FAYETTEVILLE — Like countless Saturday’s before, University of Arkansas students clad in red and white strolled by the corner of the church as they made their way toward the stadium for a football game.
But Oct. 21, the atmosphere felt different as white tents with balloons, music and food beckoned passersby to stop, tour and bid their final farewells to church of the St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish at the corner of Leverett Avenue and West Douglas.
For more than 63 years, the campus church has welcomed students and faculty, nurtured their faith and hosted their weddings. Yet, the final chapter for the current St. Thomas Aquinas is being written as the parish begins preparations for the tearing down of the old church and the rebuilding of the new in the coming year.
Longtime and former parishioners felt the moment to be bittersweet. Many had memories of attending the parish as students or as a family and of being involved in the community. Deteriorating conditions of the building combined with continued student growth and involvement facilitated this decision for the parish and diocese.
Father Jason Sharbaugh, pastor since 2017, said the building, which includes a 240-seat chapel, student center and rectory, is antiquated and in disrepair.
“A repair or restoration of the building would have been less than even a ‘half-measure’ in responsibility for the future,” he said. “Moreover, with the disrepair the entirety of the structure was becoming more unmanageable and slowly more unsafe.”
“The church was not functional for current ministry needs as well as for capacity,” he added. “There was a great deal of dead space, a large multi-room rectory/living space and poor livable areas in the Student Union for people to be during the day and with retreats.”
For many, St. Thomas has been more than a church.
“It's so important to welcome students to campus. This becomes their home away from home,” said Theresa Cronan, who has worked with her husband, Deacon Paul Cronan, as faculty advisors since 1979. “It has been heartening over the years to see students grow and leave as young adult leaders.”
“I have lots of memories here,” said Laurie Brady, who was a student at UA and is now a faculty member in the Communications Department. “I became a parishioner at St. Thomas in 1987. But even when we moved our family over to St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville we stayed involved here by helping cook meals for students, being ministers in the Pre-Cana program and helping paint the Mother Teresa room.”
The parish plans to build a new church and student center on the same grounds.
In this transition period, space has been bought for church offices not far from campus on Township Avenue. Masses will be held on campus in the Student Union Theatre at the usual times. Goals are to finish fundraising for the $14.4 million project. So far, $13.1 million has been raised to begin abatement and demolition in December. Construction is set to begin in February.
According to Joe Candido, parishioner and Finance Council chair of St. Thomas, plans are to keep many of the church’s liturgical objects, such as the stained glass, statues and Stations of the Cross.
“It is a charming old church and by keeping some of the current items in the church, people in the new parish will have a sense of the past,” he said. “It is a very vibrant community. Allowing us to extend our offerings and rebuild will allow us to be able to show that vibrancy.”
The building process, Father Sharbaugh said, will last almost two years and the congregation can expect to be in the new church in late 2025 or early 2026.
“Our Masses are routinely overflowing to our hall and rooms away, which have televisions ready to livestream; this is even more so during family and Greek Life functions,” he said. “Parents and student’s families come from Texas, Memphis, St. Louis, Kansas City, Tulsa and Illinois. Home sports games also generate considerable numbers during football season.”
“Our Ash Wednesday service had the entire building full,” Father Sharbaugh added “and people were not only outside, but down Leverett Avenue.”
The beginning of St. Thomas reveals how this campaign connects the past with the future. In 1952, when Bishop Albert Fletcher appointed Father John C. O’Dwyer as full-time chaplain at the university, the Newman Foundation saw steady growth on campus. As student participation increased, it furthered the idea of building the Catholic center on campus.
Although it was a novel idea of locating a Catholic center at a public university, Bishop Fletcher recognized the need to further future faith in the diocese and secured a diocesan financial campaign from 1956-1957 that raised half of the funds needed to build the tri-unit building at the University of Arkansas. By April 1960, a dedication for the facility was held.
“Although this is a sad day, we are excited because more students will be able to attend Mass and participate in activities with our new church and student center,” Cronan said.
St. Thomas Aquinas is the third Catholic campus ministry building project in the past two and a half years. In April 2021 St. Leo University Parish reopened on the Arkansas Tech campus in Russellville. In September, the Catholic Campus Ministry building at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway was dedicated.
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