100 Years of Encountering Jesus

100 Years of Encountering Jesus

Campus ministry at the Capstone

Next year, St. Francis of Assisi University Parish and Bama Catholic Campus Ministry will celebrate 100 years of Catholic campus ministry at the University of Alabama. In 1923, Father Thomas Lenahan, who had been pastor at St. John the Baptist Church in downtown Tuscaloosa for five years, began a Newman Club at the university. Over the next century, the church’s ministry to Catholic students changed and expanded.

In 1929, the first chapel for the students was constructed, and the Holy Ghost Fathers began ministering to the students. In 1940, Holy Ghost Father Michael Mulvoy arrived on campus as the chaplain of St. Francis Chapel. He would remain in Tuscaloosa for 33 years.

In the early 1970s, the Holy Ghost Fathers handed the care of the university’s Catholics over to the diocese. Father John Fallon was the first priest of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama to lead campus ministry at St. Francis. Also during the 1970s, the SEARCH peer retreat was brought to the Capstone students. Nearly 50 years later, this retreat program is still going strong.

In the early 1980s, St. Francis was established as its own parish. A momentous occasion took place for the parish near the end of that decade when I moved into my room at Burke dormitory right around the corner. I spent the next three and a half years reaping the benefits of the campus ministry offerings at St. Francis before entering the seminary for the diocese.

Fast forward several decades and the campus ministry at St. Francis has continued to thrive and grow with the building of a new sanctuary, the Saban Catholic Student Center, and the Chapel of Holy Wisdom.

Seven years ago, Bishop Robert Baker brought the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) to the campus of the University of Alabama. The ministry, which has spread to campuses around the country, helps college students who are away from home for the first time to connect with their Catholic faith and build relationships with other young Catholic students.

Besides integrating the FOCUS ministry with campus ministry efforts, the parish also gave the campus ministry a new name — Bama Catholic Campus Ministry. As a campus ministry, Bama Catholic’s goal is to bring Catholic students to an encounter with Jesus. Central to this effort are the sacraments. The parish not only provides daily noontime Mass and confessions, but also a weekly opportunity for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Along with availability to the sacraments, Bama Catholic strives to provide a space where Catholic students can grow in friendship with one another. The student center is open throughout the year, giving the students a place to study, to join in fellowship, and to play games whether on the front lawn or in the game room. Weekly Sunday evening meals following Mass and FOCUS small group Bible studies also provide opportunities for students to meet and interact.

Bama Catholic also seeks to provide the students a greater understanding of their faith. The Exploring Catholicism program brings in speakers each week to discuss various topics. The parish walks with students as they expand their view of who they are and what purpose they have in life. The robust student participation has created a lot of energy at St. Francis, which has inspired resident parishioners, helping young and old grow as faithful disciples. Parishioners even invite students over to their homes as part of the adopt-a-student program whereby resident parishioners give social and moral support to students, particularly those far from home.

In addition to the many opportunities the ministry provides, Bama Catholic students are able to discern what’s next for them in their lives. Most begin their careers. Some start their lives with the spouse they met at Bama Catholic. Many go on missions. Some become FOCUS missionaries at other campuses. Others join a teaching program such as ACE or engage in other mission opportunities. However, the most incredible fruit of the ministry is that, over the last four years, nine have entered formation for the priesthood or religious life, three of whom have entered seminary for the Diocese of Birmingham.

As St. Francis of Assisi University Parish and Bama Catholic prepare to celebrate 100 years of Catholic campus ministry at the University of Alabama, there is a lot to celebrate. I am thankful for those who preceded me in this ministry — Father Lenahan, the Holy Ghost Fathers,  particularly Father Mulvoy, as well as Father Fallon, Father Ray Dunmyer, Father Andy Sullivan, and Father Gerald Holloway. I am thankful for a staff dedicated to the mission. I am thankful for parishioners and benefactors who support the ministry. I am thankful for students who respond so well to the opportunity they have at Bama Catholic to encounter Jesus. Most of all, I am thankful to God for the way His Spirit is moving in these young men and women.


Father Tom Ackerman is the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi University Parish in Tuscaloosa. Originally from New Jersey, he is a 1990 graduate of the University of Alabama. After graduation, he attended St. Meinrad Seminary in southern Indiana, and on June 7, 1997, he was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.