By Barb Arland-Fye
Vietnamese immigrant Father Joseph Phung remembers the welcoming environment he encountered while living at the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City 15-16 years ago. A new seminarian for the Davenport Diocese, he was attending nearby University of Iowa to study English as a second language. School was stressful.
The Newman Center’s director, Father Ed Fitzpatrick, was especially supportive. He inquired daily about the seminarian’s appetite, how he was sleeping, how his classes were going and encouraged him to participate in a faith-sharing group at the center.
After Fr. Phung was ordained in 2000, Fr. Fitzpatrick traveled with him to Vietnam for a Mass of Thanksgiving with the new priest’s family. Fr. Phung worried that Fr. Fitzpatrick might be feeling left out because he didn’t speak Vietnamese. But Fr. Fitzpatrick assured him, “Joseph, don’t worry about me. Just enjoy yourself and your family.”
“He’s very special to me; I look at him like a mentor or a model,” said Fr. Phung, the soon-to-be pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, Fr. Fitzpatrick’s home parish.
Fr. Phung’s is among many stories of how Fr. Fitzpatrick has touched the lives of students and others who have utilized the Newman Center during his 25 years as director.
“Fr. Ed is a good priest with lots of patience with college-age faith seekers. I was one
of several who were baptized at Easter Vigil 1994, the first usage of the then-new baptismal pool,” said Cathy Donofrio of Bettendorf.
In fact, 344 individuals have gone through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and entered the Catholic Church during Fr. Fitzpatrick’s watch. Nearly 500 people have been baptized and 225 marriages have been celebrated at the Newman Center.
The 10 a.m. Mass on Sunday, June 28, will commemorate the milestone of his 25th anniversary as Newman Center director.
His ministry is gratifying and — with a terrific support staff — affords him the opportunity to impact the lives of young adults at a critical point in their faith lives.
“You’re in a unique position to help young people stay connected to the church,” Fr. Fitzpatrick says. People come through the door, initially, for any number of reasons — food, faith-sharing groups, Mass, get-togethers or a retreat. That’s where the connection begins. And when they leave, they’re “good Catholic professionals for the church and the world,” he said.
Yet, there are challenges. “As one gets older you seem to get up earlier and go to bed earlier. Young people go to bed later and sleep later. This is the challenge: being available when they and you are at your best.” And as the ministry has grown, so has the administration, which is another challenge.
Challenges aside, it’s a ministry that remains fresh even 25 years later. “Everyone who comes in the door is a new child of God that I can bless with ministry. You can’t get tired doing that,” he said.
“Fr. Ed has grown in his ability to network and connect with the students,” observed his sister, Mary Ann Messer, of Mount Pleasant. “Being a part of families’ lives sacramentally through baptisms, marriages, RCIA and the Eucharist has enriched his life tremendously. He has been a part of celebrating peoples’ lives both in living and dying. What a personal connection to have with people in these life-changing events.”