St. Thomas of Villanova

Status: Active, Roman Catholic

Founded: 1848
Constructed: 1887

1229 W. Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085

Visit its website

Original visit: September 6, 2009

Where Is It?

The Main Line, sucka! Lancaster Avenue in Villanova, Pa.

The Skinny

As college students all across the Delaware Valley return to the grind of learning, leisure and licentiousness, the Project takes this opportunity to go back to as well!

Well, not the school part, since our formal education is mostly behind us. But it is an opportune moment to visit one of the nicest college churches around, Villanova University’s St. Thomas of Villanova.

The Philadelphia Church Project: Special Campus Edition!

This is no basement chapel, however. St. Thomas is a picturesque Gothic structure whose spires loom large and majestically not only over Villanova’s campus, but over much of Lancaster Avenue as well.

Factor in superb landscaping that places it at the apex of a bucolic, foliage-lined path, and you have a sight that makes most church enthusiasts drop to their knees. I once praised St. Francis Xavier for being picaresque, but St. Thomas is easily its equal in that regard. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s a hotbed for weddings, and it almost always shows up in photographs, paintings and just about every promotional pamphlet Villanova has ever produced.

All is well in college land...until you go inside.

Operator? Connect me to Mr. Tabula Rasa, please.

Yes, again. Like all plaster churches, St. Thomas has been touched up — in their case, multiple times, as their detailed online history will tell you. In the current incarnation, all traces of ornamentation have been stripped away and replaced with a straight-up white paint job. Every nook, cranny, and crevasse is white. Hell, even the stations of the cross.

Sound familiar? It should. Neighboring Our Mother of Good Counsel took the same approach. We saw how that turned out.

Throw in some unimpressive stained-glass windows, especially the God-awful clerestories, and you have a church that doesn’t rank very high on anyone’s ornamentation lists. Sure, there’s something oddly alluring and pure about it, but come on, guys. This building deserves better.

Even worse, they pulled a Pimp My Church by moving the altar out into the nave, something the Project hates more than just about anything else. And to add insult to injury, the original altar seems to have disappeared entirely. 

It’s a shame because, structurally, it’s a physically impressive columned, non-cruciform (save for two weird side shrines) design, and with the right ornamentation — heck, even just a decent paint-job — it could be really timeless, especially given the exterior beauty. As it is, it’s just one big disappointing white blob.

Look for it: A church project rarity, St. Thomas’ soaring gothic columns actually curve around the front of the church and into the sanctuary. We’ve only seen that once before, with Church of the Advocate, but the effect is much more pronounced here. It makes me wonder how the original designers even worked the traditional sanctuary / nave separation, since it doesn’t seem like something that would flow seamlessly in this space. Time to go scouting for some old pictures, methinks.

Anyway, St. Thomas’ physical gifts are still considerable. But if you’re thinking strictly ornamentation, don’t bother.

How's It Doing?

The question is almost insulting. The parish itself is ridiculously healthy, with a robust registered population and an average attendance that hovers around 1,100.

However, the fact that St. Thomas is the student church for Villanova University means that it would have a long and prosperous future even if the parish itself were on its last legs.

So, uh, yeah. Things are good here.

Travel Tidbits

Villanova is easily accessible by Route 476 and, to a lesser extent, Lancaster Avenue, although traffic on the latter can be problematic at times. Even better, the school’s main parking lot faces the church, so parking is a snap.

The Main Line is still the most harmless and inoffensive place you’ll find, so safety is a complete non-issue. Unless, that is, you encounter drunk and rowdy students, but the odds of that on Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. are pretty slim. Heck, you could probably even walk around with money sticking out of your pockets.

Interesting Note

Two notes here:

First, the mass was celebrated by none other than Father Peter Donahue, Villanova’s president, who adds a theatrical, charismatic flair to the proceedings. There are few better homilists around, and his presence alone is worth the price of admission.

Also, this is not the only parish church. St. Thomas established a mission chapel and school down the road in Rosemont. Both are still in operation — the parish actually holds roughly half of its masses at the Rosemont chapel, but since it’s a 1956-era modern monstrosity, the Project is staying far away. And you should, too.

Image Gallery

The Final Word

Probably the ultimate example of the St. Cyprian Effect. Still, St. Thomas doesn’t make for a bad trip.

Oh, and because we're at college, I should mention this: It's All Greek to Me!