Patrick Bailey was ready to write off the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana after his first visit to the campus during his senior year in high school.

With almost 40,000 undergraduates, this Big Ten school seemed too big. But his second visit revealed the Catholic heart of UI -- St. John's Newman Center.

"At St. John's I found myself surrounded by a community striving for the same thing," he said. "It was a community running toward God with their faith."

Now a senior majoring in social education and a residential assistant at St. John's, Bailey couldn't imagine college life without St. John's.

As the largest Newman Center of its kind in the country -- with an on-campus residential hall for 600 students and staff -- St. John's is celebrating 80 years of providing a sacred space on a secular university campus.

In Newman Hall, the center's residence, students have an opportunity to live in a moral, disciplined community. As a way to deepen their faith, students gather to pray, attend retreats and catechetical programs at St. John's Chapel. The Institute of Catholic Thought, an academic center at St. John's, instructs members and the greater UI community in the faith through credit and non-credit courses on Church teaching and history.

Newman heritage

Newman Centers first appeared in the United States in 1893, when a group of Catholic students at the University of Pennsylvania began a center and named it after England's Cardinal John Henry Newman. After converting to Catholicism in 1845 while a tutor at Oxford University, he sought to establish a communal Catholic presence there.

St. John's director of institutional advancement, Mark Randall, said St. John's continues the mission to bring the faith to a non-Catholic campus.

"Our founder, Father John O'Brien, envisioned a sort of Benedictine college within a college back in the early 1920s," Randall said. "He only had about 50 students attending campus ministry at that time, but he built a dorm to house 300 men and a chapel, which even today seats 1,000 students. I think he knew that outreach to Catholic students at secular universities was the future of campus ministry."

The college try

According to Father Gregory Ketcham, St. John's director and chaplain, St. John's helps students such as Bailey deepen their faith almost from the moment they step on campus.

"St. John's is here to be a presence for the Church and Christ and to reach out to these students who are legitimately searching for true meaning and value," he told Our Sunday Visitor. "We are here to place within their life, literally, the Eucharist, which can fill that void in their life. It begins with the Eucharist and extends out with the truth of our faith."

Father Ketcham said that students searching for the truth usually enter St. John's to find it through one of three "doorways" -- the daily liturgy, retreats and the presence of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), an on-campus missionary program (see Page 14).

The center boasts about 30-50 converts to Catholicism every year, as well as countless Catholic youth who rediscover their faith.

College reunion

St. John's also provides students a place to discern their vocations, Father Ketcham said, noting the center has had close to 90 vocations to Religious orders and the priesthood in the past 11 years.

One of these vocations, UI alumna Sarah Roy came back to St. John's in 2005 as a Franciscan Sister of the Immaculate Conception, located in Peoria. As part of the chaplain's support staff at St. John's she provides students spiritual guidance and direction.

Besides a degree in human development and family studies, Sister Sarah graduated with a plan to follow God's call to religious life. It was her time at St. John's that allowed her to discover this call by rediscovering her faith.

"The Newman Center was fundamental in my understanding of the faith," she said.

Learning God

While Bailey said that he is still discerning his vocation, St. John's has certainly deepened his love for God and confidence in his will. A daily communicant, Bailey said that since becoming a member of St. John's, he's had a "radical change" in his life through "the grace of daily communion."

He knows that with Christ in clear focus, it will only be a matter of time before he discerns his own vocation.

"This is a place where vocations are born," he said. "It's really fertile ground. You can find vocations all over the place around here. It's a wonderful thing to be surrounded by priests and sisters who live out their vocations to the fullest."

"If I hadn't come to St. John's," he said, "I imagine I'd probably just be coasting through college, not really caring about my education, and not fulfilling myself in virtue. I wouldn't know what to strive for, really. More likely than not, I'd probably be going it alone."

Joseph O'Brien writes from Wisconsin.