Karen Adams, Special to The Catholic Virginian
St. Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well, to show a good activity.”
The good activity at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, Charlottesville, on Monday, May 14 – the groundbreaking for a 1,200-seat church – likely would have pleased him.
Bishop Barry C. Knestout presided over the Rite of Blessing the Foundation Stone, a sacred ceremony in which the stone is prayed over and celebrated. Eventually it will be placed permanently on the ground broken where the former church stood. The church is expected to be completed in fall 2019.
St. Thomas Aquinas is home to eight Dominican friars, explained the pastor, Dominican Father Joseph Barranger. The classical-style building will be their home, as well as the place of worship for the community.
“We live our religious life here,” said Father Barranger, who is also the prior for the Dominicans. “It’s a wonderful, exciting thing to establish a permanent priory (monastery) of Dominican friars.”
Approximately 150 people, including all of the Dominican friars, many parishioners, students, faculty and friends — many of whom shoveled dirt to prepare the ground — attended the ceremony. The afternoon sunshine was symbolic, said Marta Brannon, director of worship and co-organizer, because it had been raining until mid-morning.
“But then the clouds broke and the sun came out and we were all thrilled,” she said. “It was such a beautiful day.”
Bishop Knestout’s blessing included a reading from Mark 12:1-12: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
Brannon noted that the stone, which is hollow with a lid, will serve as a time capsule. It will hold the day’s program, a document listing those who worked on the church and mementos such as prayer cards that parishioners have used to pray for their new church.
Built in 1995 and used as a Newman Center, i.e., Catholic student ministry house, the old structure was completed for the relatively low price of $675,000. That building was large enough for 800 people but was made with inexpensive materials common at the time, e.g., non-insulated aluminum panels normally used for storefronts.
“It was very fragile,” said Father Barranger. “It was coming apart.”
For years, the parish had considered how to improve its church. Through the Diocese of Richmond’s Living Our Mission capital campaign, which allowed churches to use some of those funds for their own projects, in addition to supporting diocesan-wide projects and ministries, St. Thomas Aquinas raised $5.8 million by June 2016, including approximately $5 million for its church building fund.
“People were so generous,” Father Barranger said.
With funds available, the parish looked at several ways to improve the building. Initially, the congregation hoped to expand and renovate the old structure, salvaging as much as possible. After much study, however, it was clear extensive renovation necessary would have been too costly.
Nor was it possible to choose another location, as the church was established at the edge of the campus grounds specifically to serve the University of Virginia community.
“We are a ‘personal parish,’ which serves the students and faculty,” Father Barranger explained. “We are literally on campus; we see the students walking by every day. We are here for them.”
He estimated there are 4,000 Catholic undergraduates at the university.
“If we moved somewhere else, we would lose that connection, which is the heart of our mission,” he added.
The parish decided the best and most responsible move would be to tear down the church and start over. After demolition was completed, parishioners began attending eight weekend Masses in their fellowship hall.
“It’s amazing how cheerful and excited people have been,” Father Barranger said, noting that one benefit of gathering in the smaller space was that people were “getting to know each other better.”
A viewing window was installed in the hall so that people can watch the progress of the construction. After the months of planning and fundraising, Father Barranger said, there is a lot of energy and joy throughout the parish.
“Now it’s tremendously exciting because we can see this new creation arising,” he said.
Deacon Paul Mahefky, director of real estate for the diocese, termed it “a holy moment.”
“The people there can see what they are going to get,” he said. “Father Barranger and the whole building team need to be complimented for this herculean effort.”
The classic Romanesque style was chosen to fit with University of Virginia architecture.
“We are a Church that evangelizes,” said Father Barranger, adding that he, the friars and staff seek to evangelize people, especially students, through the architecture of the church and the art that will be inside. “Students are elevated by what is beautiful. We tell the story of our faith through the building itself, as churches did for centuries.”
Deacon Mahefky agreed.
“This is a hundred-year church,” he said. “When people go to Mass they want to feel they are in God’s house, and they will feel that in this church.”
As Catholic student Elizabeth Hofer states on the parish’s website: “If Mass is where Heaven meets earth, then a church should communicate the glory and beauty of God and His dwelling place. It excites me to know that the new church will do just that.”
Father Barranger described one image that remains with him: the cross being gently lowered during the demolition of the old church.
“This cross drifted down into the center of the rubble and remained standing, and it was awesome,” he said. “This is the feeling we get every day with this new building being built. It’s new life rising.”