By Dr. Al Delahaye
The 50th anniversary of the Community of St. Thomas Aquinas will be observed at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 25, at an anniversary Mass with the Rev. André Melancon as celebrant and homilist. The observance, planned by the Pastoral Council, whose president is Billy Naquin, will include a reception in the Cotillion Ballroom beginning at 11:45. There will be food, door prizes, music, a silent auction, a historical slide show and a skit by students from the Campus Ministry.
In the late 1950s, when New Orleans Archbishop Joseph Francis Rummel included a Nicholls Catholic Student Center in a $3 million “Campaign of Progress” fundraiser, no one envisioned that the first big problem would be acquiring a building site. Nor did anyone envision a 50th anniversary Mass on Jan. 25, 2015, or a follow-up reception in a student union that back then did not exist.
Owners of property across the street from the campus half a century ago chose not to sell, most equating a student center with a fraternity house, so the archbishop knew that somehow the center would have to be built on the campus. But the state attorney general ruled that the Louisiana Board of Education had no authority to sell Nicholls land. But it did have authority to lease no more than one acre for 99 years or less, generally for fraternity houses.
Houma Mayor Leon Gary, a Catholic board member, and Nicholls President Charles C. Elkins, a Baptist, strongly favored a religious center on the campus.
Finally six plots were created on paper, a Thibodaux appraiser was called in and Gary asked the board to grant a long-term lease of about 44,800 square feet for $20,000.
Possible problems were an existing mineral lease and the site perhaps being in the path of a future road. Some board members thought the concept in violation of “the sprit of board regulations that no student center be constructed on college campuses [where there] is an almost constant demand for additional land at colleges.”
The 11-member board consisted of one member from each of eight congressional districts and three gubernatorial appointees; it controlled every aspect of Louisiana public education with the exceptions of LSU and Delgado Trade School. Elkins and Gary left the April 26, 1960, meeting after getting all but three board members to approve the religious center.
Archbishop John P. Cody, whom Pope Paul VI in 1967 would designate a Cardinal in Chicago, approved the center plans prepared by Thibodaux Architect Fernand Picou; the plans were his contribution to the project. Picou said he proposed the name that Cody accepted: St. Thomas Aquinas. The center bears the name of the Italian philosopher who lived from 1225 to 1274 and held that theology and science cannot contradict each other since truth is indivisible.
In essence, Picou explained the project as one involving two structures, each representing about 8,000 square feet of floor space – and the Old and the New Testaments.
They would rise on a lot about 300 feet wide and 150 feet deep. One would consist of a chapel adjoining a recreation or lounge facility, both sharing a flat, slanted roof. The structures would be contemporary and finite, representing the spirituality of man. The chapel would have 12 tall windows representing the apostles; the adjoining lounge area would have seven windows symbolizing the sacraments. An adjoining two-story building would have living quarters, an oval library, offices – and a horizontal roof. It would be volute in style – spiral or snail-like – and finite, representing the physical side of man.
Shortly after his 1963 retirement, Elkins returned to the campus in August from his renovated home in Jonesville to join President Vernon F. Galliano and others in groundbreaking ceremonies for what would be the 12th building project on the campus. (Baptist Student Union groundbreaking ceremonies were conducted five years later.)
On Jan. 26, 1965, Archbishop Cody blessed St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center. He was assisted by the Rev. John Bendix, for six years chaplain to the Nicholls Newman Club, the biggest, most prestigious student organization on campus at the time. Back then, the Newman Club annually sponsored a major Christmas ball and erected in Rienzi Circle an advent wreathe 40 feet in diameter. Also assisting was the Rev. Edward L. Boudreaux, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Thibodaux. (The Jan. 25 Mass will be one day before the actual 50th anniversary.)
The 1965 service marked the first time that a blessing in the archdiocese had been done entirely in English. The Rev. Thomas Dowling, who had succeeded Bendix as chaplain, celebrated the first Mass. A Newman Club Choir, directed by Bonnie Bourg, sang. Irby Gaudet, a Thibodaux student, was organist, and Carroll Hebert Jr., a Belle Rose student, was soloist. Elise Alleman Hughey of the English faculty was the first to receive communion.
Almost 2,000 people toured the $322,000 two-building center during an open house on the last Sunday of February. They inspected the oval library, a memorial to Gaston L. Breaux of Thibodaux. They visited the recreation or lounge area known as Grenier Hall in honor of J.L.V. Grenier of Thibodaux. It included a small stage, theatrical curtains and lighting.
Above the entrance to the 280-seat chapel was a colorful 18-foot-tall mosaic depicting St. Thomas teaching at the University of Paris; it was the work of Henrique Valderama of the University of Mexico. Anyone entering the chapel could admire the mural, but during construction the nearby street became one-way toward the bayou, thus making the mural unnoticeable to anyone in an automobile.
On the roof above the mural was a 14-foot aluminum cross. The waffle ceiling of the chapel tilted from a height of 28 feet to 14 feet at the opposite end in the recreation area.
Ahead lay many changes and events; for instance, the assistance from time to time of various priests and nuns, a Shakespearean play and a British drama, a little sandwich shop, seminars and debates, classes and lectures (including one against the death penalty by Sister Helen Prejean), retreats and missions, the dismantling of the little stage, and much more, big and small. The 11-year tenure of the Rev. Wilmer Todd, which began in 1968, took place during turbulent times on and off campus, and it helped to transform Nicholls from a placid institution to a dynamic one that advanced and respected academic freedom.
In early 1972, the archdiocese transformed St. Thomas into a parish known as the Community of St. Thomas. It would be a “mixed” parish, having no territorial boundaries but drawing its parishioners from students, faculty, staff and their dependents. St. Thomas would enjoy autonomy and conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Also in the early 1970s a modest, short-lived monthly publication called Yeast shocked many campus conservatives by dealing openly with topics ranging from the plights of blacks and women to the generation gap to anti-war concerns; it also published untraditional observations: “The atmosphere for violence is not created by those who seek change but by those who try to prevent it.”
During the summer of 1979 Sister Carmelita Centanni announced plans by Aquinas to replace the familiar blue window glass in the chapel. Some panes were broken, and matching glass was no longer available. LSU students Stephen A. Wilson and Allen Cuneo received a $28,000 stained-glass assignment after their work had been on exhibit in the Nicholls Art Department.
They then created a giant, abstract oak, leafy and sun-drenched – a tree of wisdom – to represent Isaiah 61:1-3 and its reference to mourners who receive joy and gladness and are like trees that the Lord himself had planted. The installation was completed the week before Easter 1980.
In early 1999, the chapel’s 14 original little stations of the cross were replaced by 45-year-old stations about 30 inches tall and indeed artistic; they were obtained for a mere $6,500 from an old church that had closed in Wisconsin. For a few years after the turn of the century, various parishes in the diocese once a week took turns serving free hot lunches, which anyone who showed up at the center could enjoy.
Throughout the years, St. Thomas has been more than a place to hang out with friends, pray and attend Mass. It has added depth and dimension to the university and, during Todd ‘s long tenure, which began in 1968, advanced the concept of academic freedom and student comment on educational, national and world issues.
St. Thomas is a unique part of the university, and symbols of that abound. For example, a memorial gaslight bearing the name of presidential wife Betsy Cheramie Ayo has been glowing next to the chapel entrance since her death in 1997.