First Mass celebrated in new St. John Paul II Church
DENTON — “Blessed be God,” prompted Father Kyle Walterscheid several times during a recent homily at St. John Paul II Church and Campus Ministry.
“Now and forever,” parishioners responded.
At Masses October 12 and 13, parishioners celebrated the fruit of seven years of praying, planning, and fundraising — finally in a space large enough to accommodate the growing community of Catholic students, faculty, and alumni at the University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University.
While parishioners have begun celebrating Mass in the new building, installation of a permanent altar, stained glass, and most importantly, a formal dedication, remain to be done. Bishop Michael Olson will consecrate the new altar and dedicate the church building on Feb. 15 at the 10 a.m. Mass. The Roman Pontifical states that once the church is solemnly consecrated with sacred Chrism by a bishop, the structure is elevated into a new state — one that is dedicated to the service and worship of God.
Fr. Walterscheid, St. John Paul II pastor, thanked parishioners and benefactors for their steadfast support.
“Many times when things seemed to stall, we wondered if we would ever start construction,” he said. “But you heard about our good cause and you wanted to support our students in whatever way possible. Thank you for not giving up on our students.”
Katie Lowe, parishioner and UNT graduate student, said, “We’re finally able to honor the Lord with this beautiful space that we have longed for.”
For seven years, Catholic students made do with the 2,100-square-foot Catholic Campus Center on Eagle Drive. The space was so limited, Lowe explained, many students had to sit outside for meals during weekly Community Night dinners. There was very little parking and no space for students to lead Bible studies, she added.
“Nothing was big enough,” she said. “We have enough students to fill the new building. We’ve just been cramming ourselves into the little building.”
The 10,400-square-foot church and campus center, at 909 McCormick Street, is five times larger than the original building. The new church has cathedral ceilings and seats about 200. The cafeteria holds up to 150 persons and has a commercial kitchen. Two additional rooms and a casual area with sofas and chairs offer space for meetings, fellowship, or Bible studies. The second floor holds five offices, one for each of the parish’s four full-time employees and a larger office for part-time employees to share.
“It’s not just a typical parish,” Lowe explained. “It’s a space specifically designed for students.”
The Diocese of Fort Worth established St. John Paul II as its first university parish in 2012, with Fr. Walterscheid as founding pastor. Prior to that, visiting priests served Catholic students.
Fr. Walterscheid told the North Texas Catholic he knew from the start the existing building was not large enough for the growing community. So, he immediately hired a parish business manager, Julie Garrison, and began fundraising.
The first fundraiser, a Christmas cantata, showcased the students’ musical talents and raised almost $4,000. Parishioners hosted dinners, dances, sold raffle tickets, worked at German Fest and Taste of Poland, “and everything else under the sun,” Garrison said. “If we heard about it, we tried it.”
In four years, those efforts raised $1.9 million, Garrison said. Then, in December of 2016 the parish began its first capital campaign, which raised another $1 million.
Those funds came from fewer than 100 registered families and as many benefactors, Fr. Walterscheid said.
“If we want a Church in the future, we have to be there for our Catholic college students. That was the message and that’s why people were willing to give,” he said.
“Vast numbers of Catholics are being lost during their college years, so being on campus with them is like igniting a fire underneath them,” he added. “So many of them respond in a positive way.”
Jingwa Asonganyi, a UNT economics major, said, “This community is important to me. As a freshman there’s a lot of uncertainty and this community gives me a refuge.”
UNT freshman Kyle Sikkema said small groups organized by Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) missionaries “allow us to have a group of close friends to grow with spiritually.”
The five FOCUS missionaries, who also are St. John Paul II parishioners, “have helped hundreds of our students find a place for Jesus Christ in their hearts,” Fr. Walterscheid said.
He noted about 15 percent of students at UNT, Texas Woman’s University, and North Central Texas College nearby are Catholic. That adds up to nearly 8,000 Catholics who potentially need spiritual support, he said.
“If the Catholic Church isn’t present on campus, our Catholic students are going to find the next fulfilling thing,” he said.
“The students who get involved are growing by leaps and bounds in their spiritual lives,” he added. “They’re finding that living the Catholic life brings fulfillment.”
Prior to completion of the new church, Fr. Walterscheid celebrated Sunday Masses on UNT and TWU campuses to make it more easily accessible for students. To do that, he had to transport everything needed for Mass, including an altar and tabernacle.
A woodcraftsman he knew from a previous assignment built an altar that he could take apart, fit into his car, and reassemble at each location for Mass. He set up the portable altar four times in three locations every weekend — for 380 weekends.
Fr. Walterscheid will continue to use the portable altar until the permanent altar is finished, installed, and then consecrated on Feb. 15 by Bishop Olson.
St. John Paul II also serves other parishioners, such as young families, singles, and empty nesters.
“While we have things that support other parishioners and their needs, we’re still oriented toward the students,” Fr. Walterscheid said. “Any parishioner who joins us understands from the beginning that they’re joining because they want the Church to exist going down the road. Our parishioners’ hearts are in this as much as mine is.”