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St. Thomas of Villanova Church

Silhouetted or sun-glistened, the twin spires of St. Thomas of Villanova remind onlookers that "A beautiful church is a sermon in stone, and its spire a finger pointing to heaven."

On March 29, 1883 ground was broken for the construction of the present St. Thomas of Villanova Church. The cornerstone, blessed by Right Reverend Jeremiah F. Shanahan, Bishop of Harrisburg, was laid in place on June 3, 1883. The ambitious building project was begun under the leadership of the Augustinian provincial, Father Christopher McEvoy, O.S.A. along with the pastor, prior, and president of Villanova College, Father Joseph A. Coleman, O.S.A. The church was completed in 1887 under Father Coleman's successor, Reverend James J. Blake, O.S.A.

Edwin F. Durang, the architect who designed the Gothic Revival style church, joined the prominent Philadelphia architectural firm of John E. Carver whose local work includes the design of Our Mother of Good Counsel in Bryn Mawr and the Motherhouse convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Merion. Durang modeled the majestic, 137-foot high twin spires of the Villanova Church after the south spire of the 13th century French Cathedral, Chartres. At the time of construction, it is supposed, the spires were the tallest man-made structures between the Delaware River and Lancaster.

The original church contained seven altars, four of them for the congregation, one in the beautiful side chapel of Our Lady of Good Counsel, and the other two in the retro choir. The main altar, which stood in the center of the sacristy, was made of Italian polished marble with Indiana stone filigree screen. The altar had two tables and double tabernacles, one facing the congregation, and the other choir. It was not unusual for two masses to be said simultaneously. However, as the number of religious increased the filigree screen had to be removed in order to enable all to see the service.

Early photographs of the church interior show a very ornate style of decoration, in keeping with the taste of the times, including faux marble and gilt on the columns and the walls. Some of the church's old world details included large oil painted murals of "The Assumption of St. Joseph" and "Our Mother of Good Counsel". Originally the seven-sectioned dome in the apse contained life-sized paintings in distemper of St. Thomas of Villanova, St. Augustine and St. Patrick, and oval medallions containing busts of the four evangelists. Deterioration caused these dome paintings to be replaced in the 1940's.

First Renovation of the Church

In preparation for the 1943 centennial, a major renovation of the Villanova Church was authorized by Augustinian Provincial, Reverend Father Sheehan, O.S.A. The entire church décor changed—it was repainted in subdued tones of ecru and taupe, and its decorative elements were greatly simplified.

In 1965, Vatican II called for major revisions when they announced a plan of aggiornamento, a doctrine aimed primarily at an openness to the modern world, coupled with a greater participation of the laity in the celebration of the mass. While this prescription did not create a problem for newly constructed churches, it did pose a significant challenge to the older Gothic style structures, such as Villanova, whose cruciform design was unalterable.

Father Henry Greenlee, O.S.A. oversaw the first significant modification of Vatican II when he commissioned the construction and installation of a temporary wooden altar which faced the congregation. Later, a permanent, smaller marble altar was installed on a single tier. The marble altar railings were also removed, opening the entire area to the fuller participation of the faithful.

Second Renovation to the Church

Through the years many emergency repairs had been made to the Villanova Church, but none addressed the larger projects of structural reinforcement, electrical updating, heating and air-conditioning and adequate sound systems which were needed. The parish and University communities agreed that the Church continued to deteriorate and that major repairs and improvements could not be postponed. In 1992 under the direction of Father Anthony Genovese, O.S.A., the church underwent a major renovation project.

Today's Church is nearly entirely whitewashed on the interior, and brightly lit by predominately blue stained glass windows. Many pieces of the original interior decoration have been preserved and moved to different locations. The windows on either side of the nave depict the life of St. Augustine.