In 1918, Father Thomas Andrew Lenahan, a thirty-three-year-old priest from Pennsylvania, arrived in Tuscaloosa, where he had been appointed the pastor of both Saint John the Baptist Church (Tuscaloosa’s oldest parish, established in 1844) and Saint Mary Magdalene’s Church (a new parish for African-American Catholics, founded in 1916). He faced a challenging task. Catholics made up a small minority of residents of the state (less than 2% of the population in 1920), and they were often an unpopular minority. (Only fifty miles away in Birmingham, Father James Coyle was murdered in 1921 by a Methodist minister—and member of the Ku Klux Klan—after Coyle officiated at the wedding of the minister’s daughter [who had become a Catholic] and a Puerto-Rican man.) Although Tuscaloosa already had two churches, Lenahan quickly recognized the importance of creating a supportive environment and community for Catholic students at the University of Alabama. In 1923, he began a Newman Club at the university, and his mother, Mary Bradley Lenahan of Philadelphia, donated a house for the club to use. Students continued to attend Mass at Saint John the Baptist, but the small church was already facing a problem of overcrowding on Sundays.
In 1929, Mary Lenahan donated additional land for a new chapel next to the university. After $6,000 was raised, construction began on Saint Francis Chapel in January of 1929. Initial construction went quickly. Father Jerome of Saint Bernard Abbey offered the first Mass on Easter Sunday, March 31, 1929, when the 500-seat chapel was still only 60% complete. They finished much of the work on the new chapel in the 1930s, although the final touches on the church—installing a new heating and cooling system and replacing plain glass windows with cathedral glass—had to wait until the early 1940s.
Saint Sophie’s Catholic Chapel was consecrated 1974. In 1982, when the church was granted full parish status, it was renamed Saint Francis University Parish, reflecting the name of the first chapel.
In 1929, the Holy Ghost Fathers—also known as Spiritans—accepted Archbishop Toolen’s invitation to provide priests for Saint John’s, Saint Mary’s, and the Catholic chaplaincy at the university. Father Anthony J. Hackett, C.S.Sp, an Irish-born priest, became the pastor of Saint John’s Parish and the chaplain of the Newman Club. In 1936, Father Hackett reported that the number of Catholic students had doubled in six years from 300 to 600, requiring him to seek the help of the pastor of Saint Mary Magdalene, in order to offer three Masses each Sunday. He reported happily that “the young people at the University attend well to their religious duties,” and Saint Francis Chapel even attracted non-Catholic students for Sunday Mass. Students of all faiths could even take a course on Catholic theology from Father Hackett through the University of Alabama. The Newman Club, an official university group, aimed “to supplement secular education, develop leadership, and to make the life of the Catholic student as happy and useful as possible.” It offered lectures, discussion groups, dances and other social activities for students.
In 1939, Father Michael Mulvoy, a Spiritan priest known as “Harlem’s blackest white man” because of his work for racial justice at Saint Mark the Evangelist Church in Harlem, New York, was sent to Tuscaloosa. One NAACP leader mourned the loss, writing to the archbishop that “Father Mulvoy has been so much a part of the Harlem community that this news is nothing less than a tragedy.” Father Mulvoy soon became well loved in Tuscaloosa, where he became chaplain of Saint Francis Chapel in 1940. Father Mulvoy, who said “I never knew a bad kid if you give him an even break,” regularly invited students to dine with him on Saturday evenings. In addition to his duties as chaplain, the cigar-smoking priest taught Philosophy and Religion at the University of Alabama, and was awarded an honorary doctorate by the university in 1977. He led the construction of a new student center in 1960. Father Mulvoy also resolved a question: which Saint Francis had the chapel been named for? By the time Father Mulvoy was chaplain, nobody remembered the real answer, so Father Mulvoy decided to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscans known for his love for the poor. However, Father Mulvoy also introduced a second new name, when a new chapel was constructed at the end of his time at Saint Francis. The chapel, constructed with the help of a $250,000 bequest from Sophie Ziegler, was named in honor of Ziegler’s patron saint, Saint Sophie. Saint Sophie’s chapel was consecrated in 1974. During Father Mulvoy’s time as chaplain, he was assisted by seventeen Spiritans and three diocesan priests.
In 1973, Father John Fallon, an Irish priest ordained in 1969, succeeded Father Mulvoy as chaplain, and was assisted in campus ministry by Sister Therese Fitzmaurice from 1976-1979; Sister Marian Davis, O.S.B., from 1979-1982; and Sr. Madeline Cotorno, O.S.B., from 1982-1985. Students also became involved in the SEARCH Retreat program, which began in California in 1962, and put young people in charge of leading the retreats; each year, students traveled away from campus for a weekend-long retreat led by students and for students. Students seeking faith, food, fellowship, and fun on a weekly basis could find it every Tuesday, when the student center hosted a special evening Mass and supper (offered for the low price of only $1.50, until the mid-1990s, when the price increased to $2, where it has since remained). Students and other parishioners became involved in many community service and outreach programs, including offering a religious education program for residents at Partlow. As the Catholic community expanded, full parish status was granted to Saint Francis of Assisi University Parish in 1982. The new parish broke ground to build the Mulvoy Education Building in September 1985.
Father Raymond Dunmyer served as pastor from 1985 to 1998, and was assisted in campus ministry by Sister Mary Ann Warner, H.M. In 1998, Father Andrew Sullivan became pastor, and he was joined in leading campus ministry by Sister Helene Higgins, C.S.J.. Sullivan, the first pastor who had been a University of Alabama student, had graduated from UA in 1984 with a degree in Microbiology. Under Father Dunmyer and Father Sullivan, the size of the parish and the programs offered to students and parishioners—including the future Father Tom Ackerman—continued to grow. Students continued to enjoy the Tuesday night Mass and Supper, led and participated in Search retreats, and attended ecumenical events lectures and prayer services. The number of families quadrupled from 100 to 400, in addition to the 2,000 Catholic university students. In 1993, the Social Hall and Student Center expanded; the church itself grew with the addition of a choir room. More classrooms were added to the Sunday school. Young parishioners also appreciated a new playground area, which was constructed in 1995.
Father Gerald Holloway, who grew up in Anniston, became pastor in 2003, remaining until 2015. Father Holloway had previously served briefly at Saint Francis as a seminarian in 1994. Shortly after his return to Tuscaloosa, Father Holloway also became the chaplain of the University of Alabama Crimson Tide football team. Under Father Holloway’s leadership, Saint Francis Parish began building a new church building in 2011 and completed it in 2013. By then, the parish had grown to over 400 families, and the university now enrolled over 4,000 Catholic students. The new church could now accommodate eight hundred worshippers; in the old 300-seat chapel, students routinely had to stand for Sunday Mass. On August 15, 2013, on the Feast of the Assumption, Father Holloway celebrated Mass for the first time in the new church building, and the church was formally consecrated in November of 2013.
In August 2015, Father Tom Ackerman—previously a student and SEARCH retreat leader at the University of Alabama—returned to Saint Francis as its new pastor, where he was joined by Campus Minister, Father Rick Chenault. In 2015, the parish also welcomed a new coordinator of campus ministry, Allie Loomis, and four missionaries from FOCUS, or Fellowship of Catholic University Students, a nationwide group that sends recent college graduates to campuses to promote spiritual development and evangelization (and good Catholic fun!) among students. With two priests in residence, the church could also expand opportunities for the sacraments, including offering daily confession. In 2015, the church began a Thursday evening “Feast,” an evening of prayer featuring Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, and time for confession. In late 2015, the old church was torn down to build a new Saban Catholic Student Center, named after Nick and Terry Saban, whose financial support and fundraising made the $2 million project possible. As Nick Saban explained, “the moral development of young people is so important at this time.” With space dedicated for study, recreation, meetings, and guest lectures, the student center will became a hub for the moral, social, and spiritual development of students.