social life among strangers coming to Philadelphia.” Harrington was inspired by his memories of the Melvin Club, and, he wanted to create a space for those memories to live on within the work of the Newman Club.

Obviously, the club was not without its challenges. For one, like all Catholic organizations, the club faced financial struggles. As one article from the 50th anniversary of the Newman Club notes, the treasury had only $4.50 (about $120 when adjusted for inflation) and “members had to take up a collection among themselves to offer [a] speaker a fifty-dollar stipend.”

Looking forward at the succeeding decades, The Newman Club at Penn literally did not exist between 1905-1918 because there were no students who were willing to run the organization after the Founders graduated. In fact, a committee called the Catholic Students’ Committee had to be organized in 1918 just to reestablish the Newman Club.

As the Newman movement spread to other universities in the following decades, debates emerged surrounding the presence of Newman clubs at secular universities – among members of the Catholic community. Editors of America Magazine in the 1920s called this movement an “undue extension … into the educational field of those institutions.” In fact, “[s]ome officials … argued that canon law forbade bishops to finance Newman Centers because this would encourage Catholics to attend non-Catholic institutions.” This fear of Catholics attending secular universities came about because “Catholic educators were concerned more than ever over the ‘dangers to faith and morals’ within these schools.” This issue permeated into the next few decades, “[b]ut Newman leaders meanwhile developed their movement so effectively that eventually former critics began to advocate its full acceptance as a strong arm of the Church in higher education, and in 1962 the bishops mandated the National Newman Apostolate as ‘the work of the Catholic Church in the secular campus community.’”

It seems … shocking … appalling that members of the Catholic Church would not want Newman Clubs to exist in secular universities – which are hotspots for evangelization.

But Catholic students at these institutions held steadfast in their mission to practice their faith at these institutions, proving their critics wrong.

For many decades, The Newman Club had championed providing a space for students to keep their religious life alive by concentrating on three factors: the religious, the intellectual, and the social.

Religiously, Newmanites participated in daily rosary recitations, recited the Miraculous Medal Novena, and hosted camping retreats. Today, we see the spirit of these activities live on within our weekly Rosary for Life, Rooftop Masses, the Marian Consecration, and the upcoming Spring Retreat.

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Relationships with other faith groups were key to Newman’s identity. In fact, one description of Newman found in The Record notes that “[w]hile Newman is Catholic in origin, undergraduates, graduate students and faculty of many religious backgrounds [planned] and [participated] in programs and [made] use of the facilities...” For example, Hillel, the Christian Association, and Newman sponsored informal dinners “hoping to increase understanding [of] the Judeo-Christian tradition.” “Members of the Hillel Foundation … attended Mass at St. Bede’s Chapel and Catholic Students … attended Jewish Sabbath services.”

These interfaith activities, although haven’t been a focal point in recent Newman history, may be experiencing a resurgence as evident by our recent Unity Dinner which brought together members of Hillel, Hindu Jain Association, the Muslim Student Association, Newman, and other faith groups.

The Newman Club was led by many charismatic chaplains who spiritually and practically guided the student leaders of the organization. In a 1981 article from the DP, a freshman described the presiding chaplain at the time, Fr. Tom Hagen, as someone who “didn’t recite mass from a book – he spoke it. He was acting it. Everybody could feel it.”

I think you could say that this description perfectly depicts our current chaplain, Fr. Carlos, as well.

These chaplains of the past as well as other laymen fostered a pursuit for intellectual growth by teaching non-credit courses on Catholic theology, sociology, Church History, moral principles, ethics, and other topics. The organization published a number of literary publications including the Newman Quarterly, “a creditable academic journal,” Assent, a magazine “which offers a student evaluation of current issues engaging the academic community,” and Penn Perspectives, “a … publication devoted to human and social justice issues.” Newman had a lending library with over “4,000 volumes and more than 200 paperback titles for sale.” And Thursday evenings were saved for discussions “to learn the Church’s opinion on controversial culture and political questions.”

Although our library has shrunken, these publications have phased out, and non-credit courses are no longer offered by the Newman Center, this pursuit for intellectual growth persists. We have a couple students who are fellows with the Collegium Institute, which in the present day offers the intellectual talks and discussions that were provided by laymen in the past. Currently, Thursday evenings after Newman Dinner have often been reserved for a variety of speakers to discuss how we can apply values of our Catholic faith to our daily lives.

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Newman celebrated the arts with its performing troupe called “Newman Players” which hosted plays such as “The Joyous Season” and “The Champion” at the famous Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. Newman also hosted an annual exhibit of contemporary religious art, which displayed a collection of paintings, sculpture, graphics, stained glass, designs, and designs executed by fabric by local artists.” Newman also hosted trips to “the Academy of Music for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Saturday night concert series…”

None of these activities that honor the arts exists anymore today at Newman, but I hear that some people are working on reviving the art scene by organizing a play with religious themes in the near future.

Newman gave back to the community by engaging with populations at soup kitchens and prisons. Newmanites tutored at local grade schools and visited the sick and elderly in hospitals in addition to lobbying for social justice issues. This spirit of giving back – of forming relationships with the Philadelphia community is still evident in our weekly Christ in the City walks.

Finally, Newman knew how to have a fun time. They hosted “student-faculty cocktail hours,” “wine and cheese parties,” film showings, an annual carnival during Ivy Week, ballroom dancing, barn dances, an annual St. Patrick’s Day dance, ski trips, picnics, mixers, coffee houses, buffet suppers, intramural teams, and so much more.

And that brings us back to today. So, what’s the point in going through all of this history?

Harrington founded, arguably, one of “the most important University Apostolates in the 20th century in the United States.”

And I’d argue that it is the students, guided by the campus ministers and brothers of the SCV, who have kept the spirit of Harrington alive. It is the initiatives that come about because of a student’s passion and drive for their faith that allow the Newman Community to thrive.

The Newman Center exists today because of these memories. These memories that consist of powerful spiritual experiences and strong relationships guided by faith and love.

I would like to close with a quote from Timothy Harrington – a quote that remains relevant today and echoes for eternity:

 That this organization has lived and grown and that its influence has come down to the students of today is added proof that there was a place in the University of Pennsylvania as there is in all great universities, for a Catholic club.

Help Us Grow For Another 125 Years