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The Ragin’ Cajun Catholic Student Ministry has been part of the fabric of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette since 1923 when the Newman club, now affectionately known as “Ragin’ Cajun Catholics” was established at what was then Southwestern Louisiana Industrial Institute (SLII).

Newman clubs, named for Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, have long been recognized as organizations representative of Catholic students on secular college or university campuses.

What began as a humble group of Catholic students has grown into a nationally recognized Catholic Student Ministry serving the students, faculty, and alumni of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the permanent parishioner community at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center, located in the heart of campus.

Today, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), is an integral part of our ministry. FOCUS is a national outreach that answers the Church’s call for a new evangelization by meeting college students where they are and inviting them into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith. Because of the strong foundation that was built up over past generations, and our efforts to enrich the lives of today’s college students through authentic Catholic formation, our ministry today is thriving.

From Grassroots to Roots in the Grass

With the establishment of the Newman club in 1923, the need for a clubhouse was voiced by the members in minutes of their meeting on September 24, 1924. Faculty Advisor Dr. C.J. McNaspy recommended that profits from the sale of their Handbook be put into a building fund. Bishop Jules B. Jeanmard, Bishop of Lafayette, approved the purchase of a lot and donated $50 to the cause in 1926. Minutes of the Club in 1927 included a discussion of a chapel as part of the building. Bishop Jeanmard advanced an additional $2,630 to buy a lot. The May 1929 issue of the Vermilion announced that the lot had been purchased. Its location was on College Avenue (now University), next door to what is known as the Hernandez House, currently owned by the Catholic Student Center and serving as a residence for the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows. In 1940 the Louisiana State Board of Education recommended to the State Legislature that space on the campuses of state colleges and universities be allotted to religious, fraternal, and social organizations . They stipulated that land for the religious center be leased to the Diocese in which the respective college or university was situated for a period of 99 years. For fear of too many applications, the State Board withdrew their offer, but by this time several campus religious student centers had already been built, including the one at SLI. The initial contract remains in effect today for these Centers. The Center was to be constructed on an acre of the campus (198 x 220 feet) located on the corner of St. Mary St. (now Boulevard) and McKinley St.

A Long Awaited Dedication

His Excellency, the Most Reverend Joseph R. Rummel, Archbishop of New Orleans, dedicated the Chapel and Catholic Student Center, and delivered the dedicatory sermon on March 23, 1942. He was assisted by Bishop Jeanmard, by Rev. Paul M. Fusilier, newly appointed chaplain to the Center, and by other priests of the Diocese. Students, faculty, alumni, and friends of the Center crowded the Chapel for the dedication ceremonies. It marked the beginning of a significant era in the presence of the Catholic Church on the campus of a secular college in Southwest Louisiana. Through the years, the Center was to have a profound influence in shaping and molding Catholic student leaders in Southwest Louisiana and in influencing academic and intellectual currents on the campus. The potential audience for that influence has increased from a student body of approximately 2200 with some 1000 Catholics in 1942 to that of over 17,000 with approximately 11,000 Catholics today!

The Chapel and Center

When the Catholic Student Center complex was dedicated in 1942, it consisted of a chapel, a meeting room, recreation room, kitchen, patio, and two-storied residential quarters for Chaplain and housekeeper. A covered walkway connected the Center and residential quarters to the Chapel. A description of the Chapel and Center appeared in the March 13, 1942 issue of the Vermilion:

“The chapel, spired with a copper steeple and fronted with four large white columns extended from the eaves to the wide stretching entrance steps, is of red brick with spacious white doors which bear above them the insignia of the Diocese of Lafayette…”

The article continues to describe the remainder of the Center, naming the rooms and noting that the part of the Center which housed the meeting room (Newman Hall) faced McKinley St. and had an exterior with a porch and modified columns somewhat similar in appearance to that of the Chapel.  The leaded glass chapel windows were designed to represent the Seven Sacraments and are still in the building today. Carved oak statues of the Blessed Mother and Christ the King are also still in the Chapel. Above the Sanctuary at the front was a Latin inscription: “Ego Sum Via et Veritas et Vita”, which translates to “ I am the Way the Truth and the Life.” Along the left wall below the ceiling ran the Latin lettering which means: “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns. She has sent out her maidens, she calls from the heights out over the city: Come eat of the food.” The lettering along the right wall translates to mean: “Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding. The beginning of Wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” All of these Latin inscriptions have been preserved and remain in the Chapel today.

Growing and Adapting

As membership in the Newman Club increased, so did attendance at meetings in Newman Hall. Additionally, more and more students were using the other facilities on a daily basis. The need for more space was recognized, and, in the Spring of 1955, plans were announced for a new addition to the Center. This addition was designed to include the following: a large lobby and waiting room, three offices, a stage, reading room, and snack bar. Jeanmard Hall, named for the Bishop, was completed and dedicated in 195. It seated 500 students and cost approximately $80,000.

Just as the meeting rooms of the Center were crowded each week with Newmanites and other students, so was the Chapel crowded with these same students, faculty, and other parishioners–particularly at weekend Masses. As early as 1962, plans were announced to enlarge the Chapel to accommodate one hundred more persons and to add a sacristy, baptistery and two new entrances. Early plans had included the extension of the Chapel sideways (on both sides). Consultation with University officials revealed that it was not possible to extend the chapel on the left side facing what is now Wharton Hall, and that the only possible extension would have to be behind the sanctuary, between the Chapel and what was then the tennis courts.

Because an addition which would be aligned with the width of the chapel and would extend straight back would not accommodate adequate seating, the need to design a different type of structure was realized. On January 10, 1965 the new addition to the Chapel was blessed by Bishop Schexnayder, and the Most Reverend John P. Cody, Archbishop of New Orleans presided at the Mass of dedication. Among the changes which were made in the renovation and addition to the Chapel were these: an entirely new wing was added behind the sanctuary; the wall behind the former alter was removed; the ceiling over the sanctuary was raised to provide skylights; and four columns supported the structure over the sanctuary.  The former altar was cut and reduced in size, with the resulting structure looking more like a large table supported by a marble base. Relics of the following saints were enclosed in the altar stone embedded in the new altar: Maria Goretti, Therese of Lisieux, John Vianney, Margaret Mary, Agnes and Vincent de Paul.

In May, 1965, plans were announced for the construction of a new foyer to be located between the Chapel and Jeanmard Hall. Entrances were to be from the concrete area in front of the Chapel as well as further down on St. Mary Blvd. It was to be named Kurzweg Hall in memory of Dr. Paul Kurzweg, a prominent Lafayette physician who had been active in Church and civic affairs in Lafayette. Money for the Hall was given by Dr. Kurzweg’s wife, four daughters, mother, and sister. It was to serve as a place for students to relax and to study, as well as a place for receptions or coffee after Mass. Kurzweg Hall was completed and dedicated on January 9th, 1966. Today it serves the same functions as well as running as a coffee shop, Campus Grounds Cafe, which serves fair trade and locally roasted Reve coffee.

During the twenty years that followed, no major additions were made to the Chapel and Student Center, but some changes were made in the physical plant and in some cases changes occurred in the use made of various areas. A few offices were added. What had once been the front porch and foyer facing McKinley St. was enclosed and converted into office space (now the business offices for the Parish). The office that had once been used by Theta Kappa Phi, Catholic fraternity, became an office for the pastor and then for other staff. An upstairs classroom was added over the recreational area of Newman Hall, accessed by both outside and inside stairways, and a back, downstairs entrance to the building was provided, leading to an inside passageway extending behind Newman Hall (now the Upper Room).  What had once been storage and dressing rooms behind the stage, became closets for janitorial use. The fishpond in the patio next to the chapel was covered over with concrete, and tables and chairs arranged there. (Now the Courtyard). Beginning in 1984 the possibility of building an almost entirely new Catholic Student Center and Chapel was considered, but the idea was eventually turned down due to funding and other circumstances. Instead the decision was made to repair and renovate rather than tear down and rebuild.

Since that time, there have been a number of improvements and additions to the Chapel and Student Center, as well as to the Hernandez House.  As we look to the future, the Catholic Student Center will have to grow again to accommodate the growing student population, but this is a great problem to have! Adapting to the changing needs of our students here at UL is our commitment to development.

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