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UPDATED: PSU Catholic Center Could Break Ground By Fall

on June 24, 2010 6:27 AM

UPDATED @ 6:27 a.m. Thursday: Construction on the planned Catholic student center could begin by the fall. The story below has been updated with new details.

More than $4.2 million in gifts and pledges have been raised for the Catholic student center planned for East Park Avenue in State College, project leaders announced Wednesday.

They said fundraising for the capital campaign, which began quietly in 2007, will now enter a public phase. The overall goal is $6.5 million.

"We're hoping for the fall" for a groundbreaking, said Father Matthew Laffey, director of the Penn State Catholic Campus Ministry. He said the group would like to have raised nearly $5 million by that point.

Construction on the College Heights project is expected to last about a year, Laffey said. The two-story building, to include more than 21,000 square feet of space, will offer a 70-seat chapel, reconciliation rooms, meeting and social space, a library and a residence for the Benedictine fathers.

Meanwhile, Penn State football Coach Joe Paterno and his wife, Sue, an active community volunteer, have been named honorary co-chairs for the capital campaign. They, along with university trustee Bill Schreyer and philanthropist Peg Stine, have committed a combined $2.5 million for the center, Laffey said.

The new facility will be a couple blocks from Penn State's Pasquerilla Spiritual Center, which houses activities for 64 religious organizations on the University Park campus. Laffey said the groups are "all vying for rooms" at Pasquerilla, "and we have a lot of functions."

"We do use the place probably more than other people, but we need more space," he said. "Just as importantly, we need freedom to have meetings when they best suit us, too."

Laffey said the new center will give the Catholic Campus Ministry a more easily identified physical presence within easy walking distance of University Park. He estimated about 9,500 students at the campus have personal ties to the Catholic faith.

"It's a place where students can all go knowing what they're going to find," Laffey said of the new space. "They know there's someplace that can be a respite. ... You can do that other places, too. But there's something about, for Catholics, a place that has the sights and the sounds of their faith. It will be a place of respite, a place of fellowship."

Meanwhile, the ministry's main weekend Masses, which can draw as many as 2,000 people, will continue to be held at the much larger Pasquerilla Spiritual Center. The ministry is a joint operation involving the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and the Benedictine Community of St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe.

Local Catholic leaders on Tuesday hosted a kick-off for the capital campaign's public phase at the Knights of Columbus building in State College. Intended to cover construction costs and to create endowments for building maintenance and ministry programs, the campaign is called "Journey of Faith: A Homecoming."

Sue Paterno, a College Heights resident herself, said in a prepared statement that the capital campaign will be "reaching out to alumni, students, faculty, parents and friends."

"This campaign is designed to encourage support from those who have been blessed with a wide range of financial ability," Sue Paterno said. "We believe that in order to be truly successful, we will need everyone's participation and support."

Three diocese-owned houses in College Heights -- at 113, 117 and 123 E. Park Ave. --  will be demolished this summer to make way for the new construction, Laffey said. Current residents are expected to vacate by July.

About 300 other residents of College Heights objected to the project when it was first proposed several years ago. Many argued that it should be classified as a student center, which is not allowed under the neighborhood's zoning rules.

The debate wound its way through the borough government and to Centre County court, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court and the state Supreme Court. The high court upheld the opinion that the project should be classified essentially as a church, a function permitted under the zoning in College Heights.

More information about the project is available at http://www.psu.edu/catholic, which offers a virtual walk-through of the plans. For more information about fundraising, call Erik Bjalme at (814) 865-9091.

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