University of Virginia is Getting a Church That Looks Like a Church

The new church will have four confessionals (up from the current two), a pipe organ, and traditional architectural elements.

An architect’s rendering of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Charlottesville, Virginia
An architect’s rendering of St. Thomas Aquinas Church, Charlottesville, Virginia (photo: Register Files)

St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, staffed by Dominican Friars and bordered on three sides by the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, Virginia, was established to serve the spiritual needs of UVA students who self-identify as Catholic, as well as UVA faculty, administration and friends. The Friars are in the process of fundraising for and building a new church, a traditional structure that “will serve as a catalyst for a deeper commitment to our Faith, among both regular and occasional participants in the Eucharist and other liturgies, as well as a compelling invitation to all, especially the 4,000+ University of Virginia undergraduates who self-identify as Catholic, and whom we are dedicated to serve in a particular way.”

Once complete, the church will be a “remarkably beautiful Romanesque-style structure that will relate in style and materials to the St. Thomas Aquinas Priory, where the Dominicans reside, and to the University of Virginia itself.” The new cruciform church is being built on the site of the previous church, and increasing seating capacity from 800 to 1,175.

Fr. Joseph Barranger, pastor and prior of the community of Dominicans that serves the parish, spoke about the ambitious project.


How is it that Dominicans came to run the parish at UVA?

About 1960, the local bishop asked the Dominicans to come and operate the UVA ministry. Soon after, the bishop created a personal parish to serve the students. We’ve been here ever since. We have seven in our community now, five of whom are on the parish staff. One of our priests is a UVA doctoral student.


Are there many Catholics in Virginia?

There are pockets of Catholics all over the state. Our Diocese of Richmond is spread out. We have three Catholic parishes in Charlottesville, where there are a significant number of Catholics. But, we’re still a minority.


How many parishioners do you serve?

We have 2,500 registered families, but as people are on the campus attending classes for only a time, not all register. There are 4,000 Catholic undergraduates at UVA, and many more in UVA’s graduate schools. As the parish is growing rapidly, we need a new church with additional seating.

Among our young families are people not connected directly with the university, but want their children to benefit from interaction with UVA students. Students teach 40% of our CCD classes, and lead a life teen ministry.


Talk about the Dominican presence on the campus, and what fruits you’ve observed.

Many students feel a connection to the Dominicans because of our intellectual tradition. We place a lot of emphasis on preaching. We also sing the liturgy of the hours, and visitors are welcome to join us. 

We minister out of our community life; we’re a unique presence in our diocese. In fact, few parishes in the country are university parishes. We’re not a geographic parish, but a personal parish with a ministry to the university community. This situation moved our community to build a priory to create a permanent presence here.


How much money have you raised for the new church?

Our original plan was to add to our former structure at a cost of $6.3 million. But we were advised by the diocese that the better plan was to tear down the structure and start over. Building on to the old structure would not be adequate functionally or aesthetically. 

The new church is a $12 million project. We’ve raised $10 million from parishioners and UVA alumni.


Where is Mass being celebrated during construction?

The parish hall has been converted to a temporary church with two overflow rooms. We can fit 550 people. Everyone has been wonderful about it, although accommodating the Christmas and Easter crowds has been difficult.


What progress have you made?

The church has been enclosed and waterproofed. We’re working on the interior. We fell behind last summer due to heavy rains, and the complexity of building this church. The brickwork is very involved, and will be built to last hundreds of years.

We anticipate dedicating the new building in Lent 2020. It will have taken two years to build.


What are some of the highlights of the structure?

I think people will be impressed by its architecture. We want to create a building that is both beautiful and will be a tool for evangelization. We chose the Romanesque style, as it fits with the other buildings on the UVA campus. In time, we’ll be adding other elements, such as additional stained glass windows. If more people become donors, we can do these projects sooner rather than later.

The interior is spacious and open; above is a dome. The sanctuary is spacious, which will allow for concelebrated Dominican liturgies. Renowned artist Sylvia Nicolas is creating three stained glass windows for us in the apse; she is also doing a bronze crucifix and the Stations of the Cross. We want our religious art on the inside to evangelize. It has to speak to young people.

We will have four confessionals, up from two in the previous building. We need four for the 13 hours of confessions we have each week.

We did not expect to have a pipe organ, but we were able to receive one from another Virginia college. A benefactor paid to have it refurbished.


The building is of a more traditional versus contemporary design, correct?

Yes, and intentionally so. The altar, ambo and baptismal font will all be traditional in design. (Take a tour of the new church here:


What challenges have you had?

We’ve had many. There have been challenges relating to the weather and fundraising. There are challenges in construction; there are, for example, beautiful arches in the brickwork that are difficult to create.


How supportive has the community been?

They’ve been very supportive. Our students are thrilled. So are our neighbors, many of whom are professors. They believe it is going to be a wonderful addition to the area.