Dark-haired young men started arriving about 12:30 p.m., piling their backpacks and coats in the narrow hallway. One by one, they slipped off their shoes and darted into an "ablution station" for ritual washing. Then they filed silently into room 302 of Loras Hall.

For the first time in its 128-year history, the University of St. Thomas has its own Islamic prayer rooms, as well as ritual washing stations for observant Muslims.

The prayer rooms, which opened in September, reflect the surging number of students from Middle Eastern countries flocking to the Catholic university in St. Paul.

The contingent from Saudi Arabia alone has jumped tenfold, from 12 students in 2008 to 121 this fall, and officials say they're now the largest bloc of foreign students at the university.

"Yes, we are a Catholic school," said Karen Lange, the dean of students, "but I think this shows that we're also a diverse place, and we're welcoming of students from all faiths."

The symbols of the university's Catholic heritage are everywhere on the St. Paul campus: in the chapels, in the artwork, in the St. Paul Seminary divinity school.

Yet they came as a surprise to some of the newcomers.

"We didn't know this was a Catholic university when we came here," admitted Afnan Alowayyid, a business communication major, who came from Saudi Arabia with her husband. Her English was so rudimentary, she says now, that she didn't realize that the school was named after a Catholic saint.

"The name didn't mean anything to me," she said.

It was also her first exposure to churches, crosses and images of the Virgin Mary. Growing up in Mecca, the capital of the Muslim world, she was never "exposed to any other religion before," she said.

Steered by scholarships

Like most of the Saudi students, Alowayyid came to St. Thomas under a Saudi government scholarship program, which was started in the mid-2000s to encourage citizens to study abroad.

For those willing to brave the Minnesota climate, the first stop was an English language center that happened to be housed on the St. Thomas campus.

That's how Mohammed Almuaikil, a 21-year-old from Riyadh, ended up in St. Paul "in the middle of winter" three years ago. When he finished his language training, he said, he decided to pursue his degree at St. Thomas. "I had a chance to study in any university in the U.S.," he said, but "I like the life here."

Terence Nichols, a professor of theology, says he's not that surprised that Muslim students would feel comfortable at St. Thomas. "There's been a growth of Muslim students across the country in Catholic universities," said Nichols, who is co-director of the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center. Why? "Because we take religion seriously, and they're accepted."

Lori Friedman, director of International Student Services at St. Thomas, agrees. "In a Catholic university, faith is pretty important in general," she said. "Our Muslim students feel that they can have their faith valued here as well, and be respected."

Mahmoud Alaish, a doctoral candidate in organization development at St. Thomas, said he wasn't sure what to expect at first. "I was kind of told, 'Watch out … it's going to be a Catholic culture,' " he said. But "they were so hospitable. I've never felt isolated as a Muslim."

For most Muslim students, the school's religious identity was not a big concern, said Naif Aljahdali, president of the Saudi Club at St. Thomas. "I would put them in two [groups]: some of them didn't care, and some of them didn't know," he said. What mattered most, he said, is that "it's a really good university."

Time for a permanent space

Until recently, St. Thomas had set aside space for Muslim prayers in a basement area of the student center. But it was a large open area where "people would come and go," said Prof. Adil Ozdemir, who co-directs the Muslim-Christian Dialogue Center and often leads prayer services. Nor was there an easy way to do the required ritual washing before prayers.

"As our numbers grew, and we saw the need, we determined we needed to come up with a more permanent space," said Lange, the dean of students. And "we knew that it was important to students to be able to wash before they prayed."

So this year, school officials decided to renovate space in Loras Hall, a century-old office building that used to be part of the seminary, and install separate wash stations in the men's and women's restrooms, at a cost of about $60,000. Known as "Wudu" stations, they have stools and faucets designed to make it easy to wash both hands and feet.

The decision was a pleasant surprise to students like Aljahdali, head of the Saudi club. "Yeah, I think it's surprising and something really nice," he said.

To some, it was a symbol of the lengths to which the school has gone to make them feel accepted.

"They didn't have to do this," said Alowayyid, who will finish her studies in December. "But they did it, which I appreciate."

Asked if she could imagine a Saudi university doing the same for visiting Christians, she replied: "Not in your wildest dreams. Sorry to say, but that's the truth. That's reality. There is no other faith, other than Islam, that's practiced in Saudi Arabia."

But that's one thing she's learned about America, she said. "When you come to the United States, the religious freedom is open to anyone."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384