Photo courtesy of Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland The Newman Center, a gathering place for the Catholic community at the University of Maine, has been relaunched for the new school year with social distance protocols in place. The first weekly meal had a socially distanced dinner on the center’s front lawn.

ORONO — With over 11,000 students, “move in” week at the University of Maine in Orono left many staff and community members, as well as the campus community, hoping for the best in an unprecedented situation.

“The fate of the fall semester is in the hands of our students and many are stepping up to help lead our health and safety initiatives,” said Chancellor Dannel Molloy.

Counted among those students setting a positive example for their fellow classmates are those already participating in the relaunching of Campus Ministry at the Newman Center, a gathering place for the Catholic community at the university which has provided a spiritual home for tens of thousands of UMaine students since 1946, first in what was called the “log cabin,” and now in its current location on College Avenue since 1972.

The center is home to the Black Bear Catholic student organization, many Bible study events, men’s and women’s faith sharing groups and a host of social and service activities. Months of thought and preparation went into ensuring it would remain open during the pandemic.

“I’m feeling pretty confident about it all,” said Fr. Kyle Doustou, pastor of the Parish of the Resurrection of the Lord, of which the Newman Center is a part. “Our three main priorities are to allow the students to practice their faith, keep students and our community safe, and, as Christian witnesses, set a good example for responsible citizenship. The plan adheres to all protocols issued by the Maine CDC, the University of Maine, and the Diocese of Portland.”

The normal liturgical schedule has returned, with necessary changes included. Masses are held at the center on Sundays at 11 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. and Tuesdays at 8 p.m. with participants required to wear masks, observe social distancing, and strongly encouraged to receive Holy Communion in the hand.

“The chapel and worship space, in fact, the whole Newman Center, has been completely reconfigured for social distancing and limited numbers,” said Fr. Doustou. “I’ve got an excellent crew of student volunteers and work-study students who are helping with setting up, sanitizing, and keeping everything the way it needs to be for everyone’s safety.”

In addition, FOCUS missionaries (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) continue to serve at UMaine, and assist in the safety and operation of the center. The Catholic collegiate outreach group forms relationships with UMaine students to help them be better disciples of Christ.

Confessions and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are scheduled at multiple points during the week for the convenience of students.

“Confessions will be heard in the pastor’s office with the priest behind a protective screen and with the penitent at a 6-foot distance,” said Fr. Doustou.

One of the most important features of the Newman Center is the hospitality extended to all students and their friends, particularly through community gatherings and the offering of two weekly meals.

“We will continue doing so, but under strict provisions. Our three work-study students will be responsible for food preparation, food distribution, and clean up,” said Fr. Doustou. “They have been trained in each of these areas and will ensure that all requirements are met. They will work in tandem, but will be socially distanced, in order to provide efficient food service.”

All meals are pre-packaged and individually wrapped in disposable to-go containers.

“Students will line up at 6-foot increments, with no more than 35 individuals at a time, to comply with the University’s/CDC’s ruling that there be only five individuals per 1,000 square feet indoors at a time,” said Fr. Doustou. “If the weather is nice, meals will be eaten outside at designated locations.”

The first weekly meal went terrific on Sunday night, Aug. 30, with a socially distanced dinner on the center’s front lawn.

“The students were excellent,” said Fr. Doustou. “Very compliant with the protocols and very happy to be back!”

The center’s student lounge is safely reorganized for formation events like Bible studies. Virtual trivia nights, scavenger hunts, and other live-streamed, creative opportunities are also returning. 

“Most formation events and gatherings will include a mixture of online and in-person participation, to accommodate the needs of all,” said Fr. Doustou.

Certain smaller spaces have been restricted or limited for use, and all other rooms have sanitization plans in place.

“All spaces in the Newman Center that are used will be sanitized before and after, either by the group using the space or by the parish staff,” said Fr. Doustou.

Hand sanitizers are strategically placed by the entrance/exit and in areas that see the most use. Even facemasks are available to be provided for students who arrive without their own.

The planning and preparation offer a feeling of security, as does the students’ collective reaction.

“They know the practical risks of not complying, of course, but they also are doing so out of love and concern for the community,” said Fr. Doustou. “I have found everyone who has already arrived to be gracious and understanding. I think we’re in for a good semester and, while things will be different, I’m looking forward to the opportunities ahead.”