In 2004, St. John’s University opened the doors to St. Thomas More Church—where the community celebrates and is called forth to service. Now, on the 15th anniversary of its dedication, we take a closer look at this majestic place of worship, named for the patron saint of lawyers and politicians.
St. Thomas More Church was one of the final components of the University’s Master Plan, which saw St. John’s evolve from a commuter school to a residential university. Construction of the church was made possible by a generous gift from John V. Brennan ’63C, ’66L, ’93HON and his wife, Anita.
While the church was formally dedicated by the late Edward Cardinal Egan on November 21, 2004, the seeds for a church on the Queens, NY, campus were actually planted in the mid-1950s when the University first broke ground at the site of the former Hillcrest Golf Club, in Jamaica, NY.
“The architectural plans drawn up for this campus in 1954 include a church on this very site,” said Julia A. Upton, R.S.M., Ph.D., Provost Emerita and Distinguished Professor of Theology, St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, at the first opening school Mass inside St. Thomas More Church. “For half a century, members of the University community held fast to this dream and never relinquished it.” For much of that period, they worshipped and gathered in the Chapel of our Lady of Lourdes, a small space located in Lourdes Hall.
“In developing a design for the church, we studied Church documents,” recalled Dr. Upton, who was also Chair of the committee responsible for the design and construction of St. Thomas More Church. “The terminology about the Eucharist was ‘we are gathered together,’ and ‘we are around the table of the Lord.’ That is what framed our decision.”
The nave of the church is unique in that it is octagonal and features a central altar surrounded by curved pews. This design creates an intimate place for worship where everything is drawn to the altar.
The placement of the altar is also symbolic, as it stands upon the intersection of two axes—one which extends from St. John Hall, the oldest Queens campus building, and the other which leads to St. Augustine Hall, the library. In the church floor under the altar is a vault containing stones placed by members of the community during a special ceremony held during construction. Each stone bears the names of community members or special intentions.
Among the most striking features inside of the church are the handcrafted, colorful mosaics in the narthex, which illustrate the life and deeds of St. Vincent de Paul and the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians), and the founding and evolution of St. John’s University. More than two dozen artisans from Mellini Art Glass & Mosaics created the mosaics in Florence, Italy. The mosaics were then shipped to Queens, and Italian craftsmen traveled overseas to St. John’s for their installation.
Stained glass is prominently featured throughout St. Thomas More Church, most notably encircling the nave. There, the ages-old medium is used to present Jesus as the Master Teacher in images from the four Gospels. Each window, more than 22 feet high, features one of the Gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John—two lessons from the writer’s respective Gospel, and at the summit, the figure of Jesus Christ in a teaching moment.
Along the walls which surround the worship space of the church are depictions of the 14 Stations of the Cross. The space also features shrines of St. Thomas More and the Blessed Mother. The latter is among Dr. Upton’s favorites.
“The statue of the Blessed Mother as a wise, comforting mother is probably my favorite feature because Mary is usually depicted as a young virgin or mother of a newborn,” Dr. Upton said. “She lived to be an old woman in that era, with wisdom and experience etched in her face.”
Another striking feature of the church is its 9/11 memorial, which commemorates the tragic losses of September 11, 2001. Featuring two cascading waterfalls and granite shafts designed in the likeness of the fallen Twin Towers, the memorial includes an embedded cross welded of salvaged iron from the World Trade Center site. The shrine stands as a lasting monument to victims of the attacks that day, —among them, Thomas More Brennan, son of the church’s patrons.
Since opening its doors in 2004, the Church has been the site of countless Masses, ceremonies, and sacraments, including weddings, memorial services, and baptisms.
Allie Aoanan Talavera ’12TCB, ’12MS, who served as a student lector, has a strong connection to St. Thomas More Church. “It gave me the opportunity to remain close to my faith when I was at school,” she recalled. “My roommates and I would go to Mass together in the same way I would attend Mass with my family at home.”
That connection remains strong, as she recently welcomed her son into Catholicism by celebrating his Baptism at the church. “We shared this special moment in our son’s life with our closest friends and family in a place so near and dear to our hearts.”
For Jordan Bouchard ’14C, Residence Campus Minister for Vincentian Service, the church brings back fond memories of her days as a student at St. John’s. “Whether it was celebrating Mass, or meeting for prayer in the Narthex before leaving for a Plunge experience, the church has been a place of centering, prayer, and reflection for me,” she said. “Now, as an employee, I am blessed to have the opportunity to extend the hospitality and worship that I have experienced there.”
Each Sunday, the church is the site of the popular Student Mass at 5:30 p.m., where students gather together to reflect and celebrate. Among the regular visitors to St. Thomas More Church is Teresa Vogel, a senior from West Hempstead, NY, who is majoring in English.
“St. Thomas More Church is an important part of my experience as a student because I love my faith, and I am glad to have such a majestic church on campus,” said the Catholic Scholar. “Whenever the bells ring, I am reminded of my Catholic faith and why I love it so much. I have received so many graces from praying at St. Thomas More Church, and I could not imagine St. John’s without it.”