Students who visit the St. John Paul II Newman Center on the campus of the University of Illinois Chicago now have a newly renovated chapel that elevates their worship and inspires them to grow closer to God. That was the goal of Father Connor Danstrom, who became the chaplain in 2018. It is part of a larger renovation at the center that converted part of a lounge into Cor Coffee, a coffee bar staffed by student volunteers, and created a separate study space. Those spaces opened in 2019 but shut down during the pandemic. It was past time for a renovation of the whole center, Danstrom said. “We have this huge lounge and modest chapel and all of it hadn’t been upgraded in a really long time,” he said. By making the chapel a more attractive worship space, Danstrom hopes students will have a similar experience to the one he had during his time as a student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where the beauty of the Newman Center’s chapel inspired and invited prayer and reflection. “As soon as I walked in, I just wanted to be there. I wanted to pray there, to go to Mass, to learn about my faith, to connect with other Catholics. There was something about the beauty of the place that just drew me,” Danstrom said. “I really believe firmly in the power of beauty to speak directly to the heart, especially with young people, because I experienced it myself. And I had friends who had the same exact experience at that age.” The commuter campus regularly sees 50 to 100 people at Mass and daily Masses are well attended. “I just thought what a cool thing to make this a little gem on this campus, in this city,” Danstrom said. The chapel renovation cost $250,000 and was funded by donations from alumni and other supporters. It took only seven months to raise all of the funds and Cardinal Cupich dedicated the chapel on Jan. 8. Some work still must be completed. The sound system will be upgraded and new stained glass windows will be installed, and an image of St. John Paul II will be added to one side. The design on the back wall of the sanctuary includes elements of the coats of arms of St. John Paul II and St. John Henry Newman. The restored pews come from a closed church. “My favorite comments so far have been, one young man said ‘Father, every Mass here is like a premium Mass now.’ ‘Even the daily Masses feel like Sunday Masses,’ he said. And this one young lady said, ‘It’s like I want to go to Mass because it’s like practicing on a grand piano,’” Danstrom recalled. “That was my dream, to give that experience I had to the kids here at UIC. I think it will bear fruit.” It is part of the center’s larger evangelization efforts to help students have an encounter with Christ so they can develop a deeper relationship with him. That is done by being kind and hospitable, having worship nights where the music is well done, preaching well-thought-out homilies and having good retreats, to name a few things, Danstrom said. “Just giving people the best chance they have of having an encounter with Christ and the reason being is so that they can become fully alive in him. That’s the ‘why I get out of bed in the morning’ kind of thing, because I want these kids to be free,” he said. “There’s so much in their lives, in their histories, in the culture that is hindering that freedom, making them anxious, making them sad and Christ wants to set us free.” Ella Ramos is a senior and saw the renovation happen during her time at the university and recalled the former space. “The chapel was cozy for sure. It definitely felt like a college chapel,” Ramos said. “But the way that Father Connor set this up, he really wanted an elevated church experience for the students. You can totally feel the change in energy.” While she misses the coziness of the old chapel, she said the beautiful changes make her feel closer to God. “It really does feel like a church,” she said. “A lot of what Father Connor wanted to do with this chapel is to put your attention on the tabernacle and the altar,” said Ramos, who is part of the center’s core team. “College is the time where you start questioning for yourself whether or not you want to enter the faith and whether or not you want to say yes to God,” she said. Sophomore Lauren Melton said creating the coffee shop and renovating the chapel have brought more students into the Newman Center. “The coffee shop definitely provides a welcoming space to invite people in that’s not threatening,” she said. With the renovations, the Newman Center has a new atmosphere that is updated and provides a safe space for students to ask and answer questions, she added. “It’s helped me and I’ve seen it help others in my four years here and it’s beautiful to witness that,” she said.