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Bishop Taylor decommissions Fayetteville college church

St. Thomas Aquinas deconsecrated as demolition begins

Published: December 11, 2023   
Travis McAfee
Pastor Father Jason Sharbaugh distributes Communion to parishioners and alumni Nov. 28 during a decommissioning Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish in Fayetteville.

More than 200 students and Catholics in Northwest Arkansas experienced a rare Mass Nov. 28 when the church of St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish at the University of Arkansas was decommissioned. 

For more than 63 years, the church has served Catholic students and staff, but as the population grows on campus, a newer building is needed to better serve the community. 

A new church is set to open in late 2025 or early 2026 in the same location, but before construction can begin – and even before the demolition of the current building can begin – the university parish's church had to be deconsecrated, or decommissioned. 

Father Andrew Hart, diocesan theological advisor, said Church law provides parameters for understanding the consecration and deconsecration of a church.

“In canon law, a church is a sacred building set aside for divine worship,” Father Hart said. “If a church can no longer be used for divine worship, or if there is some other grave reason, then the diocesan bishop may allow it to be used for a non-sacred (‘profane’ or ‘secular’) purpose, but not one that is ‘sordid’ or ‘unbecoming.’” 

Canon 1222 of the Code of the Canon Law, Father Hart said, offers details on the requirements of what a bishop must do prior to making such a declaration. He said a decommissioning Mass is done as “a final service of divine worship,” removing sacred objects like the altar and statues.

Father Jason Sharbaugh, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas since 2017, said this Mass held a lot of symbolism.

“When we came into Mass, we were dressed in white — white is never about the end, it’s about the resurrection,” Father Sharbaugh said. “The readings came from the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas … Bishop (Anthony B.) Taylor spoke on our transition.”

Campus minister Adam Koehler, who lectored during the Mass, said the decommissioning Mass was “very bittersweet in a lot of ways but much more sweet than bitter.”

“Throughout the day yesterday, I was feeling many different emotions in reflection and preparation for the evening’s Mass,” Koehler said. “St. Thomas has been my work home for the last eight and a half years, and it also was my home away from home during my time in undergrad at the University of Arkansas from 2008 to 2012. As the Mass approached, and I saw everyone entering the church one final time for Mass, I was filled with joy, peace and gratitude.”

Deacon Norm DeBriyn, Capital Campaign Committee chairman, said the Mass provided an opportunity to look to the future.

“I love St. Thomas, and the new church and student center will impact so many for years to come,” DeBriyn said. “Father Jason led the charge, and we are so thankful for him and what the team has accomplished; it was so needed — the building was beyond repair. I was at St. Thomas in the early 70s, then to St. Joseph in Fayetteville during (diaconate) formation, and I went back to St. Thomas in 2010. … We were so grateful to be with the students and staff and friends there.”

Following Communion, Bishop Taylor read the decree of deconsecration. The decree states the church “has fallen into disrepair; is no longer of adequate pastoral service to the faithful; requires demolition in order to construct a new, adequate church on the same grounds; and would be cost-prohibitive to update or expand, such that there is no realistic possibility of repairing it.”

“Those words are strong,” Father Sharbaugh said. “But it lets you know that the words of blessing are equally strong. … words bring about sacramental realities, and they bring about blessings and the removal of that blessing so we can demolish that which was once blessed.”

Now that the parish church has been decommissioned, Father Sharbaugh and staff are working to remove the “sacred objects and religious artifacts” still in the church.

“Sacred objects are not thrown away; they’re either given to certain people or put in the new church,” Father Sharbaugh said. “We’re in the process of going through that with other usable things, such as our pews. Those are going to go to Our Lady of Sorrows in Northwest Arkansas. 

“We’re going to take our altars with us. … There are things like our stained glass windows that have a number of saints and doctors of the Church and, of course, St. Thomas Aquinas himself. Those things will be in our new church, and they’ll be backlit. Our organ will be placed at the front of the church.”

Father Sharbaugh said that while some religious artifacts might not be in the same rooms or locations that they were in the old church, they will still be present in the new building. 

Some objects will also be given to other parishes and dioceses. 

“For example, at the Archdiocese of St. Louis, they’re slowly doing some consolidation of parishes … as some parishes and schools are closing, they have what’s called a reclamation center,” Father Sharbaugh said. “So different objects that they have had are in a warehouse that people can come in with a bishop’s approval to take. … I’m also looking to see if there is something that we need in our new church there as well.”

Father Sharbaugh and the parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas are excited for what lies around the bend.

“This morning, as I reflected (on the Nov. 28 Mass) I thought of Brother Richard Sanker, at Catholic High School in Little Rock, where I graduated in 2008,” Koehler said. “Brother Richard has always been known for his short and witty jokes and has been a wonderful mentor at Catholic High for many, many years. He would always tell his students to ‘keep your doors open.’ The doors currently at St. Thomas Aquinas may be closing, but Christ has opened the doors wide for the ‘Light on The Hill’ and the future of Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of Arkansas. 

“I’m so excited for the direction of the ministry moving forward and the new home away from home that the new church and student center will provide for years and years to come.”

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