Sunday, July 30, 2023

$33M church to be dedicated at Texas A&M

St. Mary’s Catholic Center Texas A&M

A decade of planning, fundraising, and building came to fruition on July 29 as St. Mary’s Catholic Center, which serves Catholic students of the public Texas A&M University in College Station, dedicated a new church.

With a student population of nearly 75,000, Texas A&M is the largest university in the United States, with about a quarter of its students identifying as Catholic. 

Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin was the principal celebrant of the dedication Mass with eight other bishops in attendance. 

Among the eight bishops are Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston as well as Bishop of San Angelo Michael Sis and Bishop of Tulsa David Konderla, both of whom are former pastors of St. Mary’s.

“We’re very excited as the building of this church has been 10 years in the making,” said Father Chris Smith, outgoing St. Mary’s associate pastor and a 2010 “Aggie” graduate (Aggie is the nickname of those affiliated with the university). “We anticipate this church will be a beacon of light in the midst of a dark culture, a wellspring of hope.”

The center is located across the street from Texas A&M on property owned by the Diocese of Austin. Ministering to its Catholic population has long been a focus of the region’s bishops; three priests (two of whom are Aggie graduates), as well as deacons, consecrated women of the Apostles of the Interior Life, campus ministers, FOCUS missionaries, and other important support staff are all in place to serve students. 

And, as students are typically of modest means, a five-member development staff works to raise funds for this crucial ministry as well as the capital campaign to raise $33 million to build the new church.

The new church is the third built to serve Aggie students. The first was constructed in 1927 and the second in 1958. In recent years, its nine weekend Masses were often “standing room only,” Smith reported, making it clear a new church would be needed.

At 1,500, the seating capacity is nearly double of the previous church, and, Smith continued, it was built to be both beautiful and traditional “so that it will be a place where students can encounter Christ through art and architecture.”

According to the dedication booklet, the new church:

— Is oriented to the East, as Catholic churches have been traditionally built, a practice rooted in Scripture. “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt 24:27).

— Has a dome-on-cube design, representing the coming together of the new heaven and the new earth on the eighth day, eternity.

— Is supported by 12 free-standing piers symbolizing the Twelve Apostles and the fulfillment of the 12 tribes of Israel, along with 12 columns in the domed apse that houses the tabernacle.

— Features a triumphal arch over the sanctuary as the artistic centerpiece of the church, depicting the heavenly liturgy by illustrating the meeting of heaven and earth in eternity that is anticipated at the end of time.

Other significant features include a rose window with an image of Christ at the center surrounded by images of creation and representations of the Apostles, colorful stained-glass windows with images of such saints as Faustina, Juan Diego, and Maximilian Kolbe, and traditional statues of such favorite saints as Thérèse of Lisieux.

The confessionals are adorned with images of mercy from Scripture. Confessions are held six days per week and often draw 40-50 students each time. 

In the new church, penitents can wait in line and look at such images as Christ with Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, and the woman at the well. 

A few dozen students are baptized two times each year; the new church features a large baptismal font surrounded by representations of angels.

Other notable features include a choir loft over the entry to the church with space to accommodate a grand piano, organ, and 100 students. On the exterior of the church is a gold-colored, 9-foot golden statue of Our Lady of Victory atop a cupola.

The altar area includes a suspended crucifix over a traditional altar and tabernacle with a baldacchino; these and many other elements of the church were created by artisans in Oberammergau, Germany, famous for its Passion plays. 

Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament by students occurs daily, said Father Smith, and is no doubt an important factor that leads an average of 10 students annually to go on to study for the priesthood or enter religious life. 

Among the attendees at the dedication are 70 priests and 50 seminarians, many of whom are Aggie graduates.

The St. Mary’s community is excited about the dedication. Danielle Blatmann is a 2023 Aggie graduate who plans to volunteer as a missionary for The Culture Project before pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant. Her four years at St. Mary’s was a time of “complete transformation,” she said, “where I encountered people who loved Christ and who taught me how to love.”

The new church is a “glimpse into heaven,” she said, adding: “I’m grateful to the benefactors who made this possible. I know it will be a place where people can learn and grow and come to experience Christ in a personal way.”

Bailey Lenzen is a 2014 Aggie graduate and Catholic convert who is now married. She volunteers at St. Mary’s teaching dating and marriage classes. Lenzen first attended St. Mary’s at the invitation of a Catholic roommate. “St. Mary’s was integral to me in understanding the beauty of the Catholic faith,” she said.

The community is “over the moon” in excitement about the new church, Lenzen said, and she noted how many had toured the church during construction and attended significant construction events, such as the installation of the exterior Our Lady of Victory statue.  

The dedication Mass is by invitation only, but the public is welcome to visit afterward. Lenzen encouraged that: “If you’re in the area, drop in and see this amazing church.”