Tending to students’ spiritual needs
“We do the best we can to make it an inviting place, letting them know that they’re always welcome and they can come on their own terms.”
For 75 years, the Newman Center has been a part of the UB campus ministry. Rev. Jacob Ledwon—Father Jack to all—has played an integral role for 21 of those years. The coordinator of campus ministry on the South Campus was part of the merger with neighboring St. Joseph University Church, where he has served as pastor since 1991.
The move from the center’s original location at Niagara Falls Boulevard and Main Street to the church has made for a more accessible site for students because of the proximity to the South Campus.
“They can work in the soup kitchen or Habitat for Humanity or tutor in our school or sing in our choir. Because it’s a multi-phase, full-service parish, we’re able to offer a lot more opportunities to students than when we were a stand-alone campus ministry,” Ledwon says.
With an avid interest in music, the Buffalo native says he has been attached to the university for the better part of his life, beginning with his graduate studies in music history in 1969 and completion of a PhD in musicology in 1986.
His diverse interests are reflective of the University Heights parish. “It’s a progressive Catholic Church with an open spirit to it,” he notes. “We have people belonging to this parish from over 50 different zip codes.”
The Newman Center at St. Joseph’s works in tandem with the North Campus Newman Center, under the direction of Msgr. J. Patrick Keleher, which opened its new facility on Skinnersville Road near the Ellicott Complex last year. Students tend to go to their respective campus centers, although there is overlap. International students, Ledwon notes, can be particularly devout in the practice of their faith and appreciate the opportunity to worship in a church.
The spiritual nature of today’s students differs sharply from a generation ago, Ledwon says. “Back then, campus ministry was a type of refuge, an island for Catholic students. There was this kind of siege mentality, especially during the ‘60s. There wasn’t a mutuality at all, but an effort to protect the students from the secularizing tendencies of the university. Now, our students are secular. They’re pretty sophisticated by the time they come here.”
While student needs have remained the same over the years—the search for meaning and purpose in their lives—the religious framework of a generation ago no longer prevails. What gave people meaning in regard to stability of family or sense of place is not necessarily the touchstone it was.
“In terms of economic status and education, Catholics are in a different place today. We need to create things that will work for this generation,” Ledwon explains. “They’re not looking for the structure of religion, but they’re still searching for meaning in terms of something deeper in life. I think they would identify that as being spiritual. If they come, they don’t necessarily come with the desire to connect long term. They might be in their searching phase. We have to be very sensitive to that.”
Because it is parish-based, the South Campus Newman Center has a full staff, including another campus minister, Michael Hayes, plus coordinators of religious education, social outreach and social justice issues. “We have programs that people can plug into and draw from in terms of resources and opportunities for ministry,” Ledwon says.
St. Joseph’s offers a broader range of programs than are found in most parishes, including a strong commitment to social justice issues—from the local to the global—and it is possibly the only parish to provide support and services for people with mental health diagnoses.
There is a full cultural schedule as well, with operas, plays and concerts presented throughout the year in the acoustically rich church. Ledwon is director of Opera Sacra, which stages two performances a year in the church. He founded the company in 1975 at the former St. Joseph’s New Cathedral, where he served as parochial vicar.
Students and parishioners come together on various projects, such as Habitat for Humanity and serving in the soup kitchen. They were engaged in a recent Lenten project called Brief Relief, the idea of a student who worked with the homeless as part of the Alternative Spring Break program and said that some of the people didn’t even have underwear. The drive encouraged people to contribute a package of underwear, which resulted in hundreds of pairs being collected from both students and parishioners.
On any given weekend, as many as 300 students may come to Sunday services. They’re not always the same students. “We don’t know how often they come through the doors, but whenever they come, we want them to have a positive experience,” Ledwon says. “We do the best we can to make it an inviting place, letting them know that they’re always welcome and they can come on their own terms.”