‘Space Acknowledges the Presence of Christ’: The Story Behind the Transformation of Thomas Aquinas College’s Chapel Dedicated to Our Mother

Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel is located on the New England campus in Northfield, Massachusetts.

 The circa-1909 Protestant chapel has been outfitted with elements for Catholic worship.
The circa-1909 Protestant chapel has been outfitted with elements for Catholic worship. (photo: Courtesy of Robert Benson Photography)

Not many college chapels that originated as a Protestant chapel have been transformed into a beautiful Catholic one. Nor have many beautiful chapels received a major award for their transformation. The exception is Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College at its New England campus in Northfield, Massachusetts.

The complete transformation of Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel earned Harrison Design, the architect and designer of the renovation, the 2022 Bulfinch Award for the category of ecclesiastical design from the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. Of course, the greatest reward is that the beautiful chapel dedicated to the patroness of the school facilitates reverent worship and prayer for the students and faculty. Today, a commissioned mosaic of Our Mother of Perpetual Help appears on the façade above the main entrance. 

Built in 1909 on the campus formerly known as Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies and named Sage Chapel for the benefactress’ late husband, railroad executive and congressman Russell Sage, the chapel for Protestant worship was built of Rockport granite and is designed in a popular variation known as Neo-Gothic. 

With the chapel’s change of name came the plan to transform the interior into a truly Catholic chapel while retaining the beautiful Neo-Gothic interior architecture. David Riccio of the award-winning John Canning Co. said that the community wanted “an unapologetically Catholic interior.”

“One of the major goals was to turn it from a Protestant chapel to a Catholic chapel and make it look like it had always been this way,” Father Greg Markey, the campus chaplain, explained to the Register.

Work began in 2019, the campus’ inaugural year of classes. 

From Harrison Design, principal architects Nicolas Leo Charbonneau and Anthony Grumbine, an alumnus of Thomas Aquinas’ California campus, designed the new interior to make for a seamless transformation while retaining the historic Gothic architecture. John Parker Wilmeth, another alumnus also at the company, did a significant amount of the production work.

Another connection: Both architects studied under Duncan Stroik at the University of Notre Dame and worked in his office, and Wilmeth completed the same program of study. Stroik designed the award-winning Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel for the college’s California campus in Santa Paula.

In this New England chapel, a large organ had been the focal point of the sanctuary. Today, a white marble altar and a reredos designed to fit seamlessly with the original wood architecture have made the sanctuary unmistakably Catholic.

The central panel of the reredos presents a large Gothic-style crucifix flanked by images of the Blessed Mother and St. John the Evangelist. In the shrine to the right, there appears a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas, the college’s patron, while the shrine on the opposite side holds a statue of St. John Henry Newman, who had a strong connection with education. The altar also contains relics of Aquinas and Newman. Although the Crucifixion scene and the statues were installed in 2021, they look as if they have been part of this chapel for decades.

The Neo-Gothic tabernacle was originally made in the 19th century in France and is centered below the Crucifixion. It shows “the centrality of the Sacrifice of the Mass,” noted Father Markey, and is “a symbolic tabernacle to the identity of Thomas Aquinas College. The Mass is an essential part of the life of the college. We don’t schedule anything during the Masses so students and faculty can always get to daily Mass.”

Architect Charbonneau explained that the general style of the tabernacle’s many carvings and details “match the interior of the chapel perfectly, and we used that tabernacle as a reference for the design of the reredos.” Considering the overall design of the sanctuary, Charbonneau said, “We made every effort to make people think this has always been there.” 

In all aspects, the architects worked to make sure the chapel had proper focus. 

“Space acknowledges the presence of Christ,” Charbonneau said. 

High above the altar on the sanctuary’s triumphal arch, there appears, in Latin, the words spoken by Jesus and the answer given by Thomas Aquinas during a well-known apparition to the saint: “Thomas, you have written well of me. What reward would you receive?” The saint’s answer: “Nothing but you, O Lord.” 

Father Markey pointed out another highlight in this area — “a unique icon to the Holy Trinity at the top of the triumphal arch, a trefoil of the Holy Trinity.” Again in Latin, it connects the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit by ribbons to the central word, Deus. John Canning Co. based it on iconography of the famous English architect Augustus Pugin and “made this icon of the Trinity a marvelous addition to the chapel.”

To the side of the sanctuary, the new shrine of Our Mother of Perpetual Help was designed and constructed to complement the chapel’s Gothic architecture. It is fashioned from red oak, which is used exclusively throughout the chapel to fit with the original woodwork.

The centerpiece of this shrine is an original icon in traditional style that was painted, or written, specifically for this chapel by a cloistered nun from the Monastic Sisters of Bethlehem in New York. This icon also was the inspiration for the chapel’s decorative elements. 

And the Norman Gothic wood truss ceiling presents a heavenly cover, with its hues of blue and its detailed stencil designs that also fill the sanctuary walls. Among the designs are star symbols and sunbursts inspired by the decorative patterns on the garments of the icon of the Blessed Mother and the Christ Child.

Lining the chapel are Stations of the Cross from a now-closed church in the Pittsburgh area. These stations are more than a century old. The touch-up work was done by a mother of a student at the New England campus and by expert woodworker George Krestyn, an alumnus of the TAC California campus. With his crew that included two uncles, Krestyn modified the pews in order to form a main aisle needed for processions. 

As Charbonneau said, “From the doors as you enter, [the center aisle] creates a one-point perspective to focus on the Eucharist in the center of the sanctuary, the tabernacle and the altar. And the reredos is framing that to emphasize it.”

The last statue the college had made is of St. Joseph holding the Baby Jesus. Father Markey explained, “The students have a tremendous devotion to St. Joseph.”

Since 2021,  some alumni couples have had their weddings at Our Mother of Perpetual Help Chapel, and, already, five weddings are scheduled for this summer. Current students Paul Ginan and Ana Patricia Cardenal are one of the couples. 

“Ana and I met here on campus,” Paul said. “Our Mother of Perpetual Help is the patroness of our courtship from our very start and played a big role in bringing us together. When we decided to get married, it seemed a natural thing to do here in the chapel where we go so much together.” 

Paul shared the special moment they became engaged. “I asked Ana to get married in front of Our Mother of Perpetual Help. It’s very special, and we love praying there,” he said. “By, far it’s the most special place on the campus.”, 

Ana Patricia explained that they “want to get married in the chapel where you fell in love with Our Lord all over again and because you fell in love with someone there and you continued to grow in prayer and frequent chapel visits. It’s very important that a marriage be in the same chapel where all of that happened.” 

She added: “The name of the chapel has special significance, and the icon of Our Mother is very important to us.” She said before she came to the college, “Our Lady of Perpetual Help was popping up over and over again in my life,” and now at Thomas Aquinas College with the chapel named Our Mother of Perpetual Help, “everything lined up, and God called us to our vocation here.” 

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