The University Catholic students of Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville have been grateful to have a place they can call their own this past school year since the Aquinas House next door to St. Thomas Aquinas Church opened last September.
“Coming from University Catholic Nashville and knowing the importance that Frassati House has on the life and the ministry of University Catholic, I said, ‘Ok, we need something like this here,’” said Father Gervan Menezes, former chaplain of University Catholic and current diocesan director of campus ministries and pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church. “It’s important for the students to feel like they have a home away from home.”
So, Father Menezes started contemplating the idea and realized there was a solution just across the parking lot.
“I thought, ‘We have this parish office that is like a house, so let’s do it here,’” he explained. “To my surprise, when I talked to the staff, I thought everybody wasn’t going to be on board, but everybody was happy.
“It’s perfect because most of the activities that happen with UCat happen here in the parish,” he said. “This house has a living room, it has a kitchen, and everything to make them feel comfortable and like they have a place to call home.”
It’s a concept that has worked for campus ministries at other schools in the Diocese of Nashville. Besides the Frassati House next to the Cathedral of the Incarnation that serves students in Nashville, Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro recently opened the St. Martin de Porres House, and Austin Peay State University in Clarksville recently opened the Newman House.
The Tennessee Tech Community has wasted no time putting the Aquinas House to good use. Along with having a place to come after school and do homework, it has been the site of a weekly Thursday supper, which includes various activities and guest speakers, Bible studies, and more.
“The whole goal is to encourage friendships within University Catholic so we can rely on each other as brothers and sisters in Christ because when you have those friendships, we can be there for each other and grow in Christ together as Catholics,” said senior Nick Fouche, president of University Catholic at Tennessee Tech. “Having Aquinas House as a place for us to come together on a regular basis only enhances that.”
“When you’re a Catholic, and you have friendships with only non-Catholics, it can get very hard to grow in your faith and you might even leave the Church, God forbid,” he added. “That’s a real danger at colleges because you are leaving home for the first time, you’re getting to know yourself, and it can be very easy to leave the Catholic Church for a non-Catholic church or, worse, leave Christianity entirely.”
Carlos Salvatierra, a senior at Tennessee Tech, said having Aquinas House has been a great addition to the University Catholic experience.
“It is really nice because now we can just come here most times of the day and study and hang out,” Salvatierra said. “It’s a nice change of pace from being downstairs because it felt like we were in a classroom after having already been in a classroom all day.
“But being here, since we’re all a lot closer together and have little areas that look unique, and we get to go outside, too, it’s really nice and refreshing,” he added. “Having this community around me of Catholic individuals has helped me to be constantly reminded to live my faith and better myself.”
And he’s extending that reminder to his fellow male Catholics as he organized a weekly Bible study based on the Knights of Columbus program “Into the Breach” for the semester.
“What I wanted to do was create a group for the guys to join and be able to learn what it is to be a man in the Catholic faith,” Salvatierra said. “‘Into the Breach’ is a 12-part series with several 15-minute videos that define different topics about what it means to be a Catholic man in today’s society.”
Tennessee Tech students Laure Duhamel, a senior, and Katherine Wieczorek, a sophomore, are doing the same for the girls with their weekly Bible studies.
“We just wanted to foster the community among all the girls here,” explained Duhamel, who has led the small group Bible study for three semesters.
“The small groups have really done a lot for me, so I wanted to give back in that regard,” added Wieczorek, who came on as a co-lead for the spring semester.
Both Duhamel and Wieczorek agreed that having Aquinas House available to host the sessions has helped, as well as in general as relationships continue to be built.
“University Catholic is where all my friends are and it’s been really nice to build those Christ-centered relationships here,” Duhamel said. “I love having Aquinas House because I can just come here and hang out, it’s nice and quiet when I need to do my homework, and it’s nice that Mass is right next door.”
“For Thursday supper, having Aquinas House has made the biggest difference because we now have a place that’s ours,” added Wieczorek.
For Tennessee Tech senior Mitch Mitchell, having the University Catholic community has meant even more as a convert to the faith with no other Catholics in his family to turn to.
Mitchell, who had not had much exposure to Christianity, said his journey began as a senior in high school when he was invited to Mass by a friend, and then learned of the Miracle of Lanciano, which occurred in the eighth century.
As the story goes, a monk, who wasn’t fully convinced of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, was saying the words of consecration at Mass one day when the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood.
“That story was such a verifiable thing for me, and I said, ‘That’s it,’” Mitchell explained. “Usually, I question things super hard, but that time I didn’t. The Lord has just given me the grace of faith to stick with it.”
Even after his baptism at the Easter Vigil in 2019, Mitchell said the journey to where his faith is now was still a gradual one, first focusing on eliminating the mortal sins in his life but doing the bare minimum and not “going above and beyond to real Christian living like we’re called to.”
Then, he said, a friend challenged him to start taking the faith more seriously, and from that advice, he began to regularly read the Bible and meditate on the mysteries of the rosary.
Through that, “I really received grace from God to understand metaphysical truths more, to really understand that worldly things don’t matter, and that God is the only thing that matters,” he said. “Truths like that clicked in me and my faith exploded when I fully rationalized that priority No. 1 in my love, above all else, is the Lord.”
And he’s found people who do the same at University Catholic.
“I love everyone here, and I love getting to know those who are really devout,” Mitchell said. “Then, those that are maybe living like me in my early days, I want to go and help them move forward in their spiritual life by going and talking to some of them about their faith journeys.”
University Catholic currently has campus ministries established at Vanderbilt University, Belmont University, Aquinas College, Lipscomb University, Trevecca Nazarene University, all in Nashville, Columbia State Community College in Columbia, Austin Peay State University, Tennessee Tech University, Middle Tennessee State University, Cumberland University in Lebanon, and Sewanee: The University of the South in Sewanee.
For more information about University Catholic, visit universitycatholic.org.