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In 1905, students of the University of Illinois founded the first organization for Catholic students. In 1915, its president secured the assistance of the Knights of Columbus in funding a chaplain for the students. Through the energetic fundraising of the chaplain -- Fr. John O’Brien -- and the financial assistance of the Knights, a Newman Center complex was constructed in 1927 at a cost of $750,000. That complex consisted of St. John’s Catholic Chapel (seating 1,000) and Newman Hall (a 300-bed residence). It was the third Newman Center built in the U.S. and the only one to have a residence hall – a distinction that remains true even today.
The Newman Foundation struggled financially in the early years but grew quickly in its outreach and membership. Fr. Edward Duncan replaced Fr. O’Brien as director and chaplain in 1943. Fr. Duncan rapidly brought the foundation out of debt and revitalized its ministry. He established a series of for-credit courses to be taught within the University and built the Newman Center up to be the national model for Catholic campus ministry.
After 54 years of service, (now-) Msgr. Duncan retired and was succeeded by Fr. Stuart Swetland. Fr. Swetland refurbished the residence hall and converted the building to a co-ed dorm, housing male and female residents in separate wings. He also arranged for religious sisters to be assigned fulltime at Newman. Fr. Swetland also helped establish the Institute of Catholic Thought – the academic outreach for the Newman Foundation.
In 2006, (now-) Msgr. Swetland was reassigned to a seminary teaching position and was succeeded by Fr. (now Msgr.) Gregory Ketcham, who remains today the director and head chaplain.
On December 2, 2006, ground was broken for a $40 million expansion to better serve the 12,000+ Catholic students and faculty at the University of Illinois and Parkland College. A north wing was added to house an additional 300 beds to increase capacity to 600 residential students; this portion of the Center was dedicated on September 7, 2008. The Center now features a market-style dining room seating 350, open to the public. Other enhancements included a café, convenience store, fitness center and laundry room, several new meeting rooms, and a Newman Club area for non-residents. The original complex built in 1928 was also renovated: a fire sprinkling system was installed; all student rooms were upgraded and bathrooms remodeled; staff offices were consolidated and renovated; and, most appreciated, St. John’s Chapel was air-conditioned. While the Hall doubled in capacity, so did student demand: In 2009, the waiting list swelled to 300 eager potential residents.