Current students of the University of Dallas were familiar with the Drama Building before its demolition over Christmas break, but few know the story of its past as the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel during the first thirty years of the university’s existence.
UD archivist Sybil Novinski said that the Drama Building functioned as the daily chapel until March 1985, when ground was broken for the Chapel of the Incarnation, which still stands on campus today as the Church of the Incarnation.
“It is hard to believe that we didn’t have a church until 1985 — and we opened in 1956 — but then — there was nothing out here on his hilltop in 1956 — it was just coming to be — no Las Colinas, no Northgate, etc.,” Sybil Novinski wrote in an email.
Associate Provost and professor of theology Dr. John Norris, who attended UD from 1980 to1984, fondly remembers the original chapel.
“It was a very intimate space,” Norris said, adding that the chapel resembled the Chapel of the Transfiguration that currently stands on UD’s Eugene Constantin Rome campus. “It had stained glass windows that were [a] solid color and that were up along the walls on the right and the left as you came in. It was a very warm and intimate place.”
Because of its small size, with room for about 80 people, St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel was only used for daily Masses and Latin Masses at 12:30 pm on Sundays.
“There used to be a Latin choir before the Collegium,” Norris said. “We sang polyphony and chant at the 12:30 Latin Mass occasionally.” The Latin Mass did draw visitors, Norris said, but it was more a student chapel.
Sybil Novinski stated that other buildings had to serve as churches on the weekends to accommodate students and visiting worshippers who came for the power of the preaching at the university.
“Temporary installations for Masses … had to be done for years because very quickly the community outgrew the little chapel on weekends,” Sybil Novinski said in an email. “In fact, every weekend Lynch Auditorium, for years, was changed into a church and then really big celebrations were held in the gym.”
The chapel was renovated from its original cement block interior in the late 60s and 70s after the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council, Sybil Novinski and Norris said.
Emeritus professor of art Lyle Novinski was in charge of the renovations to the chapel.
“[It was] a very lovely sacred space,” Sybil Novinski said of the chapel after her husband’s renovations.
Norris said that kind of sacred space no longer exists on campus.
“I went to graduate school at Marquette, and we had the St. Joan of Arc chapel — it’s a 14th-century French chapel that was brought over stone by stone,” Norris said. “It’s for daily Mass, and it’s in the middle of the campus. It’s a really intimate space. The St. Thomas Aquinas chapel was like that.”
Norris then shared some legends about the chapel’s location on campus from when he was a student.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but [the chapel] was put on the boy’s side of the campus because they figured boys would cross the campus to eat, and girls would cross the campus to go to daily Mass, but that boys might not cross the campus to go to Mass,” Norris said.
He also shared some memories of the chapel’s prominence in everyday student life.
“I remember the walk from five o’clock daily Mass to the cafeteria, where all your friends would be,” Norris said.
Demolition of the drama building began during Christmas break, and nothing remains of the building. Still, Norris believes that the importance of the building lingers for all who knew it as the St. Thomas Aquinas Chapel.
“You become attached to things even when they’re not in their best shape,” Norris said. “You attach personal memories to them, and there’s a certain sadness when they’re not there anymore. Buildings are like members of the community [in that way.]”