For the last two years, Thomas Aquinas College students have watched eagerly as the long-awaited Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center took shape on the southwest corner of the California campus. This past Sunday, their waiting paid off as the Athletic Center — all but complete, save for a few finishing touches — had a “soft” opening for student use, with a formal grand opening and dedication planned for the fall.

“The satisfaction of knowing this would happen for years, and it’s finally happening, is amazing,” said sophomore Peter Bockrath. “I loved seeing how many people came out to play basketball and volleyball. I’m looking forward to more in the future.”

Made possible by a $15 million grant from the Fritz B. Burns Foundation of Los Angeles, the 17,000-square-foot Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center is easily recognized by its four-story clock tower, loosely modeled after the one in Santa Barbara’s historic City Hall. The tower contains two 31-foot-high scaling walls and a 13-foot-high bouldering wall — which were put to early and enthusiastic use at Sunday’s opening. Student instructors showed their classmates the literal and figurative ropes, eliciting thrilled grins and joyous laughter. Pairs kept each other safe, one climbing and the other belaying.

Meanwhile, two concurrent games of basketball thundered on the indoor courts. A rebound, a pass, a dunk — the games moved quickly as students tested the hardwood floors, the glass backboards, and the electronic scoreboard. Onlookers cheered their friends as the games shifted from one end of the court to the other.

Students also curiously explored the offerings in the men’s and women’s weight and exercise facilities. Some men spotted each other on the bench press while others took to the punching bag. Groups of jubilant students cheered on as one of their friends attempted box jumps.  “It’s really nice, especially compared to public gyms,” remarked Max Nunes (’24). “I’m really looking forward to working out with my friends.”

Outside the Athletic Center, the six-lane, 25-yard waveless lap pool awaits its first swimmers, pending county certification. The outdoor tennis and basketball courts still require a finish coat, but the newly installed baseball and soccer fields are complete, along with their bleacher seating. Facing the building’s arched vestibule, the new campus picnic area will host its first College Barbeque later this spring. Yet arguably the most important detail remains to be put in place — a statue of the building’s patron, Pope St. John Paul II, which will soon be installed in a niche beside the front entryway at the base of the clock tower.

From the earliest days of the Athletic Center’s planning and design, officials from the College and the Fritz B. Burns Foundation were unanimous that the late Holy Father — a lifelong athlete who wrote eloquently about what the human body can teach us about its Creator — would be its patron. Words from the Polish saint appear etched in the woodwork just below the ceiling in the center’s foyer: “Give thanks to God for the gift of sport, in which the human person exercises his body, intellect, and will … as so many gifts of his creator.”

The architect for the Pope St. John Paul II Athletic Center was Anthony Grumbine (’00), principal at the Santa Barbara office of Harrison Design, an alumnus of the College, and the father of three current students. “I think back almost 25 years ago, to my days at TAC, and remember playing basketball with then-president Thomas Dillon, who used to tell us that ‘one day there will be a great gym here at TAC, with gorgeous wood floors,’” Mr. Grumbine recalls. “What a privilege it is to be part of making that dream a reality!” RCI Builders of Thousand Oaks served as the contractor for the construction project, which the College’s vice president for operations, Mark Kretschmer, oversaw. Director of Student Services Scott Benigar will manage the day-to-day operations of the facility.

The Athletic Center’s soft opening was, by all accounts, a tremendous success, and in the days since, the facility has quickly become a regular part of student life, hosting basketball games as well as daily workouts. “It’s like a finishing touch to the campus,” says Dominic Andres (’24). “I’m so excited.”

Here, in a building named for a champion of sport and physical fitness in the lives of the faithful, Thomas Aquinas College students will train their bodies, refresh their minds, and discipline their souls to better prepare them for the work of Catholic liberal education. “We hope to utilize the building in a way that honors its namesake, Pope St. John Paul II,” says Dr. John J. Goyette, dean of the California campus. “And, in using it, we will always be reminded to pray for the benefactors whose generosity made this new building possible: The Fritz B. Burns Foundation.”