The ongoing construction of a new “Catholic center” at the St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel is one sign of a recent upswing in demand for religious discourse at Yale, a university that William F. Buckley ’50 accused of anti-religious hostility only half a century ago.
Following its completion, which is slated for this coming fall, the construction of the 30,000-square-foot Thomas E. Golden Jr. Center adjacent to the chapel will offer new space for programs, speakers and other needs of an increasingly involved Catholic population at Yale. An expanding Catholic population on campus has pushed the chapel’s physical capacity to the limit, said John Wilkinson ’60, owner’s representative for the St. Thomas More Capital Campaign.
“We need this new building,” Wilkinson said. “We’re literally bursting at the seams.”
Kerry Robinson DIV ’94, director of development at St. Thomas More, estimated that 25 percent of Yale undergraduates are Catholic. Of those, close to 700 students formally registered with St. Thomas More at the beginning of the academic year — a proportion that Robinson said eclipses the national average for the student-age Catholic population and has necessitated the construction of the new student center.
The new building will include office space for St. Thomas More staff, a 400-person lecture hall, a round meditation room, a dining hall and kitchen, a student lounge, a library and reading room, as well as seminar rooms that Robinson said the church may make available for university courses related to theology, Catholic history and Catholic literature. It also features a glass-encased inner courtyard that mimics those of the university’s residential colleges.
“The space is really phenomenal,” St. Thomas More Chaplain Rev. Robert Beloin said.
The new student center was designed by locally-based Cesar Pelli and Associates, architects of the International Finance Center in Hong Kong, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, as well as the new Malone Engineering Research Center at Yale. To date, the St. Thomas More Building Fund has raised $18 million toward the $24 million construction project.
“It’s going to be a gem, definitely one of the city’s nicest buildings,” Wilkinson said.
The University leased the property to St. Thomas More for 99 years for a one-time payment of $20. The trade-off, Wilkinson said, was that the chapel also construct retail space between the Chaplain’s residence and Cosi restaurant on the corner of Elm and Park streets.
“There was a desire on the part of the University to have commercial space that would add more pedestrian traffic and make that area much more attractive and safer,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a real shot in the arm for the neighborhood.”
The chapel’s physical expansion is the newest manifestation of ongoing program development at St. Thomas More, Robinson said. She said that over the past decade she has worked with Beloin to develop an intellectual tenor in the chapel’s examination of Catholicism.
“We’ve paid particular attention to examining the topics of the day from the perspective of faith in a rigorous and compelling manner befitting a world-class university,” Robinson said.
Beloin and students involved in the St. Thomas More Undergraduate Council said the student body at Yale has been increasingly accepting of spirituality in recent years — a development on which the Chapel’s new student center hopes to capitalize.
The center will also accommodate other segments of Yale’s Catholic population. One of the chapel’s new programs is the Catholic Faculty Series, in which Catholic members of Yale’s faculty are invited to speak about their personal life of faith.
“On campus, you still sometimes hear that God is just a crutch for the weak,” Robinson said. “But then you have Yale faculty speaking about the centrality of faith in their life and how it’s been a solace and an inspiration.”
Wilkinson said there has been a change in the tenor of religious life on campus since his days at Yale in the late 1950s, a shift that has contributed to St. Thomas More’s growing parish.
“[Religious life] was much more passive in those days,” he said. “It wasn’t repressive, just more passive. But now there’s a very strong involvement in the community.”
Ifeanyi Anidi ’06, former co-chair of the chapel’s Undergraduate Council, said the center will be used for educational programs for students.
“We hope that as a student’s knowledge of Catholic faith improves to the college level, intellectually there will also be a change in the academic sphere with their faith,” he said.