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‘A taste of what heaven is.’ Students find faith and fellowship at Newman Nights

Travis Fannon
Students stand talking on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, at the Catholic Newman Center in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Travis Fannon | Staff

The lights are dimmed.

A single spotlight falls on the altar where a gold statue stands that holds the Eucharist, what Catholics believe to be Christ’s body.

Students trickle in.

Some kneel, some pray a rosary and some whisper conversations.

The sound of laughter comes from the lobby and people embrace each other before they find their seat.

This is the beginning of a Newman Night.

Every Thursday, the Catholic Newman Center invites students on the University of Kentucky’s campus to adoration, which is prayer in the presence of the Eucharist, mass, dinner and fellowship, but for many, it has proven to be much more than just a weekly church service.

“I’ve been coming to Newman Nights ever since I started coming to Newman Center,” Simon Sutton said. “I was a little intimidated because I was a fraternity guy. There’s a stigma behind that. I would come here and literally sit by myself because I was scared to talk to people.”

Sutton graduated from University of Kentucky last December but found himself at the Newman Center shortly after transferring his sophomore year.

Sutton said he struggled throughout the years balancing Greek life with his faith life, but the Newman Center was his constant.

“It’s very daunting, and it can be scary to live out your faith because I think when you’re on a college campus, a lot of people have a certain fear,” Sutton said.

Sutton said he felt welcomed at the Newman Center, despite his involvement in Greek life.

“When people see people living their life for Christ, like ‘Oh, it’s just a Jesus freak or whatever.’ And honestly, I subscribed to that belief for a long time. Even when I was first coming back, I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a super crazy Christian.’ But in reality, it’s the truth. When you’re living your life for Christ, the world is a better place as a result,” Sutton shared.

He connected with a FOCUS missionary and just kept coming back, leading his own Bible studies and getting more involved.

“There’s a lot of yearning that I noticed whenever I would be in a party. I knew that I was meant for more, but I just didn’t know where to find it. I’m very happy that I met missionaries that helped me find my way back here to know Christ and have a relationship with him,” Sutton said.

Sutton became a regular at Newman Nights, no longer afraid to talk to other students and missionaries.

In fact, Sutton’s plans to become a FOCUS missionary at another college campus recently took him to Kansas State University. His job there will include finding, inviting and connecting with students to grow the campus’ Catholic community.

“That first FOCUS missionary I met four years ago now changed my life. Radically,” Sutton said.

FOCUS missionaries, like the one Sutton mentioned, are seen at almost every Newman Center event.

Kelly Steichen served as one of these recognizable missionaries at the Newman Center.

Steichen described her job as “investing in students deeply and building them up to become missionary disciples.”

She explained that this can take the form of Bible studies, small groups, discipleship programs and events such as Newman Nights.

Steichen said Newman Nights remind her of her alma mater, Oklahoma State University, where students are coming together to strengthen their faith. Steichen has now assumed the role of Coordinator of Evangelization at the Church of Saint Mary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. 

“It’s so powerful for the community that what we are rallying behind is the Eucharist and the sacrifice of the mass because there’s nothing greater that we as a community can come behind,” Steichen said.

And the community that gathers every Thursday are students “who choose to be here,” Steichen said.

Karys Whitehead, a senior, is a part of the CORE team, a student leadership program that helps plan events for the Newman Center.

Whitehead said she’s impressed by the students “who on a Thursday night decided to give up, you know, going to dinner or like going out to parties and truly just came to worship as a community.”

Whitehead has been coming to the Newman Center since her freshman year.

At first, Whitehead said she was coming to church just to appease her mom, but the people here encouraged her to stay.

“I found this amazing group of students here who are just passionate about the faith. That’s what kept me coming back and it was through their passion that I started to rediscover Christ in my life,” Whitehead shared.

The Newman Center has many other events throughout the year, including service projects, camping trips and guest speakers. 

However, Newman Nights is a weekly tradition many students and staff appreciate.

“This might sound weird, but Newman Nights, as a whole I think, gives you a taste of what heaven is,” Steichen said.

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