It began with care for the spiritual needs of one student and culminated in the dedication Thursday of the Muslim Prayer Room at Mount Mary University, a private, liberal arts university in Milwaukee, founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1913.
Mount Mary University president Dr. Christine Pharr welcomes guests to the dedication of the Muslim Prayer Room. Looking on from left to right: MMU student Mako Shidad, MMWC President Janan Najeeb, ISM Imam Ziad Hamdan and MMU student Khadejah Almaidat.
“It is wonderful that we could create this space and use it to meet the spiritual needs of Mount Mary students,” said MMU president Dr. Christine Pharr to leaders of the Milwaukee Muslim community, MMU students, faculty and staff, and reporters from local news media who gathered to inaugurate a room dedicated to Muslim prayer.
“Some may be curious about why a Catholic University would create a Muslim prayer room but I think that answer lies in our mission,” she continued. “Mount Mary is a university that welcomes all; those of other faith traditions or of no faith tradition. In the words of Pope Francis, ‘Catholics and Muslims are both descendants of the same father, Abraham. He encourages us to practice our mission of fraternity and (sorority) as we walk together as brothers and sisters of one human family.’
“I should have started with ‘sorority,’” she quipped, a nod to Mount Mary’s history as Wisconsin’s first four-year, degree-granting Catholic college for women.
A quiet, private space for prayer
“What features make this a Muslim prayer room?” Kathy Van Zeeland, MMU Director of Marketing and Communications, asked several Muslim women waiting in Room NDH (Notre Dame Hall) 39 for the dedication to begin.
“Having a place to take off your shoes that is separate from the place to offer prayers,” said Inshirah Farhoud, former vice president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and a pediatric nurse practitioner.
“It is quiet and clean, away from everything,” said Tahseen Hussaini, Islamic Society of Milwaukee – Brookfield council member. “It is somewhere I can detox.”
“There are no statues; the icons are scriptures,” Farhoud added. “It has minimum distractions so we can focus on the task at hand.”
As you walk into the room, to your left is a small shelf for shoes. At a sink near the entrance, a Muslim can perform wudu, the required washing before prayer—hands, then mouth, nose, face, hair, ears, ankles and feet.
A folding screen extends between the entry area and the prayer space, providing privacy for those praying. A small sign marks the qibla, the direction towards the Ka’bah in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, which all Muslims face when performing their prayers.
Two pieces of artwork with verses from the Qur’an in Arabic calligraphy hang on the walls: Surah Al-Fatiha (Chapter 1) and Surah Al-Alaq (Chapter 96). The MMWC donated the artwork. One was a gift to the MMWC from Dr. Dima Adl. It has special personal significance to her and she is pleased it has found a home at Mount Mary, MMWC President Janan Najeeb said. MMU Director of Campus Ministry Theresa Utschig worked with the MMWC to provide translations of the surahs in a binder available on a nearby table.
“This space is for Muslim girls,” MMU freshman Khadejah Alhmaidat of Milwaukee said. “We needed a place to pray.”
Photos from the dedication of the Muslim Prayer Room on Sept. 30.
How it all began
Former Director of Campus Ministry Katie Coffey came to Mount Mary in 2018 after working a few years in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps as a teacher and campus minister in a school in Tanzania.
“Tanzania is 50% Christian and 50% Muslim,” she explained in an interview in May. “I was very cognizant that our students had this 50/50 split. How do we create retreats, days of service, prayers that honor both of those traditions? Coming directly from that experience to Mount Mary informed my approach. Interfaith understanding has always been very important to my ministerial style.”
Soon Coffey got to know Muslim student Hawa Shidad who was having some difficulty finding a good place to pray. A lot of growth and building was going on at the university and the uses of rooms were shifting, Coffey said. “In talking with Hawa, I learned the spaces available to her were not really practical for her to use for prayer.”
Coffey asked Shidad about what she needed. She also reached out to the MMWC for guidance. MMWC provided a list of specifics that was very helpful, she said.
In 2019, Coffey drafted two proposals for the space that had formerly been the Christ King Chapel: one for an interfaith space and another for a Muslim prayer room.
The “Place of Peace,” as the interfaith space was named when it opened in March of 2020, is intended for use by all students of all backgrounds and faith traditions. While welcoming of Muslim students and sometimes used by them for prayer, it was not ideal, Coffey said.
The administration approved her proposal for a dedicated prayer room and construction took place over the summer.
Why a Catholic university built a Muslim prayer room
Only 2% of MMU’s students are Muslim, Coffey noted. “It is not about numbers. This is worth doing if we only had one Muslim student. We don’t want to exclude anyone.
“It is an important offering to the students we have and will also create a space of welcome for future or prospective students. It shows we are an inclusive community, that you can practice your own religious tradition here.
“Creating a Muslim prayer room on campus for Muslim students and community members to feel safe, welcomed and have a sense of belonging is an imperative step towards becoming a more inclusive campus.
“The requirements for ritual washing before prayer is different from other traditions, so having a washing station is a big piece.
“Hopefully, this will attract more prospective students who are Muslim to come to MMU, knowing that they have a space on campus, that they don’t just have to make an inappropriate space work.
“I feel a healthy amount of pride to be able to say we are truly making concrete decisions to be more inclusive. It’s not performative ally-ship but truly creating a space for current and future students. Its impact will continue for a very long time.”
Having a Muslim prayer room “is not stepping away from our Catholic identity,” Coffey concluded. “It is stepping into our Catholic identity to be able to love and value other people.”
From left to right: S. Joan P Penzenstadler SSND, MMU Vice President for Mission and Identity, MMWC President Janan Najeeb, MMU President Christine Pharr and MMU Director of Campus Ministry Theresa Utschig
Dedicating the prayer room
President Pharr welcomed Muslim community leaders to the ceremony, including Imam Zaid Hamdan of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, MMWC president Janan Najeeb, Imam Yaseen Domineck of the Islamic Da’wa Center, and Mr. Will Perry, executive director of the Da’wa Center. She thanked them for “helping to bring this space into being.”
MMU freshman Khadejah Alhmaidat of Milwaukee recited Surah Al-Fatihah, a surah used in prayer to praise God and ask for his guidance.
Imam Hamdan praised Almaidat, a pre-pharmacy student, majoring in human biology, saying, “She is a Salam School graduate and has memorized the entire Qu’ran which is more than 600 pages.”
“One of the pillars of Islam is to establish the five daily prayers to thank Allah for all His blessings and to ask for His guidance and support,” he continued. “An obedient Muslim must keep such daily connection with his creator. A lot of times it is hard to find the space to offer the prayers if there was no place to do that.
“Our teacher and role model, Prophet Mohammad PBUH said: ‘Whoever does not thank the people does not thank God.’ Truly we are grateful to the administration of Mt. Mary University for providing the space to accommodate the needs of the Muslim students in this great university.”
He also delivered a message to MMU’s Muslim students—“Work hard and excel in your studies and be true ambassadors of our faith and your community. Indeed, we are all proud of you and your achievements.”
Milwaukee Muslim Women Coalition President Janan Najeeb thanked Mount Mary for providing a prayer space for Muslim students as Imam Ziad Hamadan of the Islamic Center of Milwaukee listened.
Najeeb praised MMU for “valuing each and every student. As Muslims, we are taught the entire Earth is a place for prayer. That the university has created a place especially for our girls to pray privately in peace and serenity is a reflection of the mission it sets.”
MMU Director of Campus Ministry Theresa Utschig explained the prayer room’s sacred history.
Theresa Utschig, the director of campus ministry, noted this space has historically been a place of prayer, used as a sacristy for the church, where priests prepared for Mass. “It has been a sacred space for a long time.
“Spirituality is important for study, she said. “Students need a base of clarity, of wisdom. We are interested in every student flourishing.”
She thanked the Building and Grounds Department, “who worked to make it all come together” and recognized Coffey for taking the initiative to propose the prayer room. Then she invited the 35 who were gathered to a “halal” reception.
“I was really honored as a Muslim to partake in the inauguration of the Muslim prayer room at Mount Mary University,” said MMWC board member Isabelle Sahraoui. “It’s a great act of tolerance and acceptance and it represents for me a glimmer of light and hope at the end of a dark tunnel when we look at the turmoil Muslims are facing around the globe. It is these acts that bring us together and showcase our many similarities across religious and cultural backgrounds.”