St. Thomas Aquinas Church at the University of Nebraska Newman Center – rejuvenating the Church’s architectural tradition and engaging souls

I have rejoiced at the things that were said to me:
We shall go into the house of the Lord….
Because of the house of the Lord our God,
I have sought good things for thee. – Psalm 121.

LINCOLN, Nebr. – About ten years ago, the Newman Center at University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) began facing up to a big problem that had been growing bigger each school year.

As part of the network of Newman apostolates around the country, the Catholic Cornhusker outreach on UN-L’s campus had a sterling reputation for drawing in students, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Young people plugging into the UN-L Newman Center’s catechetical, liturgical and spiritual programs come to learn more about the Catholic faith, revitalize their relationship with Christ through access to the sacraments, public prayer and private devotions, and graduate from UN-L, a 25,000-student institution, with a keen sense of how to live out their baptismal call to holiness – whether through the Catholic priesthood, consecrated life or married life.

But the Newman Center seemed to be doing its job only too well under the leadership of its two pastors, the late Monsignor Leonard Kalin and, for the past 17 years, Father Robert Matya.

Apparently the church which served as the spiritual home for Catholics on campus was getting too small for the droves of students attending Sunday Mass. Every nook and cranny of space was being occupied at each of the several celebrations of Mass each weekend.

All the same, ask anyone at the UN-L Newman Center and, as Father Matya would say, given the Church’s mission here on earth, that’s “a great problem to have.”

This phrase became such a byword at the UN-L Newman Center that they eventually integrated it into their solution – the newly built St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Newman Center complex.

Dedicated earlier this year on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 12, by Bishop James D. Conley, Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln, the new church replaces the older, smaller structure built in the 1960s. More than doubling the capacity of the older structure, the new building seats at least 650 people comfortably – with plenty of extra seating for another 100 or so people.

Designed and built by a team of architects and architectural experts who specialize in classical and ecclesial building design, the 60,000 square foot facility includes the church, a student center, parish social hall, rectory and office suites.

The team included Kevin Clark of Clark Architectural Collaborative3, Lincoln; Denis McNamara, associate director of the Liturgical Institute of Mundelein Seminary, Illinois, who provided many contributions to the design of the building as an expert in classical and ecclesial architecture; and James McCrery of McCrery Architects, Washington, D.C., who, with other architects around the country such as Duncan Stroik and Thomas Gordon Smith, is leading a revival in classical architecture.

A melding of classic architectural design and modern state of the art heating and cooling through an extensive geothermal system, the church boasts a 122- foot bell tower with a spacious interior, a 70-foot high crossing tower and almost 50-foot tall interior coffered ceiling.

“Great problem”

Perhaps the best evidence of the Lincoln Newman Center’s overachievement was the massive Mass attendance on campus: students show up to participate in liturgical celebrations in incredible numbers.

“We started adding Masses to our Sunday schedule,” Father Matya said. “At one point we had four Masses on Sunday.”

But the old St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel only seated 300 people at a stretch, Father Matya said, and “standing room only” had become the new norm for Sunday Mass.

“I saw kids walking in to Mass and they would see it was so full – there wasn’t even room to stand at this point,” Father Matya said. “So they’d turn around and walk out – which was frustrating for me.”

About eight years ago, Father Matya said, it was time for the Center to start thinking about ways to accommodate the overflow – which led to the inevitable talk about a building project. But where are university students going to come up with money for any sort of expansion effort? Further complicating the situation, the UN-L Newman Center, located near the center of campus, is locked into its location. The block-and-a-half area occupied by the Center left little room to build.

And so, Father Matya and the rest of the Newman Center staff realized something had to give.

That something was the Diocese of Lincoln, a trio of important architectural experts, and a group of committed benefactors giving the go-ahead to build a new St. Thomas Aquinas Church – what Father Matya sees as the diocese’s legacy to future UN-L students.

Originally, the plan was to renovate, Father Matya said, but the response from the diocese was an unexpected surprise.

When we went to the diocesan building commission, they rejected [the renovation] plan and said that we ought not to be putting that kind of money into renovating the current building,” Father Matya relates. “Instead, they said, ‘Why don’t you knock it down and start over?’…So we went back to square one.

“It was exciting – and a little daunting at first – but exciting in the sense that we could build something much more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and much more in the Church’s tradition of architecture.”

Bishop’s blessings

Like the architects involved in the project, Bishop Conley also has a keen appreciation and understanding of the classical tradition. A 1977 graduate of the University of Kansas, Bishop Conley, like his fellow KU alumnus Archbishop Paul S. Coakley (Archdiocese of Oklahoma City), participated in the renowned but short-lived (1970-1979) Pearson Integrated Humanities Program started by a trio of KU professors – Shakespeare scholar Dennis Quinn and classicists John Senior and Frank Nelick. Because the program focused on the great literary works of Western Civilization, it should come as no surprise that Bishop Conley understands the power of the new church’s design.

“We think the style and the whole structure of St. Thomas Aquinas Church will communicate beauty, and beauty attracts,” he said in an interview with Adoremus Bulletin. “We believe that students will be drawn to that. They already have. There are always students in there. They’re drawn to the beauty and lifted up.”

Even before the newly built church was dedicated, Bishop Conley said, it has “been the buzz of the city,” having become a prominent feature on Lincoln’s skyline – with only one other “temple” on campus standing taller – the UN-L football stadium.

“Everyone was struck by the fact that here was this brand new building being built according to a traditional architectural style, and that caused all kinds of curiosity and wonderment,” he said. “It caught everyone’s attention – everyone from the mayor of Lincoln to the president of the university to the faculty. Even my barber, who is not Catholic, would ask every time I came in for a haircut, ‘What’s that building for? What are they doing there?’”

Besides being a jewel in the diocesan crown of churches, Bishop Conley said that the new brick and mortar project for Newman also includes social and academic components – a Catholic fraternity for men, which was established with a residence on campus, two years ago, and a Catholic sorority for women, both in the Greek system. Bishop Conley said that the Newman Center is also planning to open the Newman Institute for Catholic Thought and Culture, offering a program of integrated humanities studies. The program will begin with a pilot lecture series in Fall 2015 with the first series of courses to be offered Fall 2016.

“The minds of students need to be fed through the intellectual tradition of the Church, and they’re taking these courses at a university which oftentimes are secular at best but can be hostile to the faith,” he said, noting that the new program “will offer a program of humanities studies in the great books where students will be able to take courses that will satisfy their undergraduate requirements for humanities and western civilization.”


With both a professional and personal connection to the building project, architect Kevin Clark was a Newman Center student at UN-L in the 1990s and as an experienced architect took the helm on the new church and complex project. But Clark’s connection to the Newman center, he said, goes back long before matriculation as a Cornhusker.

“I grew up in the Newman center,” he said. “I was from Lincoln and our high school youth group took us down to Mass one evening to meet the college students there. I walked in there my first Sunday of my first year on campus and that’s where it all began.”

Besides expertise and knowledge, Clark was also the likely choice because of his work for the diocese designing and building St. Gregory the Great Seminary, Seward, Nebr., in 2000 – but the Newman chapel was a whole new challenge for architect and patron alike. Thanks to the teamwork of Clark, McCrery, McNamara and Father Matya though, the challenges were met – and expectations exceeded.

“The diocese had never embarked on anything of this scale – this was very much a new endeavor for our diocese,” he said, adding that the finished product has been a success. “It is amazing to watch Catholics and non-Catholics participate in the physical beauty of the building. It’s part of their conversation, it’s an intrigue. There are quite a number of non-Catholics I bump into when I’m giving tours… They just want to be there, they just want to see it, and it has really become an element of the city’s fabric.”

The project also incorporated elements of a salvage operation, Clark said, by acquiring a collection of liturgical antiquities from closed churches, including a pipe organ rescued and restored from neighboring Cornerstone Methodist Church, Lincoln, and a pair of altars rescued from the now-closed Immaculate Conception Church, Youngstown, Ohio, and repurposed as St. Thomas’s altar of reservation and altar for the church’s Marian chapel.

Marian chapel. Since its official dedication, Clark said, he’s been reminded of the impact that UN-L Newman Center has had on his life by seeing all the students from surrounding Catholic schools visiting the church.

“All the grade schools have brought kids down for tours,” he said. “Back when I was finishing high school the only reason I knew about the Newman Center was that tour I took my senior year; but now fourth, fifth, and sixth graders know about it; they’ve visited it on their retreat tours. The building is working, it’s spreading this message of the impact of beauty and how it can change a place.”

“St. Thomas Aquinas Church is a beautiful symbol on campus – that we’re here to stay,” Clark added. “It’s saying that the Catholic faith isn’t changing, we’re committed, and we’re growing.”


As part of the design process, a meeting was held between the architects, the planning committee and Newman students.

At one point, said Clark, the meeting began to look less like an architectural discussion and more like a rock concert, as students began to hold their digital devices high in the air like cigarette lighters.

“They would Google a picture,” Clark recalled, “and hold up the picture on their iPhones asking, ‘Can we have a communion rail that looks like this?’ ‘Can we have a dome?’ ‘Look at this bell tower!’ Everyone was sharing images. It was an amazing scene.”

One student-inspired detail in the new church, Father Matya said, that has drawn comments has been the Communion rail at the entrance to the sanctuary which is employed in all Masses at the church.

“Some of the students stand but the vast majority kneel down to receive Holy Communion,” he said. “There’s something different when you kneel to receive our Lord than when you stand. We have students who come from all over, in state and out of state, but they all embrace that devotion…. I haven’t had one student say, ‘Why are we doing this, Father?’ All the acts of devotion that were almost stripped away for a number of years – when you reintroduce the students to these same devotions they fall in love with them.”

The church is also informed by a proper Catholic anthropology, Father Matya said, a perspective its designers understood well.

“God created us with the senses, and beautiful worship should engage the senses as well. What we see, hear and smell are all important aspects of how we function as people. A church should be something aesthetically pleasing and uplifting, so that when people encounter it, their senses are going to be uplifted by it and moved by it.”

Another reaction that people have had to the building, Father Matya said, is a sort of cultural shock and awe.

“I’ve heard so many people say ‘I didn’t know it was still possible to do something like this,’” he said. “Of course it is. I think what has happened is that in the last century the Church has taken the advice of architects because they’re the professionals and architectural styles have obviously moved and shifted in the last century. But things are changing because we’re asking more questions of the architects before we build a building and not simply saying, ‘OK, if that’s the way you think we should build, that’s the way we’ll build.’”

Brick and mortar theology

While the beauty and liturgical components of St. Thomas Aquinas Church are impressive, McNamara said, it was equally impressive that the project began at all.

“The fact that a Newman center could have such a campaign for such a big project and at such a high level is really an amazing thing by itself,” he said. “To have a sophisticated design, a sophisticated reengagement with the tradition, is pretty remarkable. Newman students – like most other students – don’t have money so it’s always hard for Newman centers to raise money. But they have alumni, and Father Matya asked plenty of people who had no connection to the Church to just help form Catholic culture at the university. There were people who contributed just because they loved the design or the mission.”

In addition, McNamara said, the project fully embraced what he calls “an eschatological orientation.”

“The eschaton is the time when Christ comes and all traces of the fall are removed from creation,” he said. “The Book of Revelation talks about no sin, sorrow or death, and everything is restored to glory, even better than it was in the Garden of Eden.”

Inherent to its architectural DNA, McNamara said, a well-designed Catholic church serves as an archetypal image of the eschatological vision in sacramental terms – culminating, in St. Thomas’s case, in the heavenly vision of Christ on his throne provided in the stained glass window in the sanctuary.

“In ancient churches you’d see mosaics of Christ in glory or the new heaven and the new earth and the angels and saints,” he said. “It’s very important that people connect the heavenly component of liturgy to their worship and the buildings they worship in.”

Whether expressed in word, image, sound or other media, McNamara said, the Church’s tradition is the anchor of the faith.

“We’re used to hearing the word of God proclaimed from scripture and the same scripture is handed from one generation to the next,” he said. “And we’re used to reading and preaching scripture according to the ear, but the Gospels are also oriented to the eye. You can read the Book of Revelation or see the Book of Revelation laid out before you in the art and architecture of a church.”

Contrary to what some Christians might say about the so-called “non-biblical” elements of Catholicism, McNamara said, St. Thomas Aquinas Church is a great example of how, strictly speaking, every classically built church is a “Bible church.”

“This Lincoln Newman church is about as biblical as Bible churches get,” he said. “The book of Revelation is on display, as is the Old Testament whereby the prophets speak about how the time at the end will be like the beginning. The new Heaven will be like it was in the Garden of Eden – centered on Christ.”

Living Legacy

Acknowledging that he’s inherited a strong and effective Newman ministry from his predecessor Monsignor Kalin, Father Matya said that now as then students are hungry for the truth.

“My sense is that oftentimes when we first meet students they’re confused and they’re looking for someone to lead them,” he said. “They want to know. They respond to good leadership in the Church beautifully, especially when it’s given to them in a way that’s reasonable and they can understand it and it makes sense to them. You can see this moment in their eyes, in the way they listen. There are these moments when it clicks for them.”

Because of the many points of interest – architectural, historical and spiritual – Clark sees St. Thomas Aquinas Church as the herald for a revival in Church architecture.

The new building, he said, “has a whole new level of detail and character and quality that a church hasn’t been built in this diocese with for a hundred years. All future projects will be looking St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel as something of the status quo. If it’s good enough for the students, it’s good enough for our home parish, which should be thinking of these elements as well.”

There are still stained glass windows and other items yet to be funded in the church and a financial debt of several million dollars to be paid down on the $25 million project. But benefactors remain generous – even current students have pledged almost $300,000 to the project. With this momentum behind the project, Father Matya is grateful that the Catholic faith has a secure future on UN-L campus.

“It’s helped me to live with an even greater sense of gratitude watching this church being completed and knowing it’s going to be there for generations of students who are going to come in the future,” he said. “This will be a place where they will foster very beautifully their encounter with God. We have debt still to pay on the building – and there will be more peace once that goes away – but already I’m seeing the way it affects students in a positive way, and that is very gratifying.”

Speaking of St. Thomas Aquinas Church: An Oral Commentary


The Pendentives

“In the crossing tower there are triangular shaped spaces called pendentives [a series of four constructive devices which allow a circular dome to be placed over a square room or elliptical dome over a rectangular room]. Normally, churches that have pendentives would have the four gospel writers depicted in the spaces because there are four of them. But since we already have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in the stained glass window in the sanctuary, and the bells in the bell tower are all named after the four evangelists, we thought we might want to do something different. There are statues of four saints who surround the main altar of St. Peter in Rome, each statue the work of Italian sculptor Giovanni Bernini (1598-1680).

The pendentives in St. Thomas Aquinas Church are painted versions of the statues of St. Helen [mother of Emperor Constantine who found the true cross], St. Veronica [who received the gift of Christ’s image on her veil after she comforted him along the Via Crucis], St. Longinus [who pierced Christ’s side with the lance and at the moment of Christ’s death testified that the man on the cross is the Son of God], and St. Andrew [the first of the Apostles chosen by Christ]). People come in and ask, ‘Who are those saints? Tell us about them.’ It invites visitors into more of the story of our faith. They’re intrigued by it. Who was St. Helen? They don’t know these stories and when they hear them they’re edified by them, because they’re beautiful.

At St. Peter’s, those four were chosen because Rome had relics of all four – the relic of the spear, the cross, the veil and the head of St. Andrew. So these images on the pendentives connect us to Rome, to the unity of the Church by having those images there, and they’re in St. Peter’s where the Holy Father is. Through these pendentives our church here in Lincoln draws the connection pretty clearly to the universal Church.”

– Father Matya, Chaplain, St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center, University of Nebraska, (Diocese of Lincoln).

newman_center_unl_4The Architectural Style

“Since the St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center is under the patronage of Blessed John Cardinal Henry Newman, the pastor Father Robert Matya and the architects chose a Gothic architectural style, inspired by the school of English architect Augustus Pugin (1812-1852), who was probably the most famous British architect of the 19th century. Architecturally speaking, his fingerprints are all over England. He was part of a Gothic architectural revival of great magnitude, and a lot of the universities adapted this style of architecture. The Gothic Revival is also associated with the flourishing of the Oxford Movement in England in the 19th century, of which Cardinal Newman was part and which led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism, and so we thought it was a good style of architecture for a college campus, and it would also invoke the spirit of Newman.”

– Bishop James D. Conley, Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln.

The Marian Altar and Altar of Reservation

“As part of the eschatological dimension of the architectural design, the altar of reservation and the altar in the Marian chapel were wooden altars which we found on a website by a private business that salvages items from closed churches. They were beautifully carved, much nicer than a lot of the newly built altars available for purchase, but they were all brown and all wood, and so I tried to encourage the designers to think about how they can make them more radiant and gemlike. The Book of Revelation and other passages in scripture describe the heavenly condition as having a gemlike quality. The walls of the heavenly Jerusalem are described as being made of gems and Christ sits on a throne that is like emeralds. The designers spent quite a bit of time with an artist who gilded and put color on those altars and also on the elevated pulpit. It came out really well – it has gold and jewel tones, like sapphire blues and ruby reds. It’s not just a well-wrought wooden altar, but it’s a wellwrought wooden altar that’s brought to its glory, the kind of glory it would have in heaven.”

– Denis McNamara, Associate Director, Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, Chicago.

The Sanctuary and Nave

“The sanctuary is oriented in a way that draws your eye upwards when the liturgy is celebrated. The whole purpose of a church is the liturgy. The sacred liturgy is at the center and focal point of the church. It’s so conducive to dignified and reverent celebration of the sacraments that you just sense it when you’re standing at the altar. It even has an effect on the celebrant. That’s my favorite aspect of the church – it draws everyone up to the heavenly court, which is what’s depicted in the stained glass window: Christ seated in his throne in heaven, and we on earth are participating in a humble human way in the heavenly liturgy. So with all the saints and angels depicted in the window, it really does give a sense of what we celebrate in our sacraments– our participation in the cosmic liturgy in heaven. Everything we did in the church tried to reflect the fact that the celebration of the liturgy has to be the most beautiful and transcendent thing that we do.”

– Bishop James D. Conley, Bishop of the Diocese of Lincoln.

Baptismal Font and Confessional Chapel

“When you walk in, you know the sacramental nature of each space; there’s a beautiful reconciliation and baptismal chapel that developed in the early days of the plan because we only have so many linear feet onsite. So when you come in you encounter that chapel right away. The two sacraments that allow us to enter and reenter the faith – baptism and confession – are right there at the entry way. Then as soon as you turn down the center aisle – there’s no question where Christ is. He’s directly in the middle and by that we mean he’s directly in the middle in the tabernacle, in the crucifix and then in this amazing stained glass window of Christ reigning in glory on his throne with the host of heavenly angels and patron saints surrounding him. You’re reminded one more time, wherever you’re looking in St. Thomas Aquinas Church – that’s where Christ is found.”

– Kevin Clark, Architect, Clark Architectural Collaborative3.

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.