A student organization was set up in 1924 for the Catholic students at Michigan Agricultural College. In 1933 the students organized a Newman Club with Fr. Cecil Winters as chaplain. On October 1, 1940 Fr. Winters became founding pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing. (St. Thomas Aquinas is patron saint of students.) St. Thomas Aquinas Parish was to have a large focus on the students of MAC.
Fr. Jerome MacEachin (Fr. Mac) succeeded Fr. Winters as pastor. The Newman Club secured a house for thier activities and grew to be the largest Newman Club in the nation in 1950. Fr. Mac took on raising funds for a new student parish in 1954. In 1956 ground was broken. Fr. Robert Kavanaugh was assigned as the first pastor of the student parish.
Although Catholics at MSU gathered for worship and social activities prior to 1958, it was in that year that the Lansing Diocese opened St. John Student Parish to serve the Catholic population at Michigan State University. Contributions from Catholics throughout Michigan helped support this effort. Among those present during the opening weeks of the parish were Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, President of the University of Notre Dame, who presented the parish with an oil painting of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the “inspirer” of campus Newman Centers.
As the university population grew, so did the Catholic student population. Today, over 12,000 of the 45,000 Michigan State University students are Catholic. About 90% of all incoming MSU students are from Michigan. Over 70% of MSU students stay in Michigan when they graduate, but thousands also move on to other parts of our country and world.
Our worship space, where we gather in community to give thanks and praise, has experienced much change over time. The classical design of the altar, ambo and font acknowledge the academic environment of our university; the substantial use of a warm wood brings out the vibrancy of the people (who are church); and the hard floor and wall surfaces promote the wonderful acoustics that support our renowned music program. The beautiful Peruvian mahogany corpus in our worship space was created by the same sculptor who designed the Sparty statue on the MSU campus. Leonard Jungwirth, who was a faculty member at MSU, was commissioned to design and hand-make this piece for the parish in time for its 1958 dedication.
Engraved on the front of our building is a stone image of an eagle, symbol of St. John the Evangelist, patron saint of our parish. The characteristics of the eagle in the animal kingdom remind us of the alacrity with which John served the Master, the strength of his character which earned for him the title of “the beloved disciple”, and the majestic quality of his prose in the fourth gospel which has stood the test of time. “Sanctity” and “Wisdom” are the ideals for our academic setting and the work of campus ministry. May these symbols and words ever inspire those who pass through our doors!