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St. Leo breaks ground for new church at Arkansas Tech

Building will serve the roughly 200 Catholic students in the Russellville college community

Published: February 27, 2020   
Courtesy Robert Latus, St. Leo the Great University Parish
St. Leo University Parish broke ground on its new 9,000-square-foot church and parish hall Feb. 23 with a blessing by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor. Pictured are Pat Buford (left), St. Leo director; Bishop Taylor; Mary Corkins, development coordinator and campus minister; Father Ernie Hardesty, pastor; Greg Williams, Nabholz Construction CEO; and Fritz Kronberger, a member of the building committee.

St. Leo the Great University Parish in Russellville took the next step toward its new 9,000-square-foot church and parish hall with a groundbreaking ceremony Feb. 23.

“We’ve operated out of such an interesting situation, crowded, compact,” said pastor Father Ernie Hardesty, who has led the ministry for 24 years. “Students are very excited, they see the design, they’re all thrilled to death; it’s like nothing they’ve never seen before … there’s room for everything.”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor blessed the ground, attended by about 100 people including students, alumni and donors, despite the rain. Roughly 200 students participate in the ministry, through Mass and social activities, with about 20 student leaders. 

In March 2019, the campus ministry at Arkansas Tech University launched its $3 million capital campaign. Mary Corkins, development coordinator and campus minister, said the ministry has raised about 93 percent, about $2.8 million, of their goal in less than a year.

St. Leo’s still needs monetary donations to cover furnishings and liturgical items, which are not included in the overall project estimation. The project is expected to be completed by January 2021.

“We know for 100 percent what has been accomplished so far has been miraculous,” Corkins said, and attributes that most to prayer. “Obviously we’re not done, so please keep praying.”

The campaign began with a charitable bequest of $900,000 from former volunteer Beth Frazier, a parishioner at St. John Church in Russellville who died in 2011. Since the campaign started, small and large donations have poured in from about 360 donors. The Knights of Columbus and parishes have donated. The Church of the Assumption in Atkins, where Father Hardesty also serves as pastor, recently raised $2,000 from a St. Valentine roast beef dinner, with students assisting.

St. Leo ministry leadership and students traveled to local parishes to share their stories of how the ministry has touched their lives.

“To have those students there to testify how important it is, is the most powerful thing you can do in my opinion,” Corkins said.

The ministry started unofficially in the 1960s when priests from Subiaco ministered to students. It was officially established in 1996 with Father Hardesty and director Pat Buford. It was declared a parish in 2000.

A significant help has been donors willing to match gifts, including a matching Catholic Extension grant for $65,000.

St. Scholastica Monastery in Fort Smith, which moved to a new facility in 2018, donated relics, statues, altar candlesticks and a tabernacle. St. Leo bought six sets of three stained-glass windows from the monastery for a discounted price.

When visitors walk into the vestibule, one direction will lead to office space and the other will go into either the sanctuary or parish hall, separated by a retractable wall. The chapel will seat 150 and 150 more in the hall, which includes a commercial kitchen. The wall can be folded to allow seating for 300 people at Mass. 

“Right now we barely had wireless internet; whatever we wind up with will be a humongous upgrade,” Corkins said of the ministry’s former 1,400-square-foot Catholic center, a house more than 50 years old.

Father Hardesty said he’s most excited about the efficient layout, a far cry from their cramped former house where every space was shared.

“Prayer space is so very important. I always tell people Jesus went off to the desert to pray, he didn’t go to the kitchen to pray. We need a place that’s quiet to talk to the Lord,” he said.

The ministry moved out of the home, which will be demolished, in early October. Reserved rooms on campus accommodate two weekend Masses and ministry activities.

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