Known for striking modern design, St. Thomas Aquinas church turns 50

| July 3, 2019 | 0 Comments
St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul Park

Minnesota Modernist architect Ralph Rapson designed St. Thomas Aquinas in St. Paul Park in 1969. Maria Wiering | The Catholic Spirit

In the southeast metro suburb of St. Paul Park, St. Thomas Aquinas is celebrating two anniversaries: the 135th year since the founding of the parish and the 50th year of its current church building, which was designed by the Minnesota Modernist architect Ralph Rapson.

The 1969 design is notable for a wood-beamed roof that — due to a ribbon of clerestory windows ringing the building — seemingly floats above the rest of the stucco structure.

The parish was established as a mission in 1884, and a church building — still extant as the “Park Chalet” — was later built at the prominent intersection of Summit and Broadway Avenues. By the early 1960s, the growing parish had moved its regular worship to the basement of its school to accommodate more people than the church building could.

The parish’s pastor, Father Lawrence Keller, launched a building campaign in the mid-1960s with plans for several buildings, including a new school and church. The church, however, was planned as a “basement church,” or primarily underground structure, likely due to funding. 

According to an unpublished master’s thesis by former parishioner and University of Minnesota architecture student Ryan Brogdon Connolly, the architects initially hired for the project never finished the church building. Father Keller realized he was “in trouble,” as he described the situation nine years later, and, “When you are in impossible trouble call the most eminent and respected man in the entire area,” he wrote. “That’s when you need the best — so I called Ralph Rapson.”

Rapson was then the dean of the University of Minnesota’s architecture school and a notable Modernist architect. Among his designs were the original Guthrie Theater, which opened in 1963 on the grounds of the Walker Art Center, as well as the Cedar Square West complex now known as Riverside Plaza, both in Minneapolis. He also designed furniture, including the “Rapson Rapid Rocker” in 1945 for Knoll Furniture.

The church commission came just a few years after the end of the Second Vatican Council, when pastors and architects were interpreting the council document “Sacrosanctum Concilium” on the liturgy, which states, “The art of our own days, coming from every race and region, shall also be given free scope in the Church, provided that it adorns the sacred buildings and holy rites with due reverence and honor.”

In an interview with Connolly, Rapson confirmed he was influenced by Le Corbusier’s famous Notre Dame de Haut in Ronchamp, France, completed in 1954. While Rapson had designed a few Protestant churches, St. Thomas Aquinas was his only Catholic church, and he told Connolly he thought it was his best church design.

Sue Kainz, the parish’s pastoral minister, said that Rapson, who died in 2008, used to bring students to tour the finished church. Although she joined the parish shortly after the new church’s construction, Kainz, 71, said she rarely thinks about its architecture as revolutionary. “It’s home to me,” she said. 

In the five decades since the building was finished, the 680-family parish has changed some of its original elements to accommodate its needs, she noted, such as carpeting to quiet the aggregate concrete flooring. Some of Rapson’s original liturgical furnishings have also been replaced, Connolly noted.

Under the pastorate of Father Tony Andrade, the parish has been celebrating its dual anniversaries since October with several charitable outreaches and events, including a June 23 Mass commemorating the first liturgy in the new church, followed by a picnic with food concessions at 1969 prices and an Elvis impersonator.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda plans to celebrate the anniversary year’s closing Mass at the parish Oct. 6.

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