Silhouetted or sun-glistened, the twin spires of St. Thomas of Villanova remind on lookers that "A beautiful church is a sermon in stone, and its spire a finger pointing to heaven." Indeed, few residents can recall a time when those majestic spires were not a prominent part of the Main Line landscape.
Early Augustinian Roots
Actually, the 168 year old Augustinian parish, one of the oldest on the Main Line, antedates the beautiful Gothic Revival church by four decades. Since 1848 steady growth and change have been inherent in this diverse parish community. This growth continues today in this parish community with liturgical centers at Villanova and at Rosemont.
The history of the St. Thomas parish is inextricably associated with the Augustinians who arrived from Europe in 1796, and founded St.Augustine's Church in Philadelphia. The impact of the five Augustinians in this country, three of whom were in Philadelphia in 1842, is impressive. This small band served as missionaries to the outlying areas, while also trying to establish the Augustinian order in the United States and train new priests. Working as missionaries it was necessary for the clergy to live and travel alone, something quite different from their monastic living experience in Europe. According to Dr. Patrick Moriarty, O.S.A. Commissary of the province in 1841, the need to foster "native vocations had to be found and provisions made for their education." Significantly, Radnor was considered a mission of St. Augustine's, therefore; the area was well known to the Augustinians.
Prior to the Augustinians, the first Catholic to own the Radnor property was a former Revolutionary war lieutenant, John Rudolph. A Philadelphia gentleman, Rudolph made his fortune as a merchant in Burlington, New Jersey. In 1806 Rudolph and his second wife Elizabeth, seeking a country seat, purchased one hundred acres of land for $10,000 from innkeeper Jonathan Miller. Rudolph then had his mansion built, and named the estate Belle Air, after his father's property in Maryland.
The Rudolph Family
Prior to the establishment of the Augustinian parish, St. Denis' at Cobbs Creek in 1828, the Rudolphs had to travel to Philadelphia for Sunday Mass. Often however, missionaries from St.Augustine's, as well as other secular priests, would travel west to the Rudolph estate to celebrate mass for the household. The clergymen always welcomed guests, found the Rudolph parlor in the southwest corner of the mansion fitted with an altar and an organ, on which Mr. Rudolph would accompany the service. For nearly thirty years, until the death of John Rudolph on March 30, 1838, the Belle Air estate was a "parish" to the Rudolph family, their servants and their neighbors.
Almost three years after Rudolph's death, on October 14, 1841, Belle Air was scheduled for public sale. Augustinian historian, Father Thomas Middleton in his 1893 account cites the notice of the sale with quotes from the trustee of the Rudolph estate, Mr. John Vogdes: "that valuable farm beautifully situated on the Lancaster Turnpike and Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in Radnor Township…about 10 miles from the city, containing about 200 acres of first rate land, about 40 acres of which are wood of superior quality of oak and hickory." The clergymen, understandably anxious to purchase the property, offered to buy it the day before it went on public sale. At the date of purchase the land had improvements including " a two story stone Mansion 456 feet by 36 feet 6 inches deep…a two story stone kitchen (back) 38 feet by 21 feet 6 inches with piazzas,--five rooms on the first floor, with spacious hall, 7 rooms on the second floor, and 3 large garrets; a large stone barn…a stone Coach House…a small Farm House, and a Barn…a stone spring house and spring of excellent water…a large stone smoke house and poultry house…"In addition, "its comparative easiness of approach from all quarters were advantages more than sufficient to recommend it either as a private residence or a public institution." The acquisition was a major advance for the future of the Augustinian Order in the United States.
The Purchase of the Belle Air Estate
On October 13, 1841, Reverend Thomas Kyle, O.S.A. of St. Augustine's and Father Patrick Moriarity O.S.A. purchased the estate they would rename Villanova, for $18,000. The purchase represented the first civil corporation of the Order in this country when, "On January 5, 1842, titled to Belle Air was granted to the Brothers of the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine." Equally significant was the ecclesiastical recognition of His Holiness, Pope Gregory XVI, on December 22, 1843 which granted permission for the transfer to Villanova of the new Augustinian Motherhouse, separate from St. Augustine's in Philadelphia. And thus, the history of the parish of St. Thomas of Villanova.
Father O'Dwyer celebrated the first mass in the parlor of the former mansion on August 28, 1843, the feast of St. Augustine. It was then also that the monastery was placed under the patronage of the sixteenth-century Spanish Augustinian, St.Thomas of Villanova. St. Thomas was a saintly man, distinguished for his ability to manage affairs skillfully, for his generosity towards the poor, and for his tireless efforts in the establishment of hospices, schools and a college at Valencia. With their patron as an example, the Augustinians, assisted by the estate staff, began the work of converting the estate from a farm to a religious community.
The Moulden Family
Little is known about those who helped. However, among the remaining staff of the Rudolph household attending that first mass was young William Moulden, an Afro-American. Moulden, born in Philadelphia, came to work at the estate as a indentured servant at the age of fifteen. William and his wife Julia, the first known black Catholics in the area, were married at St. Denis' on February 21, 1841. Mrs. Rudolph, although widowed, remained on the estate for three years. She gave the newlyweds a wedding dinner in what later become the monastery pantry. The Mouldens lived in a log farmhouse on the present site of the Villanova Law School, called "Mount Misery" because of "the forlorn and comfortless way things looked from the hilltop."
As William and Julia prospered they gave more than their labors to their church. Records indicate they also contributed $200, a sizable sum, toward the present church construction. After several years of service of Villanova, the Mouldens moved to Rosemont, and raised thirteen children. It is reported that upon the death of the last Moulden child, Mary, in 1896, "their estate (the Moulden's) at Lancaster Avenue and Roberts Road was willed to the Augustinian Order."
For a time, the two-story Belle Air mansion had to function not only as a chapel, a novitiate, and a monastery for the Order, but also as, a school and a dormitory for the collegians. Larger facilities were needed by 1844 as the parish and college community outgrew the mansion chapel. A new chapel completed in 1844 was built by Augustinian lay brothers with help from the estate staff who carried "stones from the old Rudolph barn…(and ) sand taken from the turnpike." The chapel was ultimately torn down in 1899 to make room for a new college building.
The Parish of St. Thomas of Villanova Begins
The official parish registry opened with the historic baptism of Michael Horton on August 15, 1848, and established St.Thomas of Villanova as a separate parish from St. Augustine's. On March 10, 1848 permission for a college charter to grant degrees was obtained-classes had begun with seven students on September 18, 1843. Enrollment grew steadily. In 1854 Father William Hartnett, O.S.A. officiated at the earliest marriage recorded in the parish between Patrick Kerrigan and Sarah Flanagan. By 1865, Father Middleton reports that the Augustinians had increased in number---there were sixteen priests, sixteen lay brothers and three religious students; a vast increase over the original five Augustinians who were in the country in 1841.
In 1872 a third temporary chapel, an existing college gymnasium, erected in 1869, was partially converted to serve as a church for the faithful. It accommodated the Villanova community until 1887 when the present Gothic Church was completed.
The Present St. Thomas of Villanova Church
The ambitious building project of 1883 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 , O.S.A.
On March 29, 1883 ground was broken for the construction of the present, St. Thomas of Villanova Church to be made of Downingtown limestone with granite dressings. The cornerstone, blessed by Right Reverend Jeremiah F. Shanahan, Bishop of Harrisburg, was laid in place on June 3, 1883. Account of the ceremony mentions items placed in the stone cavity: "inside a glass jar are enclosed a memoir of the proceedings, and a collection of relics, of Agnus Dei (a round object imprinted with the "lamb of God" which is blessed by the Pope) and of coins of the United States-presented by Mr. Charles McKeone, a member of the parish."
Edwin F. Durang, the architect who designed the Gothic Revival style church, was born in New York in 1825. He 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.
Father Middleton's 1893 detailed account states, Durang modeled the majestic, 137-foot high twin spires of the Villanova Church after the south spire of the 13th century French Cathedral, Charters. He designed the building "façade with two towers, each 18 square feet and 63 feet high, surmounted by eight-sided spires…(making) the total height)," At the time of construction, it is supposed, the spires were the tallest man-made structures between the Delaware River and Lancaster.
Continuing the description, Middleton writes: "Durang created a European-like interior, measuring 60 feet in breadth and 143 ½ feet in length, exclusive of the sacristy, (which includes a ) "prolongation of the sanctuary, terminating in a large deep apsidal choir for the use of the religious…The interior woodwork is all of oak including the pews and the stalls in the choir for the fraternity. The choir is divided by six clustered columns supporting groined arches. The side aisles of the nave are divided into six bays, each 15 square feet, also with groined ceiling." The 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.
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 bursts of the four evangelists. Deterioration caused these dome paintings to be replaced in the 1940"s.
The Augustinian archives have projected church construction cost was $35,000/ Actual costs, upon the church's completion in 1887, ran to $43,828.25. According to Father Blake, by 1889, the construction mortgage debt of $15,000 secured from the Beneficial Savings Fund Society had been reduced to $10,000. Then, as now, much of the other money necessary to build the church was raised through "monthly collections and …donations from outside the parish (including other Augustinian parishes)." Other documents indicate donations also came from the Rudolph household staff, and from "The Help at…the Devon Inn Hotel and from the stablemen at that hotel (as well as) from the servants at the Bryn Mawr Hotel." Two generous $500.00 donations were received from Miss Louise Drexel of Torresdale, PA and General W. Childs of Philadelphia. The stained glass windows in the choir were gifts from the Augustinian parishes, but have since been replaced.
The Church is Blessed and Consecrated
The new church was blessed by Archbishop Ryan at a divine service on Sunday morning, July 3, 1887, and a solemn high mass was celebrated by the Reverend Francis M. Sheeran, O.S.A.. Accounts of the preparations for St. Thomas of Villanova's golden jubilee in 1892 mention " A large and powerful organ built by Roosevelt, of New York, with 1, 530 pipes, 38 stops and three manuals, has been placed in the church…"The church was solemnly consecrated on October 17, 1907, twenty years after its completion, by Bishop William A. Jones, O.S.A.
Father Hugh Gallagher, O.S.A., pastor from 1902-1917 further "improved and beautified" the church interior in preparation for the consecration ceremony. Early photographs of the 1907 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. In evidence too, was an elaborate gothic-style stonework framing the fourteen bas-relief stations of the cross. This filigree work was removed when it was later considered "too heavy."
Renovation of the Villanova 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 simplified. Although the church could accommodate over 550 persons, the parish and college continued to grow. Consequently, a new location, apart from the college, was sought for the younger boys who attended high school at Villanova.
An expansion begun in 1900, ultimately lead to the establishment of the Rosemont Chapel, built for the convenience of the parishioners and the clergy who ministered to them. The T.A.B. Hall (Total Abstinence Benevolent Society) building and lot were purchased for $10,000, and in 1908 the Augustinians opened a school for children of the parish in Rosemont.
St. Thomas of Villanova School
In 1919 records show the Rosemont School was "considered distinct from the Villanova Community." By the 1921 a separate pastor-prior was appointed to Rosemont, severing the long ties the Villanova Monastery had to its affiliated parish. Since that time, the St. Thomas Parish has had its own Augustinian Pastor and staff of clergy in residence at Rosemont.
The Present Rosemont Chapel
The present Rosemont Chapel, completed in 1956, was constructed because the old T.A.B. Hall, considered a fire hazard, was condemned as unsafe. Since the opening of this second liturgical center in Rosemont, the parish has enjoyed the distinction of having two sites to choose between for services, a feature many parishioners appreciate. The parishioners have grown accustomed to change since the pronouncements of the Second Vatican Council.
In 1965 Vatican II, carrying out the recommendations of the deceased Pope John XXIII, 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. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops on Liturgy interpret that participation to mean:
The environment (seating arrangement, light, centers of action etc.) is appropriate when it clearly invites and needs the assembly of people to complete it. Furthermore it is appropriate when it brings people closer together so that they can see and hear the entire liturgical action, when it helps people feel involved and become involved.
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 in 1965, when he commissioned the construction and installation of a temporary wooden altar which faced the congregation. Later, under the pastorate of Father John Klekotka, 1971-1975, 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 Villanova Church
Through the years many emergency repairs have 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 thirty-first pastor of St.Thomas, the church underwent a major renovation project.
The parish has grown over the years in the tradition of St. Thomas and St. Augustine. The recent history has been filled with ministerial enhancements in education at the St. Thomas of Villanova Pre-School . Our ministries have expanded and include Christian Service, a new Parish Nurse Ministry, Religious Education and Adult Spiritual Formation as well as our liturgical ministries. God has blessed us over these 150 years at different times in different ways. We have been shaped by God into a community of Living Faith and Undying Love.