July 16, 2018
My name is Nancy Schlesiger, the secretary for the Polish Heritage Society of Nebraska, Inc. and a parishioner at St. Stanislaus Church in South Omaha (also, a proud Polish-American and devotee of St. John Paul II).
I had the blessing of participating in a tour of St. John Paul II Newman Center on May 3 arranged by Dr. Julie Masters, Chair of UNO Gerontology and friend of JPII Newman Center, for some Polish professors who were in Omaha visiting UNO. Fr. Joseph Taphorn and Ms. Cathy Pacholski served as tour guides for our group.
Of course, I was aware of the existence of JPII Newman through articles in the Catholic Voice newspaper and at UNO (where I worked until my recent retirement). I had even attended George Weigel’s inaugural St. John Paul II Lecture in the spring, 2017. However, at that time, the oratory was not yet completed so I had not attended Mass at JPII Newman Center nor had I any another occasion to visit and tour the facility since that time.
On this tour in May, 2018, I was blown away by the simplicity and beauty of the JPII Newman Center. The spirit of St. John Paul II as the patron of this Newman Center was apparent everywhere throughout the facility. The clean lines and basic colors were modern as well as timeless (not being an architect, I don’t know if that is even possible).
As Fr. Taphorn described and explained the function of the various residence rooms, offices, holy spaces, etc., the word that kept coming to my mind was “thoughtful.” The purposeful choice of building materials that included limestone and white oak to recognize St. John Paul II’s life and the customs of his beloved Poland. The large windows everywhere to let light into the building, acknowledging St. John Paul II’s love of nature. The outside door to the oratory with the handle in the simple but distinctive style of St. John Paul II’s papal crosier. Standing at that outside door and looking around, the members of our group couldn’t help but be impressed by the closeness to nature of this amazing facility in the very heart of the city of Omaha, but only steps from the Papio Creek and Keystone Trail. It made us feel like we were on a pilgrimage in the woodlands of Karol Wotyla’s native Poland.
Most of all, I appreciated the thoughtfulness behind the details of the oratory. The altar was simple and beautiful, and the Tabernacle was breathtaking. The lovely stained glass windows directed our eyes to words and symbols from St. John Paul II’s encyclical letters, and yet they provided us with an opaque view through which we could see the world outside the oratory. This part of the tour was presented in hushed tones since there were a couple of students praying quietly, even at the end of finals week at UNO. Clearly, this was a space where students felt at peace and comfortable in prayer.
I was impressed with the focus of the St. John Paul II Newman Center as a place of Catholic faith for the students living or visiting there. Every comment by Fr. Taphorn and Ms. Pacholski related to how the students would be loved, served, and supported.
I came away knowing that this is a facility where I would feel comfortable sending my student if I were an out of town parent or a local Catholic parent, or if I were a UNO student looking for a supportive, safe, spiritual home while attending school. It is a hidden gem near the bustle of 72nd Street.
Since my first visit, Cathy Pacholski and I have continued to explore the possibility of potential collaborations between JPII Newman and the local ethnic community in Omaha through the Polish Heritage Society of Nebraska and Polish Home Omaha. We invite the students and staff of JPII to learn more about the Polish culture of the patron of your Newman Center by joining us at various activities throughout the year. Also, I hope there will be opportunities for members of our local Polish-American groups to visit and learn more about the JPII Newman Center. After all, we all admire the same holy man of God, St. John Paul II!
Nancy Schlesiger | Secretary, Polish Heritage Society of Nebraska, Inc. | Parishioner, St. Stanislaus Catholic Church