History of the GT Catholic Center

By: Jay McLendon, GT alumnus

As we look at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center today, thirty years after the dedication of this Center, it is hard to imagine the change that has taken place since 1928 when the Newman Club was founded at what was then called the Georgia School of Technology.

Tech Tower & Shop Building, 1899

The best authority says the Newman Club was founded in 1928. Rev. Theophilus McNulty, OFM who was chaplain at Georgia Tech in 1963, wrote an extensive article in the “Georgia Bulletin” of January 28, 1965 on the Newman Club movement. In this article, Fr. McNulty states: “It was through the efforts of Fr. John Keough who was the chaplain at University of Pennsylvania that Newman Clubs came to the South.   He set up Newman Clubs at the University of South Carolina and at University of Georgia. He came to Atlanta and visited the Marists (Marist was then close to Sacred Heart Basilica).   He convinced Fr. Leo Ziebarth who taught math and physics at Marist and Lewis F. Gordon (a layman) to work on establishing a Newman Club at Georgia Tech; this was done in 1928.”

It should be noted that the “Great Depression” began in 1929 so this would have had a negative effect on the new Newman Club. The first listing of the Newman Club in the Georgia Tech “Blueprint” was in 1931. Some later “Blue Print” editions mention that 1931 was the founding date, another one said “1913”. I think we can trust Fr. McNulty that 1928 is the founding date.

Lewis F. Gordon was a prominent laymen. He was a Director of C&S Bank. Mr. Gordon is referred to as a “benefactor” for the Georgia Tech Newman Club as well as the founder.

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, the namesake of the Newman Club movement

Information on the early days of the Newman Club at Georgia Tech comes mainly from two sources: “The Blue Print” yearbook and “The Bulletin of the Catholic Laymen’s Association” which was published 1920 – 1963 when all of Georgia was in the Savannah Diocese. In 1963 this paper was renamed “The Southern Cross”. In 1965 Atlanta was established as a Diocese (now an Archdiocese) and its newspaper “The Georgia Bulletin” continues to be published.

From the “Laymen’s Bulletin” of 1/17/1931: “The quarterly Communions and Communion breakfasts have been most successful and attendance has been splendid. Two dances are given annually and the most recent affair of this kind was unanimously voted as meriting a place right near the top of the campus and fraternity dances…”

From the “Laymen’s Bulletin” of 5/06/1933: “Georgia Tech Newman Club is host to Middle Atlantic Province (of Federation of Newman Clubs). Twenty colleges and universities from Pennsylvania to Florida will be represented.   Among local speakers is Louis F. Gordon, the prime mover in the formation of the Georgia Tech Newman Club.”

From the “Laymen’s Bulletin” of 5/18/1935: “Newman Clubs of Southeast Meet in Atlanta – Delegates Attend from Three States”. “The delegates and visitors received Holy Communion in a body at the eight o’clock Mass at Sacred Heart Church; a Communion breakfast followed at the Ansley Hotel.”

A major event was reported by the “Laymen’s Bulletin” of 12/21/1940: “Georgia Tech Newman Club Acquires a Home”. “The new house was opened for the convention of Newman Clubs of the Southeast Province which was held November 22-24 under the sponsorship of the club at Georgia Tech.   The building was formerly the Phi Delta fraternity house, located at 87 North Avenue. Many new members joined the Georgia Tech Newman Club this year, including several associate members from Agnes Scott in Decatur.” This location was the section of North Avenue that is now the Downtown Connector Expressway.

From information in several “Blue Print” annuals from later in the 1940’s, this house was referred to “our former house”. No details were given for why or how the house was given up. However, that was the period during World War II.

From the “Laymen’s Bulletin” of 5/20/1950: “Several hundred members of the Georgia Tech Newman Club, their mothers, wives and friends attended the annual Mother’s Day Mass which was celebrated on the college campus by the Most Reverend Francis E. Hyland, Auxiliary Bishop of Savannah-Atlanta, who also delivered the sermon.” “Following the Mass there was a Communion breakfast at which Lewis F. Gordon was the speaker.”

In 1952, the Newman House was established at 158 Fourth Street. In 1963, an adjoining lot at 154 Fourth Street. was purchased.

John O’Donnell, an alumnus from the late 1950’s era, wrote about his time at the Newman Club in an email to Fr. Tim Hepburn in 2010: “I have fond memories of the house that served as the home, both for residents and non-residents, away from home for the Catholics at Georgia Tech. It was a very active organization, fielding teams in all the intramural leagues. Between classes, we would retreat to the house to study, play bridge or ping-pong, listen to music, nap, talk, etc. The meetings were very engaged; the Parliamentarian’s role was an active one. The parties on the patio that the students built were well-attended. And, then there were the Joe Moterotz’s Birthday Parties. The Parent’s Club would put on dinners to both enhance community and to raise money. The big event every year was on Mother’s Day, when there was Mass, and breakfast with a speaker.”

Roland Toups, who was a member of the Newman Club in the late 1950’s, mentioned that Sunday Mass was held at the YMCA on North Avenue. That building is now home to the GT Alumni Association.

In 1970, Fr. Mario DiLella, O.F.M. was assigned as Chaplain and would be the chaplain for many years until his retirement in 2008.

Fr. Mario wrote in a 2014 email: “The first Franciscan Priest to minister at Georgia Tech and all other colleges in Atlanta, Father Giles Webster, O.F.M., arrived on campus in 1958. Many years before him the Priests of the Order of Oblates of Mary Immaculate who now minister at Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in Brookhaven had that same ministry to the colleges.  At that time the Newman Club concept was the norm for “non-Catholic” colleges ministering to Catholic students. In 1968, the Newman Club leased property on 176 Fifth Street and moved there. The houses at 154 and 158 Fourth Street were demolished.”

The property on Fifth Street was later purchased by the Archdiocese.

The Catholic Center property on Fifth Street

In 1982, Fr. Mario expressed to the Archbishop the need to expand Fifth Street or build a new home for the Catholic Center. The plan was approved by the Archdiocese and $944,000 was budgeted. The Archdiocese swapped the property on Fifth Street with Georgia Tech for the current property on Fourth Street. There were 1,850-2,000 Catholic students at Georgia Tech at that time.

The Catholic Center’s 4th St location in 1985

Fr. Mario wrote in another 2014 email: “Before we built the new Catholic Center a fraternity had a small house on that corner. From 1970 when I arrived at Georgia Tech until 1985, when we moved into the new and improved Catholic Center, we occupied a small rented house on 176 Fifth Street next to the Lutheran Center and where the two-house Fraternity now exists.  After 2008, when I left Georgia Tech, the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta has been supplying the Campus Minister with Diocesan Priests, not Order Priests.”

The Catholic Center’s 1985 Dedication Mass for the 4th St location

Fr. Mario wrote more: “Sometime after 1961, I think, but I am not sure, the Bishops of the USA changed the concept from Newman Club (something akin to a Fraternity for Catholics with dues, etc.) to Catholic Campus Ministry (ministry to all students regardless of their religious affiliation or lack thereof).  There are many campuses today in the country both “non Catholic” and Catholic who use the Newman name for their ministry, for example, Newman Campus Ministry, Newman House, etc.”

This history document focuses on the locations and the chaplains of the Newman Club/Catholic Center. The most important history is in the lives of the many young men and women who attended the Center. As stated today in the Georgia Tech Catholic Center literature: “All activities are designed to provide a community where we can come together to worship, play, study, and pray”. Joanie Gross, past Development Director, explained it this way: Our main purpose is to be a “home away from home” for our students and give them an inviting, comfortable and safe place to meet people of similar interests. We try to provide a wide range of programming and events that meet students anywhere along the spectrum of faith – from those that are just exploring the Catholic faith through RCIA to those who are interested in social events like community dinners, tailgates and intramural competitions to those who want to actively pursue and advance their faith by participating in daily Mass, Adoration and Bible Study.”

Jay McLendon, the author of this document, gratefully acknowledges the help he was given by the following:

  • Marilyn Somers, Georgia Tech Living History Dept.
  • Fr. Mario DiLella, O.F.M., retired Chaplain
  • The Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, Archives
  • The Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, “Georgia Bulletin”
  • The Catholic Diocese of Savannah, Archives
  • The Catholic Diocese of Savannah, “Laymen’s Bulletin”
  • Joanie Gross, formerly at the GT Catholic Center
  • Patty Schmitt, GT Catholic Center