A Growing Roman Catholic College Puts Its Faith in a Broadened Mission

George Ruhe for the Chronicle

Sacred Heart U., a young Roman Catholic college, has just opened the new Chapel of the Holy Spirit on its campus, in Fairfield, Conn. The chapel seeks to be welcoming to worshipers of other faiths as well as Catholics.
November 01, 2009

Sacred Heart University has an unmistakably Roman Catholic name. But Erin M. Schnepp, a longtime student tour guide here, has still heard the same question over and over from high-school students and their parents: Just how "Catholic" is the university?

It used to be difficult to answer. Now, Ms. Schnepp can point to the new Chapel of the Holy Spirit in the center of campus. The university dedicated the chapel in late September, replacing an empty green space with an inviting place for students to pray, worship, and reflect. University leaders hope it will demonstrate to prospective students that Sacred Heart is a place where they can grow in their faith.

The $17-million chapel also serves as a physical marker of just how far the university has come in the past 20 years—growing from a commuter college with about 1,500 undergraduates to a residential campus with more than twice as many. The number of graduate students, too, has grown rapidly, pushing total enrollment to more than 6,000.

Striving for excellence—whether strong academic programs or an awe-inspiring chapel—is part and parcel of being a Catholic university, says Anthony J. Cernera, Sacred Heart's longtime president. "Faith is always calling us to be more fully human," he says, "better at the task we're called to."

Creating Distinction and Balance

That message got through to Kelly A. Leather. She traveled from New Jersey to tour the campus as a high-school student when the university had just broken ground for the chapel. At the time, Ms. Leather was considering all sorts of colleges, but ultimately decided she wanted to attend a small, Catholic one. Now a junior and student-body president at Sacred Heart, she remembers thinking the chapel under construction was a "powerful testament of who the university was."

That symbol will not resonate with every potential student, of course. But Robert A. Sevier, senior vice president for strategy at the higher-education marketing company Stamats, says that having a distinctive character, even if it doesn't have universal appeal, is key to standing out. And having a strong Catholic identity does appeal to many students and donors, says Mr. Sevier. Donors, in particular, like a place that sticks to its heritage, he says. A religiously affiliated college just has to make sure students and faculty members of other faiths feel welcome.

Striking that balance between highlighting faith and welcoming everyone is always a marketing challenge for religious colleges, says John Maguire, chairman of the education-consulting firm Maguire Associates. Sacred Heart, which is led by lay people, rather than a diocese or religious order, tried to find that balance in the design and planned uses of its new chapel.

In the short time it has been open, the chapel has already become part of Ms. Leather's life. She and a friend have gone there to pray together. And when she has attended mass, she has been pleased to see more students than in the past, including students who are not practicing Catholics.

About 75 percent of the university's students say they are Roman Catholic. But until this year, the only chapel on the campus held a mere 50 people in a small portion of Sacred Heart's first building, a former high school. The university, which has more than 3,500 full-time undergraduates, often held mass in a gym that had been converted to a multipurpose room.

Campus officials will keep an eye on whether more students are attending mass, and whether the student body's commitment to community service stays strong, as measures of the new chapel's success.

Having a dedicated place for students to practice their faith is more than a superficial matter, says Michael V. Fazzino, a senior business administration and political-science major. Mr. Fazzino went to Sunday-night mass in the multipurpose room during his first two years. But in his junior year, he realized that the environment—a generic room with folding chairs and an altar rolled in on wheels—"didn't feel right." He stopped going until the new chapel opened.

For much of the university's history, not having a free-standing chapel wasn't a concern. From its founding in 1963 until 1990, everyone commuted, and students' religious life was centered on their local parishes. As the local high-school population began to decline, Mr. Cernera, the university's president, pushed to go residential—both to attract a greater share of local students and to make Sacred Heart a viable option for students from farther away. About 70 percent of the university's students now live on campus. The worship needs of a larger, residential student body provided the university with the chance to make a statement about its Catholic identity.

Mr. Cernera and Jim Barquinero, vice president for enrollment planning and student affairs, have led the university through a period of tremendous growth. In the 1990s, the university went from "a list of majors," in Mr. Barquinero's words, to four separate colleges. It developed an academic program meant to "catapult us into the residential market," Mr. Barquinero says, which included a focus on the health sciences, particularly physical and occupational therapy.

The business school was recently named for Jack Welch, a former chairman and chief executive of GE. Over time, the university expanded student-life offerings, and moved to Division I in athletics in 1999.

Sacred Heart will cultivate a national reputation in certain areas rather than try to be all things to all people, Mr. Barquinero said. "We're not big enough. It's too late in some respects for us to be Notre Dame, and I don't know that we have the size and the scope of a Boston College or Georgetown, or even the quality of a liberal-arts institution like Holy Cross. But we can carve out an identity of excellence in specific areas."

The student body has grown significantly since Sacred Heart went residential. The university had 1,411 full-time undergraduates in 1989, while it has 3,533 this fall. Over the same period, the graduate-student population has grown from 976 to 1,777.

Sacred Heart's profile has risen along with its enrollment. Back in 1989, the college accepted 100 percent of applicants; it admitted only 65 percent this year. It now counts Marist and Providence Colleges; Quinnipiac University; the Universities of Connecticut and of Scranton; and Fairfield University, which is also Catholic and in the same town, as its main competitors.

One bump in interest has come in the last three or four years, Mr. Cernera says. In 2004 the university received nearly 5,000 applications. In 2008 it received more than 7,500. It's hard to pinpoint why—"reputation's kind of a funny thing"—but he says naming the business school for someone as well known as Mr. Welch, and its accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, have helped. So, too, has the fact that Sacred Heart's program in physical therapy is the highest-ranked in the state, according to U.S. News & World Report. While those programs have a halo affect, some of the new appeal comes from current students and alumni spreading the word, he says.

Robyn B. Armon, director of guidance and college counseling at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens, N.Y., has seen a large increase in the number of her students applying to and attending Sacred Heart. Ms. Armon has built a closer relationship with the university since a road trip to colleges in Connecticut a few years ago.

In 2006, 14 of her students applied to Sacred Heart and none attended. Last year, 52 applied and 10 went. Ms. Armon says the business school and nursing program are part of the draw for her students, but a lot of the appeal comes down to the "warm, inviting, familylike" environment of a religious college, which she sees as a continuation of what her office provides at the high school. She also appreciates that the university "took a chance on a couple of kids" with less than ideal grades and test scores who are now "thriving."

'God's Been Good'

The timing of Sacred Heart's growth has been fortunate. "God's been good, he's kept a good eye on us, because if the 90s were our experimental years, our roll-the-dice years, now unfortunately financial decisions are just much more difficult to make," Mr. Barquinero says.

The onset of the recession has Mr. Cernera "double-checking the numbers," he says, but the university does not plan to slow down. There are plans to build a new student center soon, costing up to $15-million, which will be paid for with a combination of fund raising, borrowing, and university money. Sacred Heart also plans to increase its graduate-student enrollment as it adds more graduate degrees and certificates, especially in health and education. Looking at Connecticut's demographics, graduate programs are the best growth opportunity, Mr. Cernera says.

"We're still pretty bullish in our ability to keep improving what we're doing, and attracting people who want to come because of the quality of the education," he says.

The art and architecture of the new chapel symbolize the Catholic nature of that education and highlight the university's approach to faith. Both are fundamental to the college's mission, but leaders also hope those ideas will set Sacred Heart apart. Directives from the Catholic Church's Corporal Works of Mercy, including "Free the captive" and "Feed the hungry," are written along an outer wall—designed to send a message from the spiritual heart of the college, the chapel, to the rest of the campus.

While the chapel is distinctively Roman Catholic, it is also quite contemporary. The outside was designed to look like a tent, signifying that worshipers are the pilgrim people of God, an idea that came out of the Second Vatican Council. The building's signature feature is a series of mosaics designed by the Rev. Marko Ivan Rupnik, an artist whose work is also displayed in the Vatican.

Mr. Cernera, a theologian, was intimately involved in the chapel's design. "This was a bold affirmation of our Catholicity," he says. "But taking the word 'catholic' seriously, it's about inclusion and a widening circle." So the chapel was also designed with an appreciation for Christianity's Jewish roots.

Rebecca Ramirez, a junior athletics-training and exercise-science major, says that as a Jewish student, she did not immediately grasp the importance of having a chapel. Yet she was touched when she learned that the largest bell in its bell tower was named for the Jewish heroine Esther and was inscribed with a Jewish prayer.

The building's small daily chapel, to the side of the larger sanctuary, is decorated with a mosaic of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus. Along one side is an image of the three Magi, representing the Gentiles; the other side displays Mary's parents, representing the Jews. The idea, says Mr. Cernera, is "This should be a house of prayer for all people."

That should help answer some questions on the campus tour.