History of Columbia Catholic

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The Story: A History of Catholicism at Columbia

Columbia Catholic Ministry began in 1922 through the Archdiocese of New York, when Patrick Cardinal Hayes appointed two successive Paulist priests, Fr. Henry Reilly and Fr. J. Elliot Ross to be the chaplains to the Newman Club on campus. In 1929, Fr. George Barry Ford became the new chaplain and would remain for the next 16 eventful years. He became pastor of Corpus Christi Church in 1935 and promptly tore down the old building to build the current church on the same site in 1936. He was a hugely influential presence not only on campus but all around New York and he routinely shared company with everyone from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt, to Robert Moses and Irving Berlin. Ford was well ahead of his time in his desire for meaningful liturgy and ecumenical dialogue. One day in the fall of 1938, Ford met a student named Thomas Merton and gave his approval for him to begin studies for reception into the Catholic Church.

In 1945, Fr. Ford stepped down and was replaced by the beloved Fr. John Daly. Ministering to students in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Fr. Daly simply encouraged students to encounter Jesus through reading the New Testament, daily prayer, frequenting the sacraments, living the virtues, and developing a positive attitude about life. In honor of his dedicated ministry, a group of generous alumni have established scholarships in his name at both Columbia and Barnard. Francis Cardinal Spellman then sent Fr. James Rea to Columbia in 1955. He had spent the previous eleven years as a seminary professor and brought an expertise in theology and apologetics to the students and faculty. In 1958, he became only the second priest in America to be named a Monsignor while serving in campus ministry. In 1967, he instituted the midday Mass at St. Paul's chapel that remains to this day. Rea also helped lead the Catholic community through the tumultuous days of protests in 1968 and was placed in charge of all religious life advisors as part of the University's reforms in September 1969.

In 1973, Terence Cardinal Cooke appointed Fr. Paul Dinter to head the ministry. He founded Ford Hall, established the annual Merton Lecture, and created a service organization called Diakonia that helped lead to the creation of Community Impact on campus. Msgr. Christopher Maloney succeeded Fr. Dinter in 1988 and was also named pastor of Notre Dame on 114th Street, which then became the locus of the ministry. He made the Merton Center at Notre Dame a home for students, secured brilliant speakers on campus, and is still remembered for his clever theological interpretation of famous movies. With Fr. Tom Valenti, he helped build an award-winning service organization called Columbia Catholic Athletes and helped console the entire university through 9/11.

In 2003, Edward Cardinal Egan send an order of Dominican priests from Poland to Columbia. Fr. Jacek Buda, Fr. Jacek Kopera, and Fr. Lukasz Misko would all serve as directors over the next several years, bringing their charism of preaching as well as their great love of learning and liturgy. They created the Faith and Reason lecture series, arranged musical templates for a wide variety of prayer vigils and holy hours, led pilgrimages to World Youth Days and other holy sites worldwide, inspired many vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and secured a lasting relationship with the Missionaries of Charity in Harlem at a soup kitchen founded by St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Fr. Daniel O'Reilly succeeded the Polish Dominicans in 2011 and, at the request of Timothy Cardinal Dolan, led the ministry from its home at Notre Dame back to Corpus Christi in 2013. Today, the ministry continues to grow and build upon the foundations of those who created them. Columbia’s Catholic community maintains its emphasis on learning and apologetics through lectures, seminars, and Bible studies. The students encounter Christ spiritually through daily Mass, confessions, RCIA, holy hours, retreats, and prayer vigils.

Times change, technology advances, diversity expands, and the world seems to shrink. Columbia Catholic Ministry, however, is very much as it has always been because it has always been focused on Jesus Christ - who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.