Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - The new St. Thomas Aquinas Church on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) was dedicated on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 12 at 3 p.m., to the great joy of many students and supporters.
With a seating capacity of 650 – more than double the preceding church’s maximum of 300 – every pew was filled shoulder to shoulder. A few more people squeezed in on the benches in the baptismal chapel. Among the congregation were Governor Pete Rickets, Lt. Governor Mike Foley and U.S. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, all members of the Catholic faith.
Those who arrived a little early were able to test out the building’s excellent acoustics with the singing of the Divine Mercy Chaplet, led by members of the Newman Center choir. As other Newman Center students and FOCUS missionaries welcomed and ushered the many invited guests, worshipers could not help but look around in awe.
Designed by lead architect Kevin Clark of Clark Architectural Collaborative and James McCrery of McCrery Architects, the Gothic-style church is full of thematic artistic elements.
The altar of repose was salvaged from a church in Youngstown, Ohio, repaired, restored and decorated with touches of gold leaf and four crests to represent Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz, who were in office when the project began, along with Pope Francis and Bishop James D. Conley, who are in office now.
A raised ambo (pulpit) and baptismal font were purchased from England, shipped to the U.S. and refinished to match the altar. The altar of sacrifice and communion rails were built to match.
Geometric motifs are painted along each pointed arch. The 53-foot-high vaulted ceiling of the crossing tower is decorated with painted images of Saints Andrew, Helen, Longinus and Veronica – not coincidentally the same four saints whose sculptures surround the altar at Saint Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Curling between them are painted ribbons that contain the words of St. Thomas Aquinas’ moving hymn, “O Saving Victim.”
Along the walls, many windows allow sunlight to stream into the worship space. Many of these will be filled with stained glass as funding becomes available. In the spirit of New Evangelization, each pair of windows will reflect saints modeling spiritual virtues.
Behind the altar is an impressive stained glass window – the largest commissioned at Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany, since 1915. A triumphant image of Christ is centered in the top portion as various saints – many chosen after polling current Newman Center students – are depicted in worship, adoration and thanksgiving.
At 3 p.m. last Sunday, all quiet whispers within the new church ceased as the bells rang out one more time, signifying the beginning of Mass.
The procession began, including Omaha Archbishop George Lucas, Bishop Bruskewitz, Bishop Conley, pastor and chaplain Father Robert Matya, assistant pastor Father Benjamin Holdren, and many other priests, as well as seminarians and the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus honor guard.
Joyful voices from the Newman Center choir sang Psalm 122, “In domum Domini laetantes ibimus,” (“Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord”). They were accompanied by the glorious sounds of Opus 8, a vintage pipe organ moved from the old Cornerstone Methodist Church – which the Newman Center purchased to serve as temporary chapel and the site of the future Catholic sorority house – and newly refurbished and re-voiced by the original manufacturers, Lincoln’s Bedient Organ Company.
Speaking on behalf of architects Kevin Clark and James McCrery and construction superintendent Scott Kuhler, fundraising campaign chairman John Miller greeted Bishop Conley with the words, “This is the day that the Lord has made… and what a beautiful day it is.”
The keys and plans to the church were presented to the bishop, and the Mass of Dedication began in earnest with the sprinkling of Holy Water. During the prayers and readings, every “Amen” from the congregation rose to the ceiling, thundering down again as if joined with the voices of all the heavenly hosts.
In his homily, Bishop Conley noted how two years earlier, there had been nothing on that very site but a hole in the ground, and a lot of hopes and aspirations.
In an interview some days prior to the Mass of Dedication, Clark admitted that there were times he had his doubts.
“As an architect, you have a responsibility,” he said. “There were so many times when we could have stopped, and maybe should have stopped, but it just kept going.”
Jude Werner, director of development, agreed.
“There were times when we thought, ‘This is just too much. We’re going to cut something.’ But the [diocesan] building commission kept saying, ‘This is too important. You have to do it right.’”
Indeed, students were an integral part of the design process. It was students who wanted the communion rail. It was students who, when told they need only raise 1% of the costs of the Newman Center and St. Thomas Aquinas Church building campaign, chipped in $230,000 to date.
The rest, all agreed, has come through the influence of the Lord Himself.
“This church was built by the holy providence and grace of God,” Bishop Conley said in his homily. “God worked through the generosity of so many benefactors.”
He noted that the theme of Divine Mercy has always been present in this campus ministry and exhorted the staff and students to ensure that this would always be true.
“We worship as a church of sinners set free by the mercy of God,” he said. “This church must always be a church of mercy.”
After his homily, Bishop Conley embedded relics of Saint Thomas Aquinas and Saint Balbina into the altar.
Father Matya noted that Saint Balbina was a young woman who became a Christian after Pope Alexander I told her she would be healed by reverently kissing the chains that had once held Saint Peter. She and her father both became Christians by Pope Alexander I’s influence, and both were martyred in the year 130.
Following the entombment of these relics, the altar and the walls of the church were anointed with chrism oil. The lights were finally turned on, illuminating the church even more so, scarlet and cream flowers – UNL’s colors – were set out on the altar of repose, candles were lit, and Mass continued.
As Bishop Conley, Archbishop Lucas, Bishop Bruskewitz and the other concelebrating priests prayed the words of consecration, bells rang out, signifying Jesus’ physical presence coming into this sacred space.
At the end of the Mass, the Newman Center choir sang “Regina Celi” by Marco Frisina. Their final “Alleluia!” seemed to hang amongst the beams in the ceiling, filling the air with an almost tangible sense of satisfaction. Worshippers stayed on their knees or seated in the pews for a few moments longer, as though nobody really wanted to leave.
Then there were smiles and handshakes and cell phones brought out to photograph the impressive new church.
Joining in worship at the Mass of Dedication with their youngest of four children – baby Sam – Josh and Nikki Shasserre were among those who lingered and snapped photos. Mrs. Shasserre was employed by the Newman Center for roughly seven years before becoming a stay-at-home mother. She was visibly moved by the experience of seeing this new church dedicated.
“That moment when Jesus entered the tabernacle for the first time in this church will be with me for a long time,” she said. “I immediately projected forward to my children someday encountering Jesus here.”
From her perspective, the new Saint Thomas Aquinas church is more than just a bigger place to worship.
“This is the beauty and fruit of what has been done here for years,” Mrs. Shasserre said, joyful tears welling up in her eyes. “So many amazing things happened in the old Newman Center. So many of us came to our faith there… Now all that beauty and fruit is present in this church.”
She looked around once more at the altar, the “Lady Chapel,” the portraits of the saints in the crossing tower and held her baby a little closer.
“I am watching students seeking Christ on college campuses,” she said. “Being able to encounter this beauty is going to transform their lives, and that’s going to transform this campus, and that’s going to transform this community. And the world.”
Gothic church: thoroughly modern in all the right ways
Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - As classic as the new St. Thomas Aquinas church appears outside and in, if you were to dig down about 620 feet under the foundation, you’d see just how modern it really is.
Seventy-seven wells are scattered under the floors of St. Thomas Aquinas church, the Newman Center, and the parish hall between them. But they’re not there to supply water. These wells are part of a state-of-the art geothermal system that controls the heating and cooling in the offices and meeting spaces.
Geothermal systems use the moderate temperature deep in the earth, which remains constant all year long to heat or cool a building as necessary. During hot summer months, the water is pumped down into the ground, where it chills naturally before being pumped back up through the walls of the building to cool the air above ground. In the winter, the water has the opposite effect, warming the air in the buildings when outside temperatures drop.
All in all, there are roughly 19 miles of pipes running through the buildings and down into the well field. The system is estimated to be hundreds of times more efficient than traditional forced air. Some experts say a geothermal system can reduce heating and cooling costs by up to 80%.
That means that even though the Newman Center ministry is operating in a space nearly double the size, this HVAC system will help keep operating costs closer to what they were in the old facilities.
The church, with its soaring ceiling, will be heated in cold weather months via a highly efficient radiant slab system built into the floor.
“The heat will only go up about eight or ten feet,” noted Jude Werner. “But that’s more than enough” to keep worshipers comfortable.
Another modern touch includes the state-of-the-art sound system with panels discreetly painted to blend into the walls. The acoustics proved to be perfectly designed during the dedication Mass, when every person could hear every word without straining and the Newman Center choir sounded like hundreds of students instead of merely dozens.
Just to be sure, however, the church has headsets that hearing impaired worshipers can borrow if they need a little more amplification.
Few worshipers could have guessed that the classically styled light fixtures actually disguised long-lasting, energy-efficient LED bulbs. Instead of the typically bluish hue that one might expect from LEDs, the lighting in St. Thomas Aquinas church casts a warm, golden glow, more like candlelight.
If the confessionals on the western edge of the church seem remarkably roomy, that’s because they are fully handicapped accessible, as is the entire building. The offices, meeting rooms, social hall, hallways, restrooms are all designed for full accessibility.
The choir loft is included:it’s just a short elevator ride and an easily-navigable hallway to the choir loft door, which means any student who can sing can be part of the Newman Center’s talented choir.
“We have a freshman who uses a wheelchair, and she can get anywhere in this building by herself,” Father Robert Matya said.
Making a statement on campus
Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - Many students and alumni who were at the dedication Mass remembered the modest chapel that had once served Catholic university students in the area, with its cobalt blue stained glass.
“It was really blue,” said recent UNL graduate Brooke Choquette.
Acknowledging that her degree in art and art history might make her a little more finely tuned to aesthetics, Choquette said the beauty of the new church will be an invitation to many students.
“Some of my art and art history friends who aren’t even Catholic want to come see it,” she grinned. “There’s not a ton of churches like this that are more traditional.”
FOCUS missionary Jackie Fischer is in her first year at UNL, having attended Northern Arizona University in her home state. The new St. Thomas Aquinas Church is the antithesis of what she expected from Nebraska when she found out she was assigned here.
“It says that we are a real presence on campus,” she stated. “We want to welcome everyone to it.”
She continued, “We’re all searching for truth, beauty and goodness, and on college campuses, we’re not finding a lot of that.”
The beautiful new church, she said, “is drawing us to something greater. It takes the focus off ourselves and raises our hearts to heaven.”
The church is the third component in the Newman Center’s $25 million project to better serve the students at UNL, Nebraska Wesleyan University and other college campuses in Lincoln.
The first project was the Catholic fraternity, which houses more than 60 young men just to the east of the church.
Groundbreaking for a Catholic sorority is planned in 2016.
The second component was the newly expanded Newman Center, which is connected to the church via a multipurpose parish hall to the north.
Planned for even more expansion, it contains two large gathering rooms for students, offices and residences for three priests – although there is only Father Robert Matya and Father Benjamin Holdren at this time – many meeting rooms to host more than 100 Bible studies led by FOCUS missionaries each week, a practice room for the choir, and more offices where religious sisters and trained counselors can meet one-on-one with students.
“Alcohol abuse, suicide and depression are rampant on a college campus,” noted director of development Jude Werner. “We built this to serve the needs of our students.”
There is also office and classroom space set aside for a new center for religious studies. This program will be funded through the Joy of the Gospel capital campaign, going on now in parishes across the diocese. Bishop James Conley’s vision is to hire a professor to teach fully accredited courses on theology and philosophy.
The new Newman Center opened for student use last January, and it’s been abuzz with activity ever since. Students come to study their homework or study Scripture. They come to socialize in morally sound activities. They come for help in discerning vocations, dealing with family problems or romantic relationships, or other stressors.
“It’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around,” said sophomore Kiley Farrell as she relaxed in the Sandhills Lounge on a sofa that once resided at the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City. “When I first walked in, it seemed like it was someone else’s house.”
It didn’t take long for her and her peers to get comfortable, though. Farrell said it meant a lot to her and the other students that so many people would invest so much money on a college ministry.
“We want to build more on Christ than on construction,” she said. “The Church isn’t just the church. It’s the students. Without the students, there wouldn’t be any real meaning to it.”
‘Lady Chapel’ a beautiful place to pray
Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - While side altars dedicated to Our Lady are quite common, the full-fledged “Lady Chapel” at the new St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Lincoln is a uniquely beautiful place for holy hours and other times of prayer.
Separated by a wrought iron grille that was forged in Lincoln’s Haymarket district, this lady chapel features a beautiful altar – the matching piece to the main sanctuary altar – an elegant statue of the Blessed Mother, and rows of pews to hold the faithful.
The tradition of a lady chapel positioned next to the main nave is rooted in early British tradition. The earliest English lady chapel recorded in reliable historic accounts was in a Saxon cathedral built in Canterbury. The largest lady chapel of that era was built by King Henry III in 1220 at Westminster Abbey. During the ensuing centuries, lady chapels became a mainstay in French cathedrals and churches. The tradition worked its way into Italy and Spain during the Renaissance.
In St. Thomas Aquinas Church, the lady chapel serves practical as well as spiritual purposes.
“We have all-night adoration sometimes, and we’ll be able to lock the gates so the students feel a little safer,” Father Matya said.
The chapel is also the ideal size for smaller Mass gatherings and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
During the Mass of dedication last Sunday, a large heart-shaped locket was presented to Our Lady and hung around the neck of the statue in the lady chapel. Inside is preserved the name of each and every person who contributed to the building of the church.
Father Matya also plans to have students who complete the Total Consecration to Jesus through Mary – the devotional revealed to Saint Louis de Montfort – write their names on ribbons to be inserted into similar lockets.
“When the lockets are full, we’ll hang them around the walls,” he said.