On any given Sunday, Arkansas Tech University students fill up the 55 chairs put out for Masses at St. Leo the Great University Church in Russellville. Then, more students pour into the kitchen. Then, more fill the room behind the kitchen. Sometimes, there’s standing room only for the 65 to 70 students on average who attend Mass in the 1,400-square-foot house that’s been students’ spiritual home for 23 years. Up until 10 years ago, there was one Mass, but overcrowding required two.
“The double Mass helped out a little bit until it started overflowing with people,” said Father Ernie Hardesty, who has been pastor for 23 years. “It’s just not serving our needs nearly as well as we’d like it to do, but we do the best that we can. We talked about building a new center over 10 years ago.”
Thanks to a charitable bequest, the campus ministry kicked off a capital campaign in early March to raise 80 percent of the overall cost, roughly $2.4 million, needed for a new 9,000-square-foot church and parish hall before construction can begin. Father Hardesty said the project will cost about $3 million, which does not include furnishings and other items. A building committee chose HFA in Bentonville as the architect and Nabholz Construction in Conway as the contractor.
The current building was officially declared a church, St. Leo the Great University Parish, under the diocese in 2000. But Father Hardesty and Pat Buford, director of St. Leo, have been ministering to students for 23 years. The diocese obtained the property in December 1990, where students lived until 1996. The house was converted into a Catholic center.
“This building is well over 50 years old,” she said. “We remodeled it as best we could to expand the space for worship … It’s pretty sad, let’s just say that.”
Preliminary plans have been proposed for the new church and parish hall, to be built on the same property adjacent to campus, in hopes that the current building can be moved to another location, Buford said.
It will seat 150 in the sanctuary, 150 in the cafeteria and will have a commercial kitchen. They hope to have screens and other audio and visual systems. Retractable doors would allow the back of the church and the back of the hall to connect, Buford said.
“In the future I hope to do a wedding,” at the parish, Father Hardesty said. “Now a student doesn’t want to consider this little house that’s falling apart ... I prepare them for weddings all the time,” as many couples meet on campus.
About 200 students are involved in the ministry and to accommodate weekly Bible study, adoration, Mass and other various student activities, chairs have to be rearranged, the altar is moved, meals are enjoyed outside and the food is prepared elsewhere.
It was this plight that Beth Frazier, a parishioner at St. John Church in Russellville, saw firsthand, occasionally attending Mass with the students and “was always good to bring a casserole or two” for student lunches, Buford said.
Frazier died in 2011 at age 64 and left $900,000 to the campus parish.
“We would have started at zero,” Father Hardesty said. “She told me before she passed away she was putting some money in her will that would go to St. Leo’s and she wanted us to use it to build a new center, and I said we will do our best.”
They are reaching out to donors, mailing out information to alumni and are creating a promotional video with the students.
The campus has a long history of Catholicism. In the 1960s, priests from Subiaco Abbey reserved buildings on campus to minister to students. But Father Hardesty, who is also pastor of Church of the Assumption in Atkins, and Buford began a permanent campus ministry program in 1996.
An October 2018 National Catholic Register article reported that according to data collected by the nonprofit The Newman Connection, 80 percent of Catholic college students stop practicing their faith, while 70 percent remaining loosely connected through outreach by a Catholic campus ministry.
“We try to be that parish family for them. We do all sorts of things to keep these kids connected to their Church,” Buford said.
Colton Keeter, 19, a freshman marketing and management major from Charleston, attends Scripture study, adoration, confession, Mass, Thursday dinners and other activities. He said while the small space has served its purpose, having more space will be a blessing.
“I’m very excited about the increase in size. We’ll have separate areas for Mass and chapel and a separate area for dining and playing games and hanging out — a separation of the two rooms so it doesn’t require any putting up or taking down for Mass or for eating,” he said. “St. Leo’s has been everything for me while I’m at college. It’s been a second home and family to be with when I’m away from my blood family. I spend all my time here; it’s my favorite part of being at Arkansas Tech.”
For more information about the capital campaign or to donate, visit stleosatu.org; mail St. Leo Church, P.O. Box 9033, Russellville, 72811-9033; email or call development coordinator and assistant campus minister Mary Corkins at (479) 747-2531.
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