The energy in the room elevated when designs were first revealed. “This is it,” thought Victoria Young, Art History Program chair and architectural historian.
“The first time I saw the plans I was stunned,” President Julie Sullivan said. “I couldn’t be more excited.”
Sullivan – and the entire St. Thomas community – has great reason to feel energized. As the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas nears the celebration of its 100th birthday in 2019, it is poised to move into a second century of serving the St. Thomas community with a breathtaking renewal of life. The designs Sullivan and Young were seeing revealed an underground expansion of the chapel to make it more accessible, functional and welcoming.
The unique, dynamic design honors the chapel’s history as an architectural gem and the representation of Catholic faith on campus and raises it up into a new age of serving students, faculty, staff and alumni of all faiths.
“This is who we are,” Sullivan said as she reflected on the chapel’s embodiment of faith at St. Thomas. “Our community, and the world, needs this right now.”
The last, best gift
The chapel was dedicated on May 29, 1919. Famed architect Emmanuel Masqueray, who had designed the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, designed it. Masqueray was a friend of St. Thomas founder Archbishop John Ireland, who was the impetus behind the project. Monsignor James Reardon called the chapel “the last and best gift of Archbishop Ireland to his beloved college.”
Masqueray’s design is based on a Latin cross, with a nave 95 feet long and 43 feet wide. In his 1997 book, The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, Monsignor James Lavin noted “the magnificent spaciousness and the pleasing relationship between the greater and lesser arches” of the chapel. Complementing the incredible architecture itself is the execution over several decades of the master plan within, designed by Father Walter LeBeau, a longtime St. Thomas faculty member and director of religion. Throughout the windows, walls and ceilings, “an artistic course in Catholic theology portraying nothing less than ‘the whole plan of God’s dealing with men’” can be seen.
Countless life-defining events – from weddings to funerals, to Masses and concerts – have taken place for members of the St. Thomas community within the chapel’s sacred doors. In the century since its dedication, the chapel has stood on the upper quad as the University of St. Thomas grew and evolved around it.
Those interwoven elements of respecting and embracing history, plus acknowledging St. Thomas’ growth and evolution as a community, guide the years-long process of conceptualizing, designing and constructing the chapel’s expansion. The elegant design underscores the grace of the quad, light and the chapel itself.
“It’s new and fresh, innovative and respectful. I really think they just nailed it,” said Young, whose research within the College of Arts and Sciences focuses on 19th- and 20th-century architecture, with a special interest in sacred spaces.
“They” is the team led by Ernesto Ruiz-Garcia of The Opus Group that created the designs. Thanks to Opus’ design-build nature as a firm, Ruiz-Garcia and his team will help see the project through from the groundbreaking in spring 2019 to its dedication in 2020.
“This is an incredibly exciting project,” Ruiz-Garcia said. “We want this building to really be unique and be a jewel for this campus, and something that people really love.”
Home to all
Discussions about expanding the chapel began more than a year ago and included many stakeholders throughout the St. Thomas community. The overarching goal was to revitalize this symbol of faith on campus and make it more usable and welcoming to as many people as possible.
Included in the discussion was St. Thomas’ evolution as a community, from almost exclusively Catholic in its early decades to an increasingly diverse community with members from many faiths. Since arriving in 2015, Father Larry Snyder, vice president for mission, has helped lead the university’s work to support all students by enacting many efforts, including creating a multi-faith student council and the hiring of Jewish, Islamic and Presbyterian faith leaders in Campus Ministry.
“We are called by the church to walk with everyone on their faith journey,” Sullivan said. “We’re called to be inclusive, respect their faith and be there to support them deepening their faith. Pope Francis talks about that a lot. We’re here for all of our students. … Our mission is to help every student in their spiritual and faith journey. Father Snyder has really reinforced that and developed the capacity for us to do that.”
The expansion will enhance that inclusion: The building will bring all of Campus Ministry into one area and – along with space for multi-faith practices – solidify the chapel as the home of faith for everyone at St. Thomas.
“Over many years we’ve kind of ‘pulled apart’ the religious dimensions of our activities here across campus,” Snyder said. “What we’re looking for is an ideal where we have those things all situated around one sacred space that would reinforce this shared faith and be a stronger symbol of this in our community.”
A true gathering space
As it currently stands, little or no room exists to gather before or after an event in the chapel. Most post-event gatherings take place in the Anderson Student Center, but – especially in winter – it can be a difficult trek to the lower quad.
“The needs of worshipping communities have changed,” Snyder said. The chapel didn’t have space for fellowship gatherings. “Now we expect those things, especially with weddings and funerals,” Snyder said. “You expect to have a space where people can gather; these are important times in people’s lives.”
Several aspects of the new addition address this, starting with a multipurpose gathering room, Schoenecker Family Hall, which will seat up to 300 people for meals and is supported by an on-site kitchen.
Outdoors, the gathering space near the northern entrance, where people gather now, will be revitalized and raised up on a platform, eliminating the accessibility difficulties of the stairs. (A new elevator also is being installed inside to make the building fully accessible.)
“By embedding the form of the building into the landscape, this design has resolved in a very elegant solution emphasizing public space and plazas, while also giving the chapel a bit of a stage to be presented on,” said Katie Hughes, The Opus Group senior designer.
An amphitheater outside the west entrance will offer room not only to gather, but to host musical performances.
“The view you’ll have from the quad to the amphitheater will almost be like there are arms opening up to the community and welcoming them,” Sullivan said. “Anyone will know they can walk in there – whether you’re a student, prospective student, staff or alumnus – and be greeted.”
Inside the below-grade building, the main corridor will host a sacred art gallery, where many of St. Thomas’ pieces of art – including President Emeritus Father Dennis Dease’s celebrated crucifix collection – finally will have a home. Brides and grooms finally will have a home, too: Both will have dedicated rooms to prepare for their wedding day.
Updates inside the chapel will make visiting more enjoyable, as well: Two large, multi-stall restrooms are being installed, and new air conditioning and lighting systems will be used throughout the building.
Letting the light in
Ruiz-Garcia and his team grounded their approach in just two design elements: grass and glass.
Grass will continue to surround the chapel, sustaining the tradition and vitality of the existing quad and converting it into a shared space around the building.
“The upper plaza is designed in a way that merges the symmetry of the existing chapel with the angular nature of the addition,” Hughes said. “On the western side, the addition reveals itself between two wings, which tie directly from the angles in the quad and direct that energy toward the existing chapel transept.” The wings are subterranean, but, “there shouldn’t be any feeling of being in a tunnel,” Ruiz-Garcia said.
Glass in the form of skylights and windows all around the building will guarantee that’s not the case, pouring natural light in throughout. At night, light from inside will bathe the existing chapel and its surroundings, spotlighting this renewed home of faith at St. Thomas.
“This design makes the chapel really what it wants to be in the 21st century that it never would’ve thought about 25 years ago,” Young said. “But with all the things we do on this campus and the way we try to reach out across faiths and different constituent groups … we need this building to be this place for us.”
As the first major construction project under Sullivan’s leadership, and coinciding with its centennial birthday, the chapel is ready to usher in a new era.
“This is the perfect building to do now because it says everything about who we are,” Young added. “And who we aspire to be.”
Read more from St. Thomas magazine.