In recent years, the Catholic Church in the United States has witnessed something of a renaissance of traditional sacred art. After decades in which churches were built in the modernist style, architects are turning to traditional design when building or refurbishing churches, and artisans are being commissioned to create interiors that recall the beauty of churches from centuries ago.
The newly constructed Catholic church on the campus of the University of Virginia, which was dedicated by Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout on September 20, is the latest example of this return to traditional design.
The new St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish church, situated on UVA’s Charlottesville campus, was built in the Romanesque style. The church’s domed roof and columned facade is very much at home amongst the classically-inspired campus buildings that were part of Thomas Jefferson’s design for the university.
What sets the church apart, though, is of course, its purpose — to employ beauty to inspire the contemplation of the transcendent.
Since about 1960, Dominican friars have served the spiritual needs of Catholic students, as well as administration and faculty members. Their patron saint, St. Thomas Aquinas, according to the church’s website, “recognized that man’s mind is raised to contemplation through material objects, especially sacred objects and sacred architecture. By expressing beauty, permanence, and transcendence, a church building can teach all who see it what it means to be Catholic.”
To this end, when the friars set out to construct a church for their congregation of more than 4,000 undergraduates, they decided on a traditional structure that would “serve as a catalyst for a deeper commitment to our Faith.” The architectural firm of Cram & Ferguson, which is known for designing traditional churches, was chosen to design the new St. Thomas Aquinas church. The firm’s connection the Dominicans goes back to the early 20th century, when they designed several churches in the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.
Five years after planning on the new church began, Bishop Knestout dedicated the church, noting the timeliness of its opening — amidst the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic.
“Not only is St. Thomas Aquinas a beautiful church building, but it is a vibrant, undaunted community of faith, offering young people, students, staff and faculty of the University of Virginia a home and refuge in a time of uncertainty,” said Bishop Knestout, as reported by the National Catholic Register.
Dominican Fr. Joseph Barranger, pastor of the university parish, told Aleteia that that the architectural design of the church, and the sacred art within it, help the friars in their mission to share the Gospel.
“The church’s Romanesque architectural style was chosen because it provides us with the opportunity to evangelize through art, on the outside as well as inside,” said Barranger.
“As students and others walk past the church, they see a Tympanum (sculpture) over the front door depicting the pilgrim Christ encountering Saints Dominic and Thomas Aquinas on a road. Underneath is inscribed the famous saying of St. Thomas, “Nothing but You O Lord.” Over the other doors are inscriptions from Scripture. Inside, everything is designed to lift the mind and heart to God, from the blue painted and star studded dome, to the carved Pelican on the altar, and the carved eagle on the ambo,” he explained.
“Especially inspiring are the Romanesque arches and pillars and the Sylvia Nicolas stained glass windows in the apse depicting symbols of the Holy Eucharist. Sylvia is a world famous stained glass artist and sculptor. She carved the inspiring suspended crucifix in the Romanesque style,” said Barranger.
The new church has already borne fruit, and welcomed through its doors Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“The church has been received with great enthusiasm by our UVA students, other parishioners, and members of the UVA community,” he said
“The students are really taking ownership of the new church. They love it, and had important roles to play in the Mass of Dedication. People both Catholic and non-Catholic are coming into the church to pray.”
Since the project began, the Dominican friars have raised $10.6 million of the $13.4 million the church cost to build. Fundraising efforts continue, and donations can be made at https://stauva.org/our-church-building.