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St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Avondale, AZ

Sonoran-inspired design is an oasis in the desert

By Raj Dayal

A church’s sanctuary blends the needs of traditional liturgy with Spanish Mission aestheticism.

The parish building committee of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Avondale, AZ, desired a Sonoran Mission-style church. “The design is intended to be read as an unadorned exterior with the contrast of the highly refined interior,” says Paul Ladensack, project designer and principal, CCBG Architects Inc., Phoenix, AZ. “The design incorporates the meanings of the Roman Catholic faith with a full choir, an organ for traditional worship services and a central altar and reredos (decorative wall behind the altar) which are all composed with respect to the liturgy as practiced within this parish.”

The simple shaped roof profile and lower tiled areas are consistent with the Sonoran style. The main structure of the church is masonry and the roof is made of steel for durability. “Additional building materials of wood, ceramic tile, and plaster walls are also in keeping with Sonoran methods found in many missions,” Ladensack says.

Original Baroque sources

The Mission heritage is reflected in the design through an interpretive form that also accomplishes flexibility for current worship. The designers referenced original Baroque sources which they in turn incorporated into the architecture.

The St. Thomas Aquinas site is surrounded by a typical suburban aesthetic that consists of the somewhat uniform appearance of beige stucco and light tile roofs. “In stark contrast the new church rises as a pure white form, with deep terracotta tile that stands out against the blue Arizona sky,” Ladensack says.

Designing St. Thomas Aquinas posed several unique challenges. “The parish building committee desired a traditionally shaped church interior but the local Diocese insisted on fan-shaped seating. Eventually the current cruciform plan was agreed upon. Traditional cruciform planning is juxtaposed with open seating to create a contemporary interpretation of the traditional Mission interior. The seating intentionally complements the scale of the interior. “Pews designed as ‘chairs’ add a detail and intimacy to the space. Padded seats were incorporated to allow for maximum comfort,” Ladensack says.

With direction from Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture and Worship, put forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the designers placed the tabernacle off axis from the main entrance to a side adoration chapel. “The cry room was required to be placed in the main assembly space close to the altar,” Ladensack says. “This was included outside of the cruciform crossing opposite the adoration chapel.” The designers were mindful of the powerful impact of symmetry throughout the space which helped inform their decisions.

An important feature to the design of the St. Thomas Aquinas assembly is the way light functions. “Light enters the space through high clerestory windows and then is modified and transformed as daylight strikes surfaces through various layering strategies,” says Ladensack. “The soft light draws the eye upwards and emphasizes the height of the space.”

Artwork is accentuated

The lighting also serves to accent the artwork within the assembly. Paintings, sculptures and furnishings accent the worship space with color and a richness of scale. The paintings are of the Stations of the Cross and are about 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. Unique custom aluminum frames hold the paintings and allow lighting for both behind and in front of the image. A fresco (specialized painting technique done on walls or ceilings) is planned for the interior central dome on the roof. Currently four gobo projectors (light filters) fill the dome with images of the four Evangelists — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Another notable design element of St. Thomas Aquinas is the use of scale. “Exaggerated scale gives the illusion that the space is not quite as large and provides a sense of intimacy,” Ladensack says. Architectural soffits (the underside of an arch) are used to deliver the air-conditioning to the main assembly and offer an abstract interpretation of structural cornice lines and corbelled extrusions (projected area to help carry excess weight).

Three main ideals of St. Thomas’ teachings are displayed throughout the design of the church: journey, wisdom and light. The architectural design team and the parish building committee were committed to these ideals in creating a building that exemplifies the Sonoran Mission-style and upholds the purpose of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church.

Photos courtesy of Jon W. Denker, CAPS, Phoenix, AZ.

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