Lawrence Avancena graduated from UNLV in 2013, but one tie he keeps to the campus is the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Newman Center.
“My friend invited me to Newman, and after going for a while, it felt like home,” he says of his introduction to the center while a student.
Another part of the appeal was the Rev. Albert Felice-Pace, director of the Newman Center.
“Father Albert is like a grandfather to me; even when I make mistakes, he isn’t one to get mad, but provides a loving hand in guidance,” Avancena says.
Avancena is far from the only one who feels this way about the priest who will retire June 30 after 11 years ministering at the UNLV Newman Center and 53 years in campus ministry.
Ann McDonough, dean of the Academic Success Center at UNLV, is the faculty adviser for the Newman Center Student Organization.
She says she got to know Felice-Pace when she began attending the daily noontime Mass eight years ago.
“The Newman Center provides a wonderful sense of community and caring, not only for Catholic students but for all students who walk through the door,” McDonough says, adding, “Father Albert is a wonderful gift to the UNLV community.”
Felice-Pace, born in Malta in 1935, one of seven children, was ordained as a Dominican priest on April 2, 1960. He left Malta for the United States in 1961 and received a master’s degree in adult religious studies from the University of San Francisco.
After just a year in ministry, Felice-Pace was assigned to serve the Catholic community at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1962.
“I had no idea what a Newman Club was,” he admits. But his superior told him, “Son, you will learn.”
And so he did, becoming a nationally recognized leader in campus ministry and the author of a popular book on the subject, “An Abridged History of Catholic Campus Ministry.”
Felice-Pace recalls that in the early days, a Newman Club was more like any student club. He introduced Mass on Sundays at the Occidental College Newman Club.
After Vatican II, participation of the laity in Mass was encouraged.
“My thinking was progressive. I always wanted Mass in the vernacular. I was very happy to see the changes,” Felice-Pace says.
He also started to engage students in social justice activities. When serving in Arizona, Felice-Pace led students to work with the American Indian poor on reservations and to Los Angeles to work in impoverished neighborhoods.
“I wanted them to learn to give, not just receive,” he says.
Felice-Pace served in Newman Centers in Southern California, Arizona and Oregon before being assigned to UNLV in July 2004.
Felice-Pace’s designated successor, the Rev. Daniel Rolland, currently serving at the Stanford Newman Center, worked with Felice-Pace when he was in residency at the University of Oregon for two summers and later at the Newman Center at the University of Arizona.
He says that one of the lessons he learned when he worked with Felice-Pace was that, though you want students to succeed, “Father Albert said, ‘It’s OK if they fail and learn from that.’ ”
He also noticed the priest’s outreach to the poor.
UNLV Newman Center students feed the poor at the Catholic Worker House on Fridays, help to build houses for low-income families with Habitat for Humanity and collect sanitary products for people living with HIV/AIDS through the St. Therese Center.
Felice-Pace also is an advocate of peer ministry, saying student-to-student ministry increases the sense of community and creates more student participation.
The priest serves as the spiritual adviser to Imago Dei, the diocesan-approved ministry to the LGBT community in Las Vegas that meets at the Newman Center. When asked about the presence of the gay and lesbian ministry, Felice-Pace says, “I never ask for IDs.” Quoting Pope Francis, he asks, “Who am I to judge?”
In his ministry, Felice-Pace says he emphasizes “living the spirit of the law and not the letter of the law.”
He has been the state chaplain for the Catholic men’s charitable organization, Knights of Columbus, since 2010. Avancena is the Grand Knight of the Newman Center’s Knights of Columbus council, founded by Felice-Pace.
“The Knights strengthen men in their faith, family and in their parish life through service,” Felice-Pace says.
Felice-Pace also works in men’s ministry at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in North Las Vegas.
Through the years, students have converted to Catholicism at the Newman Center. Newman has its own Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program, and two students were baptized and confirmed at Easter, and another was received into full communion this year.
Felice-Pace says he talks with students interested in converting to Roman Catholicism about morality. “The key is learning how to form a good conscience. We cannot be Mommy and Daddy watching them for what they are doing.”
But others have left the church.
“Students sometimes leave the Catholic faith because they don’t have a sense of the Eucharist. They want to be entertained. But Mass is not entertainment, it is spiritual,” Felice-Pace says.
That’s what inspired Felice-Pace to launch a capital campaign to build a chapel. He believes that a recognizable Catholic chapel will attract Catholic students and seekers.
Rhoel Terrate, Newman’s director of development, says the goal of the $2.3 million capital campaign is to replace the 60-year-old center with a 5,000-square-foot chapel. The current multipurpose worship space accommodates 80 to 85 people and is standing-room-only on Sundays. Terrate says the new chapel will seat 330 people. (The center’s day-to-day operations are financially supported by the Diocese of Las Vegas, which owns the center property.)
The fund drive is almost halfway to its goal, Terrate says. About $25,000 was raised at Felice-Pace’s retirement gala fundraiser at Sam’s Town on April 18.
When asked about Felice-Pace’s retirement, Bishop Joseph Pepe says, “The diocese is very grateful to Father Albert for his fatherly devotion to the students at St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center, UNLV, always striving to offer them a haven and home in which they could grow spiritually as well as intellectually.”
Felice-Pace says he is equally grateful for the bishop’s support of the ministry. And after a lifetime of ministry, he says, “it is the people who taught me how to be a priest.”
Although Felice-Pace says he does plan to spend a couple of months relaxing by the pool of the residence that he shares with three fellow Dominicans, retirement does not mean an end to ministry, but a release from all the administrative headaches of running a student center.
He will remain active in the priesthood, saying Mass at St. John Neumann Catholic Church and hearing confessions in parishes throughout Las Vegas.
And perhaps there will be more time for the sports he enjoys, especially the San Francisco 49ers, and the arts, particularly opera.
“The first opera I saw when I was 12 was ‘Rigoletto’ and it is still my favorite,” he says.