FARGO — Just as the Christmas holiday rolled around, the Newman Center campus ministry project across from the North Dakota State University campus has received a joyful boost.

An anonymous couple has donated $1 million to the project, putting fundraising to date at $20.4 million, leaving the project just over $1 million short of the $21.5 million goal in a drive that started about three years ago.

The project, which got underway in August with an estimated completion date of July 2021, has been ongoing through the winter months with work on the huge underground parking facility below the Catholic church building and an adjacent private apartment complex development, as well as the footings and "super pads" for a dramatic entryway and nearby bell tower.

The Rev. James Cheney, who had a dream about a new building since he started working as the priest for the ministry about 15 years ago, said in a Christmas Eve interview at their temporary center at 2505 N. University Drive that he was so thankful for the generosity of North Dakota State University alumni and others who have given to the project.

"This is a major accomplishment for us" to close in on the fundraising goal, he said.

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The former Newman Center at the corner of 12th Avenue North and University Drive in Fargo. Forum file photo
The former Newman Center at the corner of 12th Avenue North and University Drive in Fargo. Forum file photo

He said many of the donors realize the value of the campus ministry. He said there are 4,000 Catholic students at NDSU, or about 23% of the student population. About 70% are Protestant, and the other 7% belong to world religions.

Cheney also said about 95% of Catholics go to state universities across the nation, while only about 3% enroll at Catholic higher education institutions.

He said faith-based work on campuses is proven to increase the quality of life for students, as studies show it can help to reduce such things as binge drinking, suicides, cutting and assaults by as much as 70%.

"The students are also a lot happier," he said.

Cheney said they currently have about 50 Bible studies groups and have had as many as 75 a year in the past.

He said the Newman Center in recent years has provided to the church 30 seminarians, 85 missionaries and eight sisters, a proof of how students explore their faith in their college years when their lives are further developing.

The Newman Center has been recognized for its ministry with a top five ranking nationwide in the past 10 years for generating leaders.

Currently, Cheney said the 100-member leadership team involves the two priests, six peer ministers, four missionaries and 85 student leaders.

Cheney said the new facility, which was designed by learning more about student habits, takes up about half of a city block and will be one of the "gateways" to the campus.

The other part of the entire block of new development includes Roers Development's 86-unit apartment building and townhomes in a neighborhood where neighbors were supportive of the Newman Center but raised concerns about losing single-family homes to the additional apartment units and also worried about the density in population that it caused.

The three-story Newman Center's main features on the first floor will be a 450-seat chapel, a library, a student lounge, a coffee shop/bookstore and offices for counseling and staff. The second floor has a ballroom that can hold about 350 people, a kitchen/dining room and a choir room.

The smaller third floor will be the center's rectory.

A discernment floor for students to explore their faith and 24 units of faith-based housing for students wishing to live adjacent to the center are also part of the facility.

Cheney said at one time they considered remodeling the former one-story structure, but that it was an "asbestos bombshell" and was simply becoming overcrowded.