Rising high above the surrounding Los Padres National Forest, Thomas Aquinas College’s Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity stands as a timeless and breathtaking testament to the school’s mission and late President Thomas Dillon’s vision. As one of the newest college chapels in the country, it’s well worth a visit.
When I first visited the campus several years ago, it stood incomplete. Temporary buildings served as classrooms and offices for faculty. A modest chapel sat in the student commons building along with the dining room. On my trip this spring, only a couple of the temporary buildings remain. The $23-million mission-style chapel, sitting as it does at the head of the campus’ academic quadrangle, completes the campus.
Walking into the chapel for the first time, on a tour with Peter DeLuca, vice president of the college, I was immediately struck by similarities in style to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis.
“They’re both by the same architect,” said DeLuca. “Notre Dame’s Duncan Stroik.”
The observation reminded me of how the touch of an artist can often be found in his work. In the chapel, Stroik has created an architectural work of art.
Not only does the chapel complete the campus, it also towers over it. The 15,000-square-foot building, its dome, and 135-foot bell tower can be seen before reaching campus. Once on campus, it’s clearly the focal point for the school. That was Dillon’s goal.
“We had in our mind that our campus would be an ordered whole and that the chapel would be the most important building on the campus,” said Dillon.
Visually, there’s no question. The chapel takes precedence and draws students, faculty and visitors alike to enter, revere and worship.
The classical design complements the college’s classics curriculum. Architecturally, it’s connected to the Spanish mission style of southern California as well as the basilicas of Rome. Yet it’s a rare combination of styles, not typically found together, that makes it distinct.
The chapel combines the architecture of an ancient basilica, a cruciform shape and columns and arches with an added dome and bell tower.
“It’s fairly unusual to combine those things. It’s not traditional in the history of great buildings,” said Stroik. “Yet, it’s a daughter of other great buildings.”
On the exterior, the front facade (porta coeli) is marked by three statues. To the left, St. Augustine represents the active life, clutching a book with one hand and pointing outward with his other hand. To the right, St. Thomas Aquinas holds a book and a quill. He represents the contemplative life, with his gaze lifted heavenward and rosary beads hanging by his side.
Above them both stands an eight-foot tall marble statue of the Woman of the Apocalypse atop the chapel’s triangular pediment, which symbolizes the Trinity.
Inside, one is struck by the lack of stained-glass windows. Yet, the natural light gives the nave a warmth that other marble-heavy churches do not possess.
Four replicas of classic paintings adorn the transepts’ four shrines. The two on either side of the sanctuary symbolize the holy Trinity. One portrays the Annunciation, while the other portrays the Baptism of the Lord. The other two paintings portray two saints: St. Thomas Aquinas’ temptation and St. Teresa of Avila receiving holy Communion.
As an added benefit, I was able to visit the sacristy and the curved ambulatory behind the sanctuary, which links the sacristy to the altar servers’ readying room. A highlight in the sacristy is a replica of Rembrandt’s painting “Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac.”
The chapel, like the school where it resides, teaches. The Latin inscriptions, statuary and paintings all draw the visitor’s thoughts heavenward.
Link to Rome
The marble floor of the chapel’s central aisle bears the coats of arms of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, under whose pontificates the building was designed and constructed. In fact, both Popes blessed the architectural plans for the chapel, and Pope Benedict blessed the cornerstone in 2008.
The chapel is supported by impressive, tapered botticino marble pillars that have been bored out and contain interior steel rods to meet California’s building codes.
The focal point, however, is the central tabernacle, altar and Bernini-inspired baldacchino. While it wasn’t obvious to me at first, the baldacchino, with its twisting Solomonic columns, is a smaller replica of the one in St. Peter’s Basilica. It demonstrates the college’s desire to show its connection with the larger Church and its fidelity to Rome.
The Chapel’s Visionary
“Behind every great building and its architect there is a visionary patron,” said Stroik, speaking of President Dillon.
The chapel is a tribute to Dillon’s efforts. He spearheaded the project and spent 12 years raising money, visiting artists’ workshops throughout Europe, attending to every detail of the planning and construction. He chose the design elements and lighting, determined the proportions of the nave, and chose the color palette and marble.
“He was unusual in both the amount of time he spent on things and the interest he had in all of the various details, from the colors to the doorknobs and moldings to the proportions,” said Stroik. “He always asked me to provide examples that were similar so that he could go see them. He wanted to go feel it before it was built.”
The chapel was dedicated in March 2009. President Dillon was able to attend the chapel’s first Holy Week and Easter there with his family.
“He was there in the front row, enjoying the church and enjoying other people enjoying the church,” said Stroik.
But there was one interior detail that remained unfinished: the installation of the bronze gate at the transept of the white marble altar rail that extends around the sanctuary. Dillon approved the gate installation plan just prior to departing for the airport on his fateful trip to Ireland. The gate was installed while Dillon was en route to Ireland. The next day, April 14, 2009, Dillon died in a car accident while in Ireland.
Perhaps fittingly — for the man who provided the vision for the chapel and saw it through to its completion — the bronze gate bears the symbols for the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. One can almost hear the Gospel’s words “Well done, good and faithful servant!” being whispered in the nave.
Register senior writer Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.
Thomas Aquinas College
10000 N. Ojai Rd.
Santa Paula, CA 93060
Planning Your Visit
See the website for Mass times and other devotions, including Eucharistic adoration.