Beautiful New Church Completed: St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Charlottesville, Virginia

Photo: Cram and Ferguson Architects, Granda Liturgical Arts

More good news.  St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, the Dominican chapel under construction in Charlottesville, Virginia (Diocese of Richmond), has at long last been been completed after five years of anticipation.  It was dedicated on Sept. 20 by Bishop Barry Knestout and streamed live online.  Twelve consecration crosses mark where the bishop blessed the entrance and walls.  For the celebration the bishop was vested in beautiful silk brocade Neo-Gothic vestments in Medieval style, while he placed and sealed six relics inside the main altar (the relics include: St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Martin de Porres, St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton, St. Agnes of Montepulciano and St. Maria Goretti).  The new church is a parish staffed by the Order of Preachers for students, faculty and staff of the University of Virginia and the greater UVA university community.  The Dominican friars of the Eastern Province of St. Joseph built this lovely temple at the historical university, founded in 1819 by the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.  It will play an integral role in the lives of generations of students and teachers.    

The red-brick church with dome was designed by our good friends at Cram and Ferguson Architects, leaders in classical American church architecture.  In some ways the exterior brick brings to mind the old Dominican church of the Jacobins in Toulouse, where St. Thomas Aquinas is entombed.  The cornerstone was laid in 2019.  The final version is a success, employing beauty to inspire the contemplation of the transcendent.  The special character of the church under the Dominicans is reflected in the Romanesque style chosen for the design while the Dominican's 800-year heritage is reflected in many elements of the overall layout and decoration.  

Above the main entrance seen above, is carved a quote from St. Thomas Aquinas: "Nothing But You O Lord."  The above carved tympanum depicts Christ as a pilgrim, encountering on a road both St. Dominic and St. Thomas Aquinas.  This work is by local artist Thomas Marsh, a lay Dominican.  The symbolic meaning is that Jesus is waiting to meet us on our pilgrim journey to heaven.  The creation is inspired by a similar work of art by Fra Angelico, that depicts Christ meeting two unknown Dominican friars.  On either side of the main door are four large pillars topped with carven capitals on either side, a fitting entrance, that display on the capitals a simple version of the shield of the Dominican Order.  

The interior has a cozy feeling with a wondrous low ceiling, in some ways resembling the crypt of a massive Byzantine church.  With such wide supportive pillars this gives a feeling of thickness and stability, symmetry and enduring strength.  That being said, the church is large -- seating is for 1,200.  The layout is cruciform in shape, designed in the form of a Greek cross.  The church structure is graced with a splendid dome in octagonal shape with a beautiful midnight blue ceiling with golden stars calling to mind the heavens.  The altar, pulpit, baptismal font and tabernacle stand all match in Carrara marble from Italy.  The altar is adorned with a carved pelican with a golden halo, feeding her three babies with three drops of her own blood.  The pelican was a popular Christian symbol from the Middle-Ages, known to be particularly attentive to its young to the point of wounding its own breast in order to feed its babies with its own flesh and blood, an obvious reference to the Eucharist.  A Eucharistic hymn penned by St. Thomas Aquinas, Adoro Te Devote, includes this reference: "Lord Jesus, good Pelican, wash me clean with Your blood, one drop of which can free the entire world of all its sins."    

A carved eagle adorns the pulpit, symbolic of the Word of God and the Gospel of St. John.  In the classical world it was believed an eagle could stare directly into the sun.  There is no choir loft in the church, in true medieval fashion, the choir (with pipe organ) are in the front on the side.  The marbled floor has slight indications of the Cosmati style in reference to the Dominican church of Santa Sabina in Rome.  The statues of Our Lady and St. Joseph are from France, in Medieval Romanesque.  A rood cross hangs above the altar and three stained glass windows adorn the apse (made with the Medieval technique of "painting" the glass), creations of Sylvia Nicolas of the Netherlands.  Hopefully an altar rail will one day be included in the plan.     

The exquisitely wrought golden tabernacle is the work of our good friends at Granda in Spain (Lucas Viar did a terrific job, as usual).  Granda, it must be said, produces the finest new tabernacles seen today.  The Medieval-inspired tabernacle, pictured below, was designed in the shape of a little golden house with pilasters and architraves, plated in 24 carat gold.  It displays a scale-tiled roof crowned by decorative cresting and pinecone finals on each end.  A cross rises in the middle.  The door features a relief of Christ the Pantocrator enthroned in an oval mandorla, an almond-shaped aureola commonly seen in medieval art.  The exterior is decorated with foliated reliefs and fire-enamels in vibrant colors.  Even the interior is finely decorated, with a sunburst representation of the Holy Sprit depicted on the inside door with an oval medallion depicting the Agnus Dei on the back inside wall.  This beautiful new creation was inspired by an 11th century Romanesque masterpieces from the Mosan workshops.  In particular, it was influenced by a few historic chasse-style reliquaries such as the Three Kings in Cologne,  St. Servatius in Maastrich and Notre-Dame in Huy.  

The titular patron of the church, St. Thomas Aquinas, was the greatest scholastic the Catholic Church ever produced.  He taught that man's mind is raised to contemplation through material objects.  This is especially true with sacred objects and beautiful church architecture.  The new church speaks a language, expressing beauty, permanence and transcendence, teaching all who see it what it means to be Catholic.  Such a beautiful place of worship is a compelling invitation to all, especially the 4,000+ University of Virginia undergraduates, many of whom are from Catholic families.  The price tag is $13.4 million, worth every penny, with nearly all the funds already donated.  Congratulations to the Dominicans and to all the students, faculty, staff and benefactors on this great treasure for the university community.  In the words of Fr. Robert Spitzer,  SJ: "There is something intrinsically beautiful about the domain of the sacred.  It draws us to itself in a different way than other beautiful objects, and when we appreciate it (contemplate it), it pleases, fulfills, and enchants us, and most importantly, it brings us into the very heart of divine beauty - into the heart of God."

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