SANTA PAULA, Calif. — The dedication of Thomas Aquinas College’s new campus chapel promises to be a significant landmark in the history of Catholic liberal arts education.
Those who travel to the campus for the early March event will be greeted by Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity’s majestic bell tower, which rises to a staggering 135 feet above hills situated an hour’s drive from Los Angeles.
The chapel’s architectural style is a seamless combination of the regional and the traditional: Its red tile roof and three-tiered bell tower are evocative of the Spanish mission style that dominates Southern California, while its 89-foot dome and ornate facade more closely resemble the historic churches of Rome. Its massive bells can be heard from miles around.
The dedication of the chapel will mark the completion of a project that has been more than 10 years in the making and has been the literal and symbolic focal point of the college community from the very beginning. The 15,000-square-foot, $23 million church is the crown jewel of a campus whose every element has been carefully designed to embody Thomas Aquinas College’s devotion to faithful Catholic education.
‘Faith Seeking Understanding’
From the outset, school officials desired to make Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity what President Thomas Dillon calls a “church that teaches”: a building that speaks to visitors about the school’s beliefs.
“Our entire academic program is ordered, finally, to theology, the ‘queen of the sciences,’” said Dillon. “Accordingly, we wanted to order the entire campus to the chapel.”
College officials collaborated with noted University of Notre Dame architect Duncan Stroik to create a design for the chapel that uses traditional architectural symbolism to convey this message.
The new chapel sits at the head of the college’s quadrangle, opposite a quiet fountain featuring Our Lady of Guadalupe and flanked on both sides by a red-tiled arcade of stucco arches connecting the classroom and library buildings.
“It is a kind of Catholic version of the University of Virginia,” Professor Stroik explained. “Thomas Jefferson built two colonnades and placed a library rotunda at the head. At TAC, we have replaced the library with the chapel to emphasize the centrality of the college’s mission of ‘faith seeking understanding.’”
This famous maxim of St. Anselm is alive and well at the college, which last year was ranked No. 2 in the nation by The Princeton Review in the category “students pray frequently.”
The small Great Books college also was ranked No. 5 in The Princeton Review’s 100 “Best Value Colleges” for 2008.
“It’s a very exciting place to be right now,” said Jesuit Father Cornelius Buckley, head chaplain. “What impresses me is how the chapel really emphasizes the way the students seek truth, goodness and beauty together. The college is dedicated to seeking truth. And since beauty radiates truth, the chapel is the concrete embodiment of the college’s mission statement.
“Also, whenever anyone enters the chapel, his focus is inexorably drawn to the Eucharist — the enfleshment of the good, the true and the beautiful,” Father Buckley continued. “Really, the spiritual life and intellectual life do complement one another.”
The chapel’s location and beauty are not the only features designed to serve as a teaching point; the architecture of the building itself contains countless traditional symbols of the faith. The church’s entire shape is cruciform, recalling the head, arms and body of Christ. Inside, seven arches lining the nave represent the sacraments and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and 12 windows around the dome represent the apostles. The massive baldachin echoes elements from both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant.
The use of these symbols provides a vital link between the chapel and the Christian faith down through the ages, from the famous churches of Rome to the humble missions of California, which inspired much of the chapel’s exterior.
“The classical tradition allows us to draw on many of the great churches of our artistic patrimony,” said Stroik. “The architectural language is universal, while incorporating the particulars of the place and time.”
This balance of the timeless and the “particulars of place and time” makes Thomas Aquinas College’s chapel a symbol of the position of faithful Catholic higher education in America, which seeks to preserve the best of Catholic intellectual history by applying timeless wisdom to modern concerns.
“When Thomas Aquinas College opened in 1971, a very turbulent time in society and in the Church,” Dillon observes, “we made clear that we were founded upon the resolve to uphold what is best in our Catholic intellectual heritage. Now it is gratifying to see that others have since come along who, likewise, intend a loyalty to the teaching Church.”
Sophomore Emily Barry sees an even more symbolic connection between the chapel’s complex architectural heritage and the position of the Catholic university today. “Although much of the chapel’s Romanesque style recalls the old traditions found in the most beautiful Catholic cathedrals in Europe, it’s still wonderful to use the chapel to reflect on the fact that it was the simple missionaries to California who brought these traditions over and were able to evangelize the New World.
“In this same way, Catholic students have a mission to be ready to answer John Paul’s call for the New Evangelization. The Catholic university is called, in a special way, to use its foundations and live as a testament to the truth about man and God with courage in a world which is so confused.”
Thanks to the careful planning of Dillon, Stroik and others, when the crowds gather for the dedication in March, their presence in the building will signify more than their support for Thomas Aquinas College. Not only will attendees be rejoicing over the success and progress of this small college in the hills, they will also be showing their solidarity with the vision that so inspires Barry and countless other students all across America: a renewal of Catholic education built solidly upon the living tradition of the Church.
Jennifer Sawyer writes
from Claremont, California.