New St. Thomas Aquinas Church dedicated in Charlottesville
Under a blue domed ceiling scattered with gold stars, Bishop Barry C. Knestout dedicated the new church for St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, Charlottesville, on Sunday, Sept. 20. The Romanesque-style building, bordered by the University of Virginia, is the culmination of five years of planning and construction.
“We recognize that the significance of this day is the opportunity to be united with and receive the grace of God in word and sacrament,” Bishop Knestout said. “That is the heart of today.”
Participation in the 5:15 p.m. dedication Mass, originally scheduled for April 26, was by invitation only and limited to approximately 300 people to COVID restrictions. It was livestreamed.
The Mass was concelebrated by Father Michael Boehling, vicar general; Msgr. R. Francis Muench, episcopal vicar for the Central Vicariate; Dominican Father Joseph Barranger, parish pastor and prior; clergy from the Dominican Friars who staff the parish; and many diocesan clergy. Father Kenneth Letoile, the Dominican Prior Provincial of the Province of St. Joseph, participated via livestream from New York.
‘Long time coming’
The church seats more than 1,100 and replaces two previous buildings that the UVA Catholic community had outgrown since its establishment in 1943.
The building features architectural and artistic elements representing aspects of the Catholic faith, including the domed ceiling, stained glass windows, natural light and sculptures, and statues created specifically for the space. The church also houses a pipe organ that was formerly used at Eastern Mennonite University. At the dedication Mass, the organ was played by the parish’s organist in residence, choir director and artistic director of musical events, Dr. Carol Williams, who wrote special music for the event.
The interior is bright and open, with abundant natural light from tall, arched windows. The floors, altar, ambo and baptismal font are made of marble in various colors from the Tuscan quarries of Carrara, Italy, which have been producing marble since ancient Roman times. A marble eagle, symbolic of the Gospel of John, adorns the front of the ambo.
The Mass and Rite of Dedication included:
- the handing over of the church by presenting the architectural plans, keys, book of all construction workers’ names and a scroll of benefactors, first to the bishop and then the pastor.
- the blessing of the people, walls and altar with holy water; placing and sealing into the altar the holy relics of Sts. Dominic, Thomas Aquinas, Maria Goretti, Martin de Porres, Albert the Great and Elizabeth Ann Seton.
- anointing the altar and walls with sacred chrism (holy oil); incensing the altar, people and walls, as well as the confessionals; and lighting the altar candles and dedication candles. The final act was incensing, Adoration of and reposing the Most Blessed Sacrament into the Tabernacle for the first time.
“It’s been a long time coming, and was built from the ground up,” said Father Barranger before the dedication, recalling the blessing of the foundation stone in May 2018, near the start of the two-year building process. “It’s now the actual cornerstone and is set into the brick wall of the church beside the front door.”
‘Church that evangelizes’
He explained the design choices of the new church: the Romanesque building with a brick exterior would fit traditional Catholic architectural style, and it would fit in with the surrounding architecture of the university and neighborhood. The style is not just for appearance, however.
“We are a Church that teaches, that evangelizes,” he said, explaining that the parish, with a nearby Dominican priory that houses six friars, serves the university community, including faculty and staff and their families, and many students.
“When students walk past this building, they can see inscriptions from St. Thomas Aquinas over all the doors,” he said.
The doorway facing busy Alderman Road, a frequent route for students, is topped with a relief sculpture of Sts. Thomas Aquinas and Dominic with Christ. The inscription reads: “Nothing But You, O Lord.”
Inside the church, whether they come for Mass or just to look, students often ask about the iconography and symbolism and what they mean, he noted. Sometimes they simply comment on the “glorious” feeling of the space.
“It’s a very inviting church; it’s filled with light,” he said. “And when people come in, they look up at the dome with their eyes wide and their mouths open.”
Dominican Father Mario Calabrese, the parochial vicar who gave a tour after the Mass, said, “It’s the dome of heaven. At Mass, heaven and earth are joined.”
He also pointed out significant details in the church’s interior, such as wooden statues of Mary and Joseph as young parents to the infant Jesus.
“In this year of chaos, this church is an oasis,” said Dominican Father Joseph-Anthony Kress, parochial vicar and chaplain for the Catholic Campus Ministry at UVA. “The simple style and dignity of the materials makes for a divine encounter, allowing us to walk into a space that is so conducive to prayer, to hear God. We know from Elijah that God did not speak in the earthquake or the fire, but in a still, small voice.”
He added that it was a great joy to welcome students back this fall with the new church after so many had to leave abruptly in the spring due to the pandemic.
‘Most important place I go’
One of those students, Fatima Solis, a fourth-year biology major, said, “This church spreads the Gospel, even if you are just driving by. You can see the cross on top from far away; it’s my favorite part.”
She is the music chair of the Catholic Hoos (Catholic Campus Ministry) and sang at the dedication Mass.
“In college, you have so much going on that it’s a heavy weight, but when you get to Mass here, it melts away,” she said.
Cora Wack, a fourth-year economics and East Asian studies major and Catholic Hoos Chair, participated in the key presentation at the dedication Mass.
“This is the most important place that I go,” she said. “I am so grateful for this beautiful space, and I’m still learning about all the symbolism.”
She was especially struck by the image of a pelican on the altar, about which St. Thomas Aquinas wrote.
“It symbolizes how Christ feeds us in the Eucharist, just as a mother pelican will pierce her breast to feed her young,” she said. “There is so much meaning in every detail.”
Fourth-year computer science major Solimar Kwa, social chair for the Catholic Hoos, said, “It is so incredible to be standing in that space, finally, after seeing it being built. Of course, God is present anywhere, but to be surrounded by such beauty while at Mass is really wonderful.”
Catholic Hoos faith formation chair Will Scheib, a third-year computer science major, was an altar server at the dedication Mass.
“It was a beautiful experience to be part of that; it’s something I’ll always remember,” he said. “The church is so majestic, for the majesty of Christ, and it feels permanent and finished now.”
His favorite part of the interior is the white marble eagle on the ambo. In the week after the dedication, he had the chance to stand at it to read for a daily Mass.
“It was amazing to speak from there; you can really hear your voice echo,” he said.
Tom Laux, chair of the finance council, said that the parish combined the Living Our Mission campaign with the church project in 2016 to raise about $5 million. Approximately $10.6 million has been raised from parishioners and benefactors, with about $3 million more needed.
He said the new church is already beloved by its parishioners, and he’s grateful for the parish’s commitment and achievement.
“A structure like that, with its sense of sacredness, enhances our spirits and lifts our hearts to God,” he said. “It’s a legacy for generations to come.”