The Church Building as Sacred Place Embodied in Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel


By Roseanne T. Sullivan
The Latin Mass Magazine, Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition
Winter/Spring 2021
Reprinted with permission


The intention of magnificence is the production of a great work. Now works done by men are directed to an end: and no end of human works is so great as the honor of God: wherefore magnificence does a great work especially in reference to the Divine honor. Wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. iv, 2) that “the most commendable expenditure is that which is directed to Divine sacrifices”: and this is the chief object of magnificence. For this reason magnificence is connected with holiness, since its chief effect is directed to religion or holiness. —St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity ChapelIn March 2012, actor Anthony Hopkins was on a drive in the Topatopa Mountains near Ojai, California north of Los Angeles when he caught a glimpse of the magnificent dome and bell tower of the Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. It was an unexpected sight to see peeking above the treetops along curving, scenic, two-lane California State Highway 150. Captivated, he turned in through the front entrance of what turned out to be the west coast campus of Thomas Aquinas College. While he was looking around and admiring the campus, which is set idyllically in a landscaped meadow surrounded by forested foothills, he met some of the college administrators, who invited him to come back to talk to the students a few days later.

When Hopkins returned, he said this to the students in his brief introduction to an informal question and answer session, “I was driving past and I saw the Chapel tower, and so I called in here . . .. I feel very privileged to be in such a place. I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in my life. It’s most amazing. It’s like Shangri-La!”

Hopkins returned again to the campus for a similar Q&A session in 2019. This third time he stopped by, the college administrators showed him the campus’ newest building, St. Cecilia Hall, and he played a few pieces, among them his own compositions, on two of the performance hall’s pianos.

The beauty of the chapel has that effect, like a magnet that draws people, who, one hopes—in time perhaps—might come and learn and experience the other spiritual beauties of what the college—and the authentic Catholic Faith that it is designed to teach its students—have to offer, even if their faith is weak or nonexistent to begin with. If their faith is strong, such beauty can serve to strengthen it even further.

“Beauty will save the world,” is quoted so often that it might seem to be a cliché, but it actually is a misquote. The words Fyodor Dostoevsky put into the mouth of the guileless Prince Myshkin in his novel The Idiot, are, “I believe the world will be saved by beauty.” This thought resounds with many, but if it is true, we have to answer these questions for ourselves: “What kind of beauty will save the world? Isn’t Christ the only savior?” Pope Benedict XVI suggests the answers in his “Meeting with Artists,” that authentic beauty makes us long for the Other, and Christ is the Other for Whom we long.

 “Authentic beauty . . . unlocks the yearning of the human heart, the profound desire to know, to love, to go towards the Other, to reach for the Beyond. If we acknowledge that beauty touches us intimately, that it wounds us, that it opens our eyes, then we rediscover the joy of seeing, of being able to grasp the profound meaning of our existence.”

How Stroik and TAC Created Authentic Beauty

A stunning nighttime photo of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel is featured on the dust jacket of architect Duncan Stroik’s The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal[1], and in many photos throughout the book. The chapel was built according to Stroik’s design.

The chapel is dramatically situated at the head of the quadrangle of campus buildings, reminiscent of the Palladian layout of the University of Virginia, but with the chapel in place of Jefferson’s rotunda. The front of the church—with its 135 ft. bell tower drawing our gaze up to the heavens—is viewed with the backdrop of the foothills behind it, which raises our gaze up even higher.

In 2018, when I was on a campus visit with the family of two of the students, I was fortunate to be offered a tour of the chapel by Peter DeLuca, then-Vice-President for Finance and Administration and Chris Weinkopf, then Communications Manager. They generously explained to me the history and the symbolism behind the various elements of the design as we went along. For several years now, I’ve kept the well-prepared brochure and other materials about the chapel that they gave me, along with a review copy I requested from the publisher of architect Duncan Stroik’s book, The Church Building as a Sacred Place. I sincerely planned to write an article about it right away, but I was blocked for a long time because I didn’t know how to begin to write about this topic that has been so well written about already by so many others—similar to how I felt about writing about Italy after my first and only pilgrimage there at the beginning of the Holy Year 2000.

This article is written partly to fulfill my obligation and to express my gratitude to the college administrators for their tour and to the publisher for the review copy of their $75 book. But my main hope in writing this now is to summarize this remarkable old-news story, and to tell about the beautiful chapel and the extraordinary architect who designed it to an audience of readers who may not have heard about it before, so that you all may be edified too.

Classic Architect Duncan Stroik

Architect Duncan Stroik is director of the Institute for Sacred Architecture and a Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, founder of Sacred Architecture Journal[2]. He is also a skilled practitioner, an eloquent teacher, and dedicated proponent of the type of classical sacred architecture he champions.

Stroik uses photos of the spectacular chapel along with photos and drawings and tables of the proportions of classic churches from Rome and other places in Europe and America in his lavishly illustrated book to define the elements of traditional Church architecture and to demonstrate how they are being used in a Renaissance of sacred architecture. These elements are being used again today by architects who are trained at Notre Dame University and elsewhere in the creation of worthy churches—and without creating uninspired copies of what has been done before.

In contrast to the good examples, Stroik also uses photos of other kinds of modern churches that vividly show some of the many appalling ways modernist architecture has failed to give us worthy churches.

Any pastor, head of a religious community, or committee thinking of remodeling or building a new church should read this book, as well as any architect aspiring to design Catholic churches.

Creating Something New by Including the Past

The goal of many modern architects is to create something new, by throwing away the past. Stroik created something new with Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel, but he did it by skillfully incorporating many elements from the traditional language of Church architecture.

In spite of its use of classical elements, there is no other building like it. Adoremus Bulletin calls Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel “A Triumph of Sacred Architecture.” The design is remarkably successful in achieving one of most important goals of an aptly designed church, to be a catechism in stone.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel

What the Patrons Wanted: Almost Everything

“This was a very interesting client with a Great Books program, where they read literature and philosophy from the ancient Greeks to the moderns,” says Stroik. “So, they really wanted their chapel to become the image for the campus, to embody that sense of the great periods of literature and the major buildings from the great periods of architecture[3].

An Architect Magazine article[4] records how Stroik’s clients at Thomas Aquinas college gave him a wish list of various architectural elements that had never been combined before.

Stroik’s main contact and collaborator at the college was its president, Dr. Thomas E. Dillon. For twelve years, Dr. Dillon had worked to plan, to raise funds, and to find the right architects to create “a church that teaches” for the campus.

His vision was a chapel “that, through its very form and details, would bear witness to the truths of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. Like the College’s classical curriculum, its design would draw upon the best in Western civilization, incorporating numerous elements from the Church’s rich legacy of sacred architecture and reflecting the College’s fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church. . . . Dr. Dillon studied ecclesial architecture and visited some of the great churches of Europe as well as the missions of California. He even arranged to transport its 765-pound cornerstone to Rome for the apostolic blessing of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI[5].”

What did Dr. Dillon and a group of others at TAC, many of whom had founded the college in 1971, ask Stroik to include in his design? Just about everything—except a baptismal font.

Current diocesan requirements for new and remodeled church usually mandate that a baptismal font, suitable for baptism by immersion, be located at the entrance to the nave. The college was able to work around the practical limitations of having a large baptismal font obstructing the main aisle and the valid theological objections to having the baptismal font inside the church proper by omitting it completely; the chapel is not a diocesan church and as a college chapel it is exempt.

No baptismal font, but they wanted just about everything else. “Elements of Romanesque and the Spanish Mission tradition in California—and we tried to look at where it came from in Spain,” says Stroik . . . . “The really interesting kicker was, they liked the idea of an Early Christian basilica, with columns and arches. And then they wanted the cruciform.” And a Renaissance dome. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness. That’s never been done—or hasn’t been done much,” Stroik recalls.

“His clients wanted all the great Western religious architecture in one building, he explains: ‘They thought that was the most conservative thing they could do.’”

A conservative, after all, is someone who wants to conserve what is good and worthy to preserve it from being lost.

A Bold Answer to the Modernist Project

Following are some more of Stroik’s thoughts about the relation of the chapel design to the college’s Great Books program, recorded in an edition of the Thomas Aquinas College newsletter:

"The chapel design is based on the same philosophy as the college's Great Books curriculum. By studying the finest examples of church architecture from the last two millennia, we sought to understand both universal principles as well as specific architectonic and iconographic details. The chapel is a twenty-first century classical building and will employ all the benefits of modern technology as they apply to structure, earthquake codes, sound systems, lighting and cooling. And much like our forebears five hundred years ago in the Italian Renaissance, we have sought to look both to the architecture of the city of Peter and Paul, as well as the architecture of our own backyard."

One hidden piece of impressive modern engineering enables the marble columns that line the nave to safely hold up the chapel’s clerestory in case of earthquake. (The nave is the center part of a church set apart for the laity, and clerestory is a row of windows in the upper part of the wall of a church that divides the nave from the aisle, or the part of the wall in which the windows are set.) The marble columns were drilled all the way through vertically with nine inch round holes in their centers so they could be lowered during construction over full length steel bars!

The 34-foot-high baldacchino (canopy) over the altar that fittingly draws attention to the central sacrifice of the Eucharist is supported with twisted Solomonic bronze columns reminiscent of the baldacchino at St. Peter’s in Rome. In the Thomas Aquinas College chapel, the twisted bronze columns are hollow, with separate steel frames inside.

Behind the limestone façade and the stucco on the outside, steel, concrete, and rebar strengthen the structure further to withstand California’s earthquakes. The chapel’s dome is made of curved steel beams set on a masonry base. And the bell tower with its three bells that symbolize the Most Holy Trinity is made of aluminum painted to blend perfectly with the white limestone and stucco of chapel’s exterior.

"The classical impulse is interested in both tradition as well as innovation in architecture, and so this chapel in its own way seeks to be part of an evolutionary, as distinct from a revolutionary, tradition. Today we are in a modern day Renaissance and are coming out of a modernist 'dark ages.' Thus, this chapel should be seen as a bold answer to the modernist project. Following T.S. Eliot, I believe that a work of art which embodies the Western tradition will not only be changed by the past but itself will help us see the past in a new way[6]."

Stroik and Dr. Dillon traveled to Italy together to study the great examples of sacred architecture. After nine years of their close collaboration, the chapel was dedicated on March 7, 2009.

Shockingly, Dr. Dillon was killed in an automobile accident less than six weeks after the chapel was dedicated, and the first funeral Mass offered in the chapel was for him. It is a comfort to realize that the chapel he worked so long to bring into being stands as an eloquent witness to the sacred mysteries he wanted the chapel to embody.

Writing in a testimony to Dr. Dillon in an editorial in Sacred Architecture, Duncan Stroik observes: “Behind every great building and its architect there is a visionary patron. Someone who thinks big, takes risks, raises funds, and above all recognizes the significance of architecture.[7]” Dr. Dillon was that visionary patron of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel.

The Latin Mass at TAC

John Gartonzavesky, one of the Thomas Aquinas college students I’ve visited with his family a few times, is from a sacred-music-knowledgeable, talented family of five brothers who all attended the same oratory staffed by the Institute of Christ the King that I attend in San José. John sang in the Thomas Aquinas schola from his freshman year, and now currently in his senior year, he is the schola’s director. I checked in with John a few days ago to find out the status of the Latin Mass there. 

John’s schola is permitted to sing at the traditional Latin Masses from the choir loft at the High Mass on Sunday. So, students and faculty are able to enjoy not only the traditional Latin Mass in that gorgeous setting, they are able to enjoy the singing of the Mass. 

Traditional Latin Masses are scheduled Monday to Friday at 7 a.m., Wednesday at 5 p.m., and on weekends at 7:15 a.m. The public is not allowed because of COVID. All three of the college’s priest chaplains take turns to celebrate the TLMs. Two other Masses are offered each day in the Ordinary Form. When I asked John about attendance, he told me that most of the student body is for the traditional Latin Mass, but only about one-third of the students attend it. He suspects there would be a good many more if the Latin Masses weren’t scheduled for such an early hour. 

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel

Do Catholic Churches Need Catholic Architects?

In his chapter “Vocatio Architecti: On the Vocation of the Architect,” in The Church Building as a Sacred Place, Stroik writes about the responsibility of the artist who serves the Church in any capacity, starting with a quote from Pope Saint John Paul II’s Letter to Artists[8], “In order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art. Art must make perceptible, and as far as possible attractive, the world of the spirit, of the invisible, of God.”

Stroik also writes about who the artist—the architect in his case—must seek to serve, “The Catholic architect understands that after the patron, the zoning board, the building committee, and the bishop, his ultimate patron is the father above, to whom he must eventually answer. . . . Many of us . . . have been trained to see architecture as self-expression rather than as ‘noble ministry.’”

The spiritual discipline required to carry out the church architect’s noble ministry requires a humble believer who prays and fasts and who meditates on how best to communicate the saving message of Christ: “Designing a church can be likened to painting an icon, which is a spiritual act, done with prayer and fasting. The church building itself is not unlike a well-conceived sermon or a theological text, both of which must communicate the message entrusted by Christ to the most diverse group of people.”

Humility, therefore, is essential when designing sacred buildings. The architect must be well-learned in the classical traditions. Only when equipped with knowledge of the Catholic Church’s architectural heritage should he or she humbly seek to create buildings that use the traditional language of sacred architecture.

Modern architects seem egotistically to seek to create original buildings the like of which has never been seen before. Such creations often do not speak to those who see them about anything except the originality of the architects who designed them and the up-to-the-minute taste (however lamentable) of the patrons who fund it, even if they baffle and outrage others who expect beauty and suitability in the design of their churches.

In Ugly as Sin, which Stroik recommends to anyone planning to remodel or build a new church, Michel S. Rose refuted the “notion that lovers of traditional-style churches are motivated simply by taste or nostalgia.” In fact, badly designed churches “actually distort the Faith and lead Catholics away from Catholicism. . . . Modern churches actually . . . lead Catholics to worship, quite simply, a false god. “

Shouldn’t We Give the Money to the Poor Instead of Building Beautiful Churches?

Rev. Father John Saward in Sacred Architecture Journal, asks the rhetorical question. “Is there a place for the beauty of the ‘liturgical arts of chant and ceremonial, iconography and architecture’ in what Pope Francis calls ‘a Church which is poor and for the poor’?” He continues, “It would seem there is not. . . .The case against the sacred beauty of the liturgical arts appears to be overwhelming until we recall a dinner long ago in Bethany. In our mind we see the tears of a penitent woman as she pours sweet-smelling ointment over feet soon to be pierced by nails, and we hear the protest of a man who is a thief and a traitor: ‘Why this waste? The ointment might have been sold for a large sum, and given to the poor.’ And as we think about this meeting of humble love with hypocritical indignation, the words of the eternal Word incarnate resound in our conscience with new force: “She has done a beautiful thing for me. . . . The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always” (Mt 26:10f). . . . [B]y His Holy Spirit, throughout the centuries, He inspires the Church, His Bride, to see herself in the person of Mary of Bethany and to do beautiful things for Him, to lavish the loveliness of her love upon Him in the liturgical arts of chant and ceremonial, iconography and architecture. Saint John Paul speaks for the whole Tradition when he says:

“’The Church is not afraid of being “wasteful,” and devotes the best of her resources to expressing her wonder and adoration before the unsurpassable gift of the Eucharist.[9]""

(The rest of the essay is well worth reading for its many other excellent insights.)

Similarly, Duncan Stroik in his title for Chapter 15 in his book turns the question around: “Can We Afford Not to Build Beautiful Churches?”

He writes that well-constructed and preserved churches are an “important venue for fostering faith.” He quotes Cardinal Saint John Henry Newman who wrote that a true Christian “will feel it suitable to lay out his money in God’s service, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to educate the young, to spread the knowledge of the truth, and among other pious objects, to build and to decorate the visible House of God[10].”

He also mentions that churches are open to everyone and are in a sense owned by everyone, including the poor. My family was lower middle class, and we didn’t have luxuries, but the beauty of the sacred objects and decorations of gold and marble, velvet, and art were ours to enjoy and brought luxury in the service of mystery that enriched our lives.

 Can We Even Afford to Build Beautiful Churches Anymore? 

In the chapter titled, “Building or Renovating the House of God: Advice for Pastors and Laity,” Stroik writes, “The laity need to be inspired, challenged, and asked to sacrifice for their children, their community, and the Lord.”

Stroik’s experiences with Dr. Dillon at Thomas Aquinas College are illustrative, “Because he [Dillon] was constantly looking at and thinking about great architecture, he saw that our project would be measured against these exemplars. . . . In this case, the comparisons inspired higher quality in design and materials—mahogany, marble, bronze, and limestone. Higher quality meant that he needed to convince others and raise more funds. This was true of the columns and pilasters of the nave that had been designed as painted plaster, were upgraded to limestone, then to travertine and eventually became single shafts of botticino classico marble. Their significant increase in cost was difficult to stomach, yet when the building was complete everyone saw how right he was to advocate for them.” 

Stroik writes that we have to remember that we are building a Church for the future. He writes, “One of the difficulties today is that dioceses have made requirements that a parish have fifty percent of their money in hand before they break ground, and that they pay off their mortgage in five years. If banks had requirement like that, very few parishioners could own their own homes. Dioceses, and Catholics in general, need to return to the practice of our forefathers: constructing a church is a long-term spiritual investment, and a worthy building could take fifteen or twenty years to pay off.”

When I was growing up in Massachusetts, beautiful lavishly decorated stone churches were on many street corners. They had been built by poor immigrants who gave sacrificially from their small incomes. Stroik asks a question I ask myself, “Shouldn’t we be as able today to construct a building as beautiful as those built at the beginning of the twentieth century by our poor immigrant forebears?” And the answer is, “It cannot be that we lack the money: American Catholics are very well off.”


More Information:


[1] Stroik, Duncan G. The Church Building as a Sacred Place: Beauty, Transcendence, and the Eternal. Liturgy Training Publications, 19 December 2012.

[2] Stroik, Duncan G., Ed. Sacred Architecture Journal. Institute for Sacred Architecture.

[4] McKee, Bradford. Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel. The Journal Of The American Institute Of Architects. 9 December 2009. Retrieved 15 March 2021.

[5] A Church that Teaches.

[6] Author unknown. “Thomas Aquinas College Newsletter,” Winter 2003 Special Edition, p. 10 and 11.

[7] Stroik, Duncan G. Editorial: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam et Beatae Mariae VirginisSacred Architecture Journal. Institute for Sacred Architecture. Spring 2009. Retrieved 15 March 2021.

[8] Pope Saint John Paul II. Letter to Artists. 1999. 12. Retrieved 15 March 2021.

[9] Seward, John. The Poverty of the Church and the Beauty of the LiturgySacred Architecture Journal. Institute for Sacred Architecture. Spring 2017. Retrieved 16 March 2021.

[10] Newman, John Henry. Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol 6. (Charleston, SC: Nabu Press, 2010), 20.