Father Newton off to Africa

Author: Ed Cohen

If Father Steve Newton, CSC, were a character in a movie instead of the real-life rector of Sorin Hall, the announcement he made at the annual hall banquet last November would have had predictable results.

Newton, a 1970 Notre Dame graduate, chose the occasion to inform residents that this, his 11th year in charge of the campus’s oldest dorm, would be his last. He was moving to East Africa next summer, he told them, to help the Congregation of Holy Cross develop desperately needed education and treatment programs for alcoholism and other addictions in Kenya and Uganda.

Coming just a few days before the Sorin Otters were scheduled to play in the interhall football championship, the announcement struck a Rockne-style note with many in the audience. It may not have been as punchy as “Win one the Gipper,” but in the players’ minds they determined to “Win one for the addictions program coordinator.”

It didn’t happen. The Juggerknotts (from Knott Hall) rolled over the Otters 24-6. But Newton, who hadn’t intended the announcement as motivation for the game, wasn’t disappointed. He was thrilled at the great season the hall had enjoyed. Besides, he knows how to keep things in perspective.

In 1972, a year from ordination, he was asked to leave Moreau Seminary because of behavior related to his heavy drinking. He eventually landed on skid row in Chicago before starting on the road to recovery. He would not be ordained until 1989.

In the interim he worked nine years for an addictions program serving indigent people in Portland, Oregon, where he had received help from Holy Cross priests at the University of Portland. For more than half of his years as Sorin’s rector, his “day job” has been directing a similar program in South Bend called Life Treatment Centers. He decided to resign that post last fall after returning from a six-week visit to Kenya and Uganda, made at the request of the Holy Cross congregation’s East Africa district supervisor.

Newton said the rate of alcoholism among people in East Africa who drink is no different from that in the United States or other places, about 10 to 15 percent. “But in Kenya and Uganda the impact is greater on the community because there is no treatment response. There is no awareness of addiction as a disease and as a treatable disease.”

Newton said that when he was in Uganda he participated in a retreat for persons interested in recovery, a group that included an alcoholic priest. On his first morning with the group, one of the men wanted to leave. He said he had been tormented by demons all night. Newton recognized what the man was describing as delirium tremens, symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol. It was apparently the man’s first day without alcohol in a long time. “We took him to a hospital in the Ugandan capital,” Newton said, “and they didn’t know how to treat him.”

Newton turned over responsibility for day-to-day operations of Life Treatment Centers to a new executive director so he could become president of a foundation that will raise money for both the South Bend operation and the East Africa initiative. Before leaving for Africa this August, he hopes to raise $2 million, enough to establish five treatment programs in the impoverished countries, where doctors are paid an average of $200 a month and teachers earn $70. More information can be found at <a href= “http://changingourworld.com/providinghope”>