As the Woolsey Fire exploded near her parents home in Camarillo and school work and events piled up, Chapman University junior Bryleigh Blaise said two things made a huge difference.
“I think the only reason I got through that week was rooted in faith and the Newman group,” she said.
The group to which she referred consists of friends, peers and the chaplain at the university’s Newman Catholic Fellowship.
For 20 years, the organization has offered ministry, Mass and community for Chapman’s Catholic students.
“It’s the students’ home base where they share their life, values and aspirations,” said Fr. Rafael Luevano, a professor and the school’s Roman Catholic chaplain, who oversees the fellowship.
He sees the group as integral to students’ “formation as future outstanding Catholic leaders.”
Founded in the late 1800s in England, to minister Catholic students in non-Catholic universities, Newman groups have flourished and now can be found on more than 2,000 campuses across the United States. They are named after and inspired by the writings of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
At Chapman, the Newman’s engage in a number of activities and events. They meet weekly on Tuesdays to pray and converse. There are weekly Wednesday Masses and holiday celebrations. The group also feeds and serves the poor at Holy Communion Church and packs food for the needy in Africa.
Blaise said she often organizes groups of students to attend Sunday Masses and Holy Communion. Also popular are periodic group meals.
“We love doing dinners or breakfast,” she said. “I have the best attendance on the days Father Luevano joins us.”
Another important element is ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, which Luevano says is central to Catholic life. Through the Fish Interfaith Center, the Newman students engage with a wide array of faiths.
One of the most important of these engagements has been with the Muslim Student Association. The two groups recently hosted a Muslim Catholic Scholars Night and have gathered formally and informally for meals and activities.
“This is a way for Catholics to provide support for their peers and learn from them,” Luevano said, noting that the Muslim group only this semester had a director of Muslim Life appointed.
Luevano says the relationship has provided broader visions and understanding.
“It has been a blessing for both,” he said. “They’re not there to convert, but to share and learn. Everyone grows and offers support in challenging times. It’s beautiful to experience.”
The first Newman Center was established at Oxford University in England in 1888, with the first U.S. group founded in 1893 at the University of Pennsylvania. The organizations are variously called Newman centers, houses, communities, clubs or fellowships.
At Chapman, the Newman group is affiliated with the Fish Interfaith Center, which is home to about 20 student spiritual and religious groups, as well as the Wallace All Faiths Chapel. The university claims to have about 800 Catholic students among its more than 7,000 undergraduates, although Luevano suspects it’s more.
Attendance at Newman events varies from 10 to 15 at weekly student club meetings to 200 at holiday Masses.
For Blaise, being a part of the Newman experience was never really a question, although she didn’t imagine that by her junior year she would be a two-time president.
From the time she first looked at Chapman, Blaise knew she would pursue her faith and service. As a result, Newman was a natural fit.
“I felt a really deep calling,” she said.
Equally important was having a community.
“The club gave me an alternative to just going to Mass,” Blaise said. “Having a club and Catholic friends was something I didn’t think I’d need, but it turned out it was something I needed.”
Blaise says the group has become more active and involved, highlighted by the recent Scholars Night.
Although Blaise said organizing the event was exhausting. But when a solid and enthusiastic crowd attended, that was a bonus.
“I’m excited for next semester,” she said. “It was one of my favorite things.”
While Luevano believes every campus should have a Roman Catholic chaplain on its grounds, he said at Chapman it is especially important.
Real life does not stop at the gates on University Drive. Luevano says students grapple with identity, separation from their families and making commitments to God and career.
“This is a very high caliber academic institute with a lot of stress,” Luevano said. “Catholicism is an oasis of peace and strength, community and prayer.”
To someone like Blaise, especially in the wake of weeks like those when the Woolsey Fire burned out of control, the importance of a place and community to share Mass and prayer with can’t be overstated.
“It’s an amazing thing,” Blaise said. “To take time just to be with God.”