Students inspired by John Paul II to revitalize college town

(L-R) Marc Barnes, Joseph Antoniello, Emilio Marquez, Samantha McCoy, Patrick Walters and Matthew Seal of the Harmonium Project. Courtesy of The Harmonium Project/Matthew Seal.

A group of college classmates have set out on a mission to revamp their university town in Ohio after learning more about Saint John Paul II and Catholic social teaching.

“(We) were all just taking summer classes and reading a lot about Pope John Paul II and about Catholic social teaching and just realized that Steubenville is such a great place,” Patrick Walters told CNA.

Now finishing up his senior year at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Walters said that the school has been a place where he has been able to grow in holiness and develop as a person, but that there has always seemed to be a “disconnect” between the school and the town where it resides.

Last summer when he and his friends, Joseph Antoniello and Marc Barnes, discussed the writings of Karol Wojtyla, the more they realized the need to engage in revitalizing their “hometown” of Steubenville, Ohio.

Out of these discussions, an initiative called The Harmonium Project was born – a “daring recognition that we already are together and need to start acting like it,” Barnes said on his Patheos blog, “Bad Catholic.”

“Just driving down there you can tell there’s drugs, there’s crime,” Walters explained. However, along with that, “there’s so many good people,” he added.

“And that's what one of our missions is: just to be there and to find the good and show what's good about it and then build upon what’s good,” Walters said.

For years, downtown Steubenville has been falling into an economic slump and has gained a reputation among university students as being a place to avoid not only due to crime and poverty, but also because it was assumed that there were no businesses worth visiting.

Although many devoted volunteers and missionaries have been in the area for years serving the poor and marginalized, many people – especially university students – go elsewhere when it comes to entertainment.

The Harmonium Project has set out to renovate the ballroom of a downtown building where they plan to offer free music lessons to inner-city youth and host concerts in hopes of bringing more traffic and business to the area.

“Music has done a lot in our lives, music has given us a lot of hope,” Walters said. “This is a great way to bring life to something because of how much life it’s brought us as individuals.”

While the group is taking care of the legal work required to become a childcare provider, they have been promoting their project through a series of concerts and open-mic nights at local bars.

“They’re the greatest people to work with,” Walters said of the business-owners. “We care about them and they care about us; it’s a real relationship that’s forming between us students at the school and the members of the town.”

Along with bringing more business to local establishments through concerts, the group provides free marketing by creating promotional videos and spreading the word about local businesses on campus.

Business owners have told the group that profits are up and they’re doing more business with university students – especially in the form of food deliveries.

Students at University of Notre Dame are following the lead of the Franciscan students with their own approach to revive the ailing city of South Bend, Ind. in an initiative called, “The Bridge Project.”

“They’re actually looking at what we’re doing and are in contact with us,” Walters said. “We’re hoping more universities will be interested in doing more things like this.”

Antoniello, Barnes, and Walters are joined by fellow students, Samantha McCoy and Matt Seal, to make up the core team of The Harmonium Project, although many students have volunteered their time and skills to the project this year.


Voices

‘You gave your children good ground for hope’

Archbishop José H. Gomez

The following is adapted from the archbishop’s homily at the annual Mass in Recognition of Immigrants July 20, after which thousands lined up, inside and outside of Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, to venerate the traveling relic of Santo Toribio Romo. 

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