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Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel at Thomas Aquinas College
Santa Paula, California

It seemed like forever that the leadership of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California had wanted a chapel on its pristine secluded acreage amid the rising mountains of the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.

“It’s hard to remember a time when we didn’t always want it,” said Anne S. Forsyth, assistant to the president and director of college relations.

For a college that held several masses daily, its chapel was strikingly humble. Services were conducted in a corner of the dining hall. It seemed as if it was too much to wish for a chapel that represented the spirit of the four-year college that uses no textbooks but prescribes an interdisciplinary course of study based on the original works of the best, most influential authors, poets, scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and theologians of Western civilization. But, the school’s leadership continued to dream.

Toward the end of the century, Thomas E. Dillon, then-president of the college, traveled to Rome, where he attended a seminar on Sacred Architecture. He was struck by the lecturer, South Bend, Indiana-based architect Duncan Stroik.

In the years that followed, as the college began to move closer to its dream, the school’s plans for building the chapel progressed.

To generate ideas on what the chapel should look like, the school held a design competition. Remembering Stroik from the Sacred Architecture seminar in Rome, Dillon invited the architect to enter. Stroik’s design won the competition, and he was selected to design the chapel.

While education is the focus of the Catholic college, the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity chapel would serve as the most preeminent building on campus, sitting at the head of the central quadrangle.

Thus, it would need to reflect the liberal college’s mission. School leadership requested elements of Romanesque and the Spanish Mission tradition so popular in California.

They also liked the idea of an Early Christian basilica with columns and arches. Church leadership also wanted a cruciform. And, they wanted the chapel to be designed with durable materials and timeless style to last centuries. 

Stroik had his work cut out for him. For inspiration, he studied other California architectural traditions and examples, such as St. Mary Magdalene Chapel in Camarillo, St. Vinvent DePaul Church in Los Angeles, and the Pasadena City Hall building.

Then, Stroik began by developing a master plan that would evolve with the college as it grew over the years. The plans were later blessed by Pope John Paul II in 2003 before his death and by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Stroik designed a 14,500-square-foot chapel to accommodate 375 people with pew seating and up to 700 with the inclusion of temporary seating in the ample aisles of the main level. Cruciform in shape, the large chapel included a narthex, nave, side aisles, transepts, sanctuary, two sacristies, a 50-seat choir loft, and a three-story tower.

The building’s exterior was designed to embrace the simplicity of the California Missions and the sophistication of the Spanish Renaissance. The main façade is made of Indiana limestone with a triumphal arch entry at the ground level and a Corinthian pediment above. Fluted and spiral fluted columns along with Carrara statues of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas frame the central archway.

At the second level, Corinthian pilasters support a heavily carved pediment with angels supporting the coat of arms of the college and an eight-foot-tall Carrara statute of the chapel’s namesake. A barrel vaulted exo-narthex or loggia connects the front façade to the arcade, which surrounds the quadrangle. Doric pilasters with limestone detailing frame the limestone doorway, which includes an arched tympanum above and bronze paneled doors.

Inside, the chapel features classic marbles from all around the world, selected both for its permanence and its beauty.

“President Dillon went on multiple research trips to Italy with the architect to study the use of marble in church buildings, to select blocks and slabs and review carving in progress,” Stroik said.

Twenty Corinthian columns with 13-foot monolithic Botticino marble shafts line the nave, and 82 marble pilasters articulate the walls and define the nave, crossing and sanctuary. The 32-foot-diameter dome reaches 72 feet above the floor is supported by 23-foot Botticino pilasters and a composite entablature.

“The bronze Solomonic columns of the baldacchino, inspired by Bernini’s baldacchino in St. Peter, call attention to the Carrara marble altar and the elaborately carved marble tabernacle located in the apse. Four side altars made from Carrara marble have alternating columns fabricated from Rosso Levanto and Rosso Laguna marble,” Stroik said. “Calacatta Tirreno, Botticino Classico and Emperador Scura form a geometric floor pattern that reinforces the rhythm of the colonnades and the ribs of the ceiling vaults.  Generous marble floor slabs rest on a traditional mortar setting bed above an in-floor radiant cooling and heating system. Overall, more than 20 types of stone and marble were used throughout the chapel, each detail meticulously designed in accordance with the tradition of classical architecture.”

The $22 million masterpiece took three-and-a-half years to construct and was dedicated on March 7, 2009.

Standing out among green pastures and the Los Padres National Forest, the chapel is a focal point for passersby, many of whom stop by the school just to see inside.

“I think all of us have fallen in love with it,” Forsyth said. “It’s given the college a lot of attention,” reinforcing it as one of the preeminent new Catholic colleges in the country.

Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC, grows out of a commitment to the principles of classical architecture and urbanism. For more than a decade, Stroik has focused on the design of ecclesiastical, civic, residential, and collegiate buildings, which combine a passion for durability, function and beauty, www.Stroik.com.

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Religious Product News