The towering chapel in the heart of the University of St. Thomas opened its doors 100 years ago, a beacon for its mainly Catholic immigrant students who walked there to mass every day.
Fast forward to today, when the majority of students at the Catholic university belong to other Christian denominations or are Muslim, Jewish or other faiths. A new addition to the chapel, announced this week, reflects that transformation.
The $13 million renovation will include a multifaith meditation room and a sacred-arts gallery. It will house all campus chaplains, including those for Protestants, Muslims and Jews. It will offer a space where students of all faiths can participate in their spiritual practices.
“Buildings are symbols of what is important to you, and by expanding the chapel, we are showing that the faith lives of our students are a priority,” said the Rev. Larry Snyder, vice president for mission at St. Thomas.
Campus ministry offices and spiritual gathering spaces now are dispersed across the campus, he said. The expansion will create a centralized “spiritual heart” at the St. Paul university.
“We hope this center will enliven students’ spiritual journey during their time at St. Thomas,” Snyder said.
St. Thomas is among many Catholic universities across the nation expanding interfaith education and accommodation as the face of their student bodies and surrounding communities undergo significant changes.
Sadaf Rauf Shier, an associate campus chaplain who is Muslim, is thrilled with the concept of a central spiritual home. It will benefit not just the diverse student body but the campus as a whole, she said. Now, for example, the roughly 250 Muslim students on campus conduct their daily prayers in one of two prayer rooms or campus meditation rooms.
“The visibility of different faith traditions in one building is very powerful,” said Shier. “It says so much about our ability to coexist. And if we can do it in one school building, how can we not do it outside campus?”
Chapel stands out
The Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas has long held a special place in the hearts of St. Thomas students and its alumni. An architectural gem, it was designed by Emmanuel Louis Masqueray, the architect of the St. Paul Cathedral and the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis.
The 23,000-square-foot addition will not detract from the chapel’s position on the highest point on campus. The new space will be built underground, around the church, with glass walls allowing in light but not obstructing views of the historic chapel. The addition’s “roof” will, in parts, be covered with grass that will blend into the lawn surrounding the chapel.
The new center will offer a meeting room with seating for up to 300 people, an amphitheater for musical performances and improved facilities for the roughly 60 couples who marry at the chapel each year. The project also includes air conditioning in the original chapel.
It will be called the Iversen Center for Faith, in recognition of Al and Brenda Iversen, the project’s lead benefactors. About $11.2 million of the $12.7 million needed has been raised through private donations, the university said.
Opus Design Build is the designer-builder and Opus AE Group is the architect and engineer of record. The groundbreaking is slated for May 2019.
Snyder views the chapel expansion as an extension of former Archbishop John Ireland’s vision for the university. Ireland, who founded St. Thomas in the late 1800s, saw it as a place where all students could receive a quality education and spiritual growth. That mission lives on, he said.
Said Snyder: “I think he would look at this and say, ‘You’re putting in the missing pieces.’ ”