UNF campus religious center in the works

Katie Gile

(Image courtesy of UNF Institutional Advancement)

By: Katie Gile, Staff Reporter

A project several years in the making has begun to take shape on paper in the form of a campus spiritual sanctuary.

The sanctuary, originally called the “Hidden Lake Project” for its tucked-away future location on the lake near the University Center, will allow students of every faith to worship, meditate and appreciate nature, said Zak Ovadia, director of campus planning and construction.

“The thrust of the university was toward openness, multiculturalism and freedom of religion,” Ovadia said. “The idea was to build a nondenominational building to allow people to come in and commune with nature, spirits and even have their own prayer sessions.”

Though the construction of the project is at least two years away, UNF continues to add to the more than $2 million sum collected so far through fundraising, said Pierre Allaire, vice president for institutional advancement.

While Allaire hopes for additional generosity, like the $1 million gift donated by Board of Trustees Member Judy Newton and her family, UNF has yet to come close to its original estimate of $6 million for the entire project, he said.

(Image courtesy of UNF Institutional Advancement)

With the construction project entirely dependent on fundraising, Ovadia said the state of the economy has added difficulty in accumulating the necessary dollars.

The lack of funding has kept the sanctuary in a state of flux, Allaire said.

“Once we get $5-6 million, then we’ll start seriously looking at designs and hope the cost of construction materials hasn’t shot through the roof,” Allaire said.

Creating a space amenable to every faith is proving an equal impediment to the sanctuary’s progress, Ovadia said.

“It’s a challenge to design a building that does not resemble a church, synagogue, mosque or any other religious affiliation,” he said. “We want to make it as generic as possible, so people of all faiths can go in and not feel uncomfortable.”

As the current concept stands, the roughly 5,000-square-foot structure is designed “greenly,” with large picture windows and an overhang on the lake to physically connect it with nature, Ovadia said.

The final design will likely be a combination of the four pictured concepts, as well as taking inspiration from other campuses like the University of Louisville and the Baughman Center at the University of Florida.

UF’s Baughman Center, which is billed as a multi-purpose space, allows students to remove themselves from the chaos of the main part of campus.

It provides a place for weekend worship as well as providing a scenic location for photo opportunities, picnics, concerts and weddings, said Kiana Johnson, event coordinator for the center.

“There’s a lot of traffic here,” Johnson said. “Students want a place to be that’s quiet and beautiful, where they can come with their friends.”

When the construction dates for UNF’s sanctuary become more certain, the university administration will form a committee of individuals of different faiths to create a schedule that ensures equal time for organized worship in the sanctuary, Ovadia said.

The committee will set open times where students may walk in and enjoy the sanctuary without disturbance from worship groups, he said.

Some individuals appreciate the calm and solitude a sanctuary could offer but believe it should be restricted from outside groups.

“Students are here to learn and grow, personally, professionally and spiritually, as well,” said James Taylor, an administrative assistant at the UNF Environmental Center. “There should be a space for students, faculty and staff, if they choose to find spirituality, to do so.”

With rental space available at the University Center, Student Union and free-speech zones like the Green, Taylor said, outside groups should have no place in a sanctuary built for student and faculty use.

“I find no problem having a spiritual center,” Taylor said. “But I don’t think there’s any room on a public university for a religious center.”

Email Katie Gile at [email protected]