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."
View the Artwork in St. Thomas of Villanova Church
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,
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
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
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.