Thomas Aquinas College Chapel: A Triumph in Church Architecture

Images: Duncan G. Stroik, Architect
Photos: OC-Travel
After years in the faith-based travel industry I can say without equivocation the chapel at Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Santa Paula, California is a must-see for Catholics.  On a sunny day walking toward the chapel under the shade of the Spanish mission arcade amid the sight and sound of splashing fountains and terraced gardens with eager students reading great works in Latin, one has the distinct feeling of traveling back in time to Florence in its glory days of the cinquecento.  That was during the time of the High Renaissance and early Baroque.  In short, the new chapel is a synthesis of all the great Western religious architecture in one building.  The hillside site of the college is a beautiful mountain meadow in a remote location just west of Los Angeles.  The front view of the church is rightly conceived in relation to the hills beyond, vertical and soaring up to the heavens.  The chapel is the culmination of years of waiting and strategic planning on the part of the very dedicated faculty, staff, student body, alumni and benefactors.

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity is a totally unique creation capped with a magnificent Renaissance dome and three-tiered bell tower.  The completed church, meeting the most up-to-date seismic codes, was dedicated on March 7, 2009 amid great rejoicing and celebration.  Where does one begin to sing the praises of this landmark contribution to North American church architecture?  By quoting the Psalm Quam dilecta, "How lovely are thy tabernacles, O Lord of hosts!" (Psalm 83:1).

The chapel design partakes in the broad tradition of ecclesial architecture borrowing successfully from the Roman Basilica Style, early Christian Romanesque, Italian Renaissance, Spanish Baroque and the exquisite mission churches of Southern California.  Photos can be seen HERE.  The name was chosen because of Our Lady's unique relationship to the Holy Trinity.  St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest scholastic the Church has ever produced, wrote his works on natural philosophy and theology aimed ultimately at understanding and revering the Three-in-One God-head.  Indeed, the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity is one of the final objects of study for students at TAC.

All who visit are inspired by the matching classical architecture of the chapel and campus.  Both sing a hymn of greatness and learning.  And unity, reflecting the modified mission-revival style so prevalent in Southern California.  They also signify the ultimate goal of the college's academic and social life: namely, life in and with God.  In some ways the chapel and center quad is reminiscent of a typical town square in far-away Tuscany, the center of religious, civic, social and academic life.

The design architect was the great Duncan Stroik, Professor of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame and principal of Duncan G. Stroik Architect, a firm specializing in ecclesiastical design.  Mr. Stroik has done more than anyone I know living today to help ignite a reawakening of beauty in the best of Catholic church architecture.  His contributions to the architectural landscape are born from a commitment to maintaining the principles of classical architecture and urbanism with a polished edge.  Through his works across the land he has made overwhelming contributions to the evolution of the international classical movement, helping to propel a renaissance in sacred architecture.  He has an uncanny eye for beauty and a sense of the sacred as well as for spacial reasoning and proper liturgical space.  In short, he is a master builder with an inspired Catholic sensus in the area of ecclesiastical construction and design.

Of the chapel, Mr. Stroik shared in an interview:
"The classical impulse is interested in both tradition as well as innovation in architecture, and so this chapel in its own way seeks to be part of an evolutionary, as distinct from a revolutionary, tradition.  Today we are in a modern day Renaissance and are coming out of a modernist 'dark ages.'  Thus, this chapel should be seen as a bold answer to the modernist project.  Following T.S. Eliot, I believe that a work of art which embodies the Western tradition will not only be changed by the past but itself will help us see the past in a new way" (Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter, Winter 2003 Special Edition, p. 11).

A word of gratitude is also due to the former president of the college who made history by spearheading the project, Dr. Thomas E. Dillon (who died unexpectedly in 2009 after the new church was dedicated).  His original goal was to ensure the chapel would reflect four simple pillars: beauty, grandeur, permanence and tradition.  The end result was a chapel that successfully embodied all four, reflecting the college curriculum, showcasing the liberal arts tradition.

For those who do not know, TAC is the undisputed "rex" of Catholic university-land in the area of liberal arts.  What began in 1971 as a little-known experiment in the world of Catholic higher education has led to the college leading as a major force in United States Catholicism and the academic world at large.  TAC has experienced tremendous success and is now formed into two campus locations, the original in California and the second in Massachusetts.  TAC is one of the very last universities where students are free to be immersed completely in the liberal arts for four years in a small, seriously Catholic, and seriously academic atmosphere that is completely orthodox in its adherence to Catholic teachings.  The maximum enrollment of students per campus is about 350 with a teaching faculty of about 36 professors.

The style of the school brings to mind the original Greek ideal of paideia - liberal education, a necessary preparation for civic life, as was revived in Italian cities at the close of the 14th century.  This model allowed students once more to study the old educational literature, beginning with Cicero and Quintilian and ending with Socrates and Plato.  Indeed, this humanist revival was of immense importance in the history of Western education and is being repeated today at TAC under the watchful gaze of the new chapel.  As in the past, classical education is laying the foundation of modern culture, not only by its classical learning and recovery of Greek and Latin, but still more by the leadership of its "new" ideals of life and education which it helps to develop.  The chapel design is based upon the same philosophy as the college's unique curriculum.

At TAC all the students take the same courses and only one degree program is offered: a B.A. in Liberal Arts, an integrated classical liberal arts curriculum that is made up primarily of the "Great Books" that constitute the essential foundation of the Western tradition.  The teaching pedagogy is also different - it makes exclusive use of the seminar teaching method known as the "Socratic Method."  The end result is while the students study the Great Books, the canon of books that are seen as constituting the essential foundation of Western culture, they do so in a roundtable discussion in the style of Socrates.  The form is an argumentative dialogue between students and professors, based on a mutual discussion of asking and answering questions with the aim of stimulating critical thinking while drawing out ideas and underlying presuppositions.

In the words of the chapel architect, Mr. Stroik:
"The chapel design is based on the same philosophy as the college's Great Books curriculum.  By studying the finest examples of church architecture from the last two millennia, we sought to understand both universal principles as well as specific architectonic and iconographic details.  The chapel is a twenty-first century classical building and will employ all the benefits of modern technology as they apply to structure, earthquake codes, sound systems, lighting and cooling.  And much like our forbears five hundred years ago in the Italian Renaissance, we have sought to look both to the architecture of the city of Peter and Paul, as well as the architecture of our own backyard" (Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter, Winter 2003 Special Edition, p. 10)

Just as the whole curriculum leads and points ultimately to the study of God, so, too, the campus points to the chapel, the crown jewel of the campus layout.  The chapel yields untold blessings to the college community, lifting the soul, forming the mind, moving the heart and guiding the spirit.  Young students set out their freshman year on a journey, embarking with great courage on a four-year pilgrimage, seeking to excel at academic and intellectual pursuits.  The chapel is the architectural and symbolic center of this pursuit, a brilliant achievement by its placement and grandeur, at the foot of the academic quadrangle for all to see.

The chapel matches perfectly the centuries-old Catholic architectural tradition, highlighting the college's connection with the Universal and Roman Church.  The main entrance is viewed as a triumphal archway that gathers the faithful to enter.  This entrance is flanked by two niches on either side.  One is of St. Augustine and the other St. Thomas Aquinas, both carved in Italy of solid Carrara marble.  Above each is a marble circular tondo relief, featuring a white dove above Augustine and a golden monstrance above Aquinas.  The inscribed frieze - horizontal band - above the entrance refers to the church's name in Latin, Domina Nostra Sanctissimae Trinitatis ("Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity").  The distinct sense of the sacred and transcendent are effectively conveyed by these stately words for both the outside and inside.  The facade introduces Roman elements that compliment the Spanish mission style.  These carved works on the front two tiers of the facade are made of Indiana limestone, a common stone used in North American church architecture.

The facade showcases tall, slender, fluted and spiral-fluted Ionic columns that grace the main entrance and measure 22-feet high, Corinthian pilasters measuring 18-feet high, which are capped at the very top by a triangular frame pediment.  Inside this natural frame is a carved bas-relief that depicts the college's coat-of-arms, flanked by two angels holding it up, surmounted by an 8-foot Carrara marble statue from Italy of Our Lady as the Woman of the Apocalypse.  Underneath is an inscription in Latin from Rev. 12:1: Et Signum Magnum Apparuit In Caelo Mulier Amicta Sole Et Luna Sub Pedibus Eius Et In Capite Eius Corona Steallarum Duodecim ("And a great sign appeared in heaven.  A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars").  This outside layout is nothing short of a triumph of architectural genius.  The centrally-framed portico of simple baroque detail carved in limestone set against the plain Spanish mission style surface grants a pleasing and balanced view.  Such contrast highlights the thematic elements while preserving their complementary relationship.

Carved inscriptions at the entrance, fittingly in Latin, announce the dedication of the chapel and its consecration exclusively for the cult of divine worship.  Above the chapel's bronze doors is a bas-relief in the footprint of Roman Baroque depicting the Coronation of Our Lady, surrounded by the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.  On the perimeter are carved the four saints known for their devotion to the Blessed Mother: St. Dominic, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Louis de Montfort.  Just under this and above the entrance are the first words visitors contemplate as they pass the threshold of the entrance, Domus Dei et Porta Coeli ("The House of God and Gate of Heaven"), in reference to Genesis 28:17.

Above the inside of the chapel's main doors is a uniquely carved statue in three marbles of Our Lady with the infant Jesus under the ancient title, Maria Sedes Sapientiae ("Mary, Seat of Wisdom").  She wears a golden grown and is flanked by two kneeling angels atop clouds carved in white marble.  This is the title of Our Lady associated with academic endeavors.  The inscription carved in marble under the statue and above the entrance is the last thing people see as they exit the church: Quodcumque dixerit vobis facite ("Whatsoever he shall say to you, do ye"), the instruction Our Lady gave at the wedding feast at Cana, her last recorded words in the Scriptures (John 2:5).

The new church lifts the imagination heavenward with its cruciform shape.  Replicas of four classical paintings are displayed in the four shrines in the chapel transepts.  Facing the altar, to the left are precious paintings of the Annunciation of Our Lady and St. Teresa of Avila receiving Holy Communion.  To the right are the Baptism of the Lord and the Temptation of St. Thomas Aquinas.  These paintings are Vatican Museums quality, executed in the truest sense of Roman Baroque, depicting a vibrant mix of color, light and motion.

The inside nave is flanked by columns which in their placement display arches that are somewhat narrower and taller than usual.  The effect is powerful - the eyes and heart are drawn to the altar of sacrifice and tabernacle.  The massive interior covers 15,000-square-feet.  The seven inside arcades on each side of the nave speak of the seven sacraments, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven dolors of the Blessed Mother, her seven joys, plus the three theological virtues paired with the four natural virtues.  In short, didactic symbolism is everywhere.  The freestanding columns in the nave are each 13 feet high, with arches springing to support the vaulted clerestories.  Each column rests on a 10.25-inch-base of white Apuano marble.  The shafts of the columns are in Botticino marble, all imported from Italy.

The Corinthian columns which line the nave, along with the century-old Stations of the Cross, also employ symbolism of flowering Catholic life.  The vaulted ceiling symbolizes the vault of heaven.  The windows in the clerestory, in the tradition of the baroque, are not stained glass.  Instead, they are translucent, allowing the chapel to fill with the timeless, clear, bright light of the sky, illuminating hearts and minds from above.  The main focus of the interior is the sanctuary with its marbled altar and tabernacle designed as a tower with a golden top.  The altar and tabernacle are white, the color of a lamb, in commemoration of the image of Christ as Lamb of God.  The altar contains a first-class relic of St. Thomas Aquinas from the Vatican.  Inscribed on the tabernacle in gold letters are the words of Christ at the Last Supper: "This is My Body" (Matt. 26:26).  All of this is framed by a gigantic four-columned 34-foot high baldacchino canopy in the tradition of early Christian basilicas, effectively accentuating the high altar.  This massive work of detailed craftsmanship was modeled after Bernini's glorious masterpiece in St. Peter's Basilica and designed by artisans from Spain.  The bronze columns are Solomonic in design in reference to the temple in Jerusalem, covered with golden angels at the top in reference to the Arc of the Covenant with golden crucifix at the highest point.   

The 135-foot bell tower and 89-foot dome are marvelous additions that complete the majestic identity with terra-cotta red tiled roof.  The three-tiers of the tower with three bells is symbolic of the Triune God.  It is also a link to the memory of countless centuries-old Spanish mission church towers that have retained this distinctive bell tower style all across New Spain.  Further the style complements the Spanish-styling of the California mission heritage, harmonizing baroque motifs from both Spain and Mexico.  The elegance and height of these towers, sounding the hours of prayer, have long been fostered and preserved by Catholic architects and designers, including the talented twentieth century Catholic architect of Southern California, Albert C. Martin.

The dome, a nice extra touch, is influenced by Michelangelo's marvelous dome of the Vatican Basilica, which set the standard for dome design and construction for 500 years.  The circle of the dome reflects that God has no beginning and no end.  The form of the dome represents the cosmological symbol of heaven as the dome is intended to lift the eye heavenward.  Preserving the Roman element, the dome is a key link signifying the connection with Rome, the cradle of Western civilization.  The dome consists of twelve segments with round oculi that are symbolic of the twelve apostles, connecting the church with the heavens.  Inside the cupolina lantern at the very top of the dome is a dove in a golden sunburst, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, visible only in the sanctuary.  Encircling the interior of the dome are the words of the Archangel Gabriel spoken to holy Mother Mary in Nazareth: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee.  And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).  Meanwhile, the four massive piers that support the weight of the dome display trompe l'oiel paintings depicting the traditional symbols commonly associated with the four evangelists, taken from Rev. 4:6-8: St. Matthew (a man), St. Mark (a lion), St. Luke (an ox), and St. John (an eagle). 

Just walking on the polished marbled floor is an experience.  The inlaid floor itself is inspired by the flooring of several prominent churches on the European continent.  The marbles, imported from Italy, are exquisitely arrayed in an elegant and simple pattern.  Along the center aisle is depicted the arms of Pope St. John Paul II, who was a big fan of the college and an old acquaintance of both the architect and president.  It was he who blessed the chapel's architectural plans and during his reign construction began.  At the other end of the center aisle can be seen the inlaid arms of Pope Benedict XVI, who blessed the chapel's cornerstone.  It was also during his pontificate the chapel was completed and consecrated with great solemnity.  The center aisle meets the sanctuary with a marbled altar rail with bronze gates, symbolic of the veil of the temple, separating the nave from the holy of holies.

A sense of deep spirituality pervades campus life.  Prayer is central to the student life and the academic undertakings at the college.  The rich liturgical patrimony and music of the Roman Church thrive in the chapel, including the fostering of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, described by Catholic convert Fr. Frederick Faber as "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven."  The college choir is acclaimed for its Gregorian Chant and polyphonic sacred music.  Meanwhile, the majestic chapel organ completes the solemnity.  Students take advantage of an abundance of spiritual activities in the chapel, including three daily Masses, daily Confessions, and Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament.  Marian feasts are celebrated with a procession from the church to the grotto shrine.  Each night students gather at the chapel at 9:15 p.m. for a student-led rosary, a custom that has been observed at the college since it founding.

The chapel price tag was $23 million, reflecting the highest standards at a reasonable budget.   Money well spent by all accounts without exception.  As a matter of principle, TAC does not accept any direct government or Church funding in order to ensure the institution's autonomy.  Thanks be to God for this and for the courage and vision to deviate from the modernist trend of (commercially-driven) church architecture, a breath of fresh air in today's world of box-structures and municipal parking lots. Just as the college is spearheading a return to a classical education in America, so the chapel does the same for a return to classical architecture, offering a blueprint vision for the future of tomorrow's Catholic church architecture.

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