AVONDALE, Ariz. — St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, whose growth has vaulted it into one of the largest in the Diocese of Phoenix, celebrated 100 years as a Catholic community Sunday.
Bishop John P. Dolan presided as the guest celebrant at 12:30 Mass, followed by a large outdoor party capping a day of festivities that began with a pancake breakfast hosted by Boy Scout Troop 64.
“You don’t look a day over 90,” Bishop Dolan joked as he greeted worshippers at the 1,810-seat church off Litchfield and Thomas roads.
The 12:30 Mass was the last of five regular weekend rites, starting with the 5 p.m. Saturday vigil, a schedule that serves 8,000 registered families.
“It is certainly an honor to be here with all of you,” Parochial Administrator, Fr. Bryan Buenger said. “God is indeed great.”
STARTING IN A HOME
The setting was a far cry from the community’s humble beginnings a century ago.
It was the early 1920s. Frank and Sara Serrano had opened a general store and postal service to serve Southwest Cotton Company, a subsidiary of Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which had come to the area to grow cotton for its new pneumatic tire, a development of company president Paul W. Litchfield to equip U.S. military tanks.
The Serranos hosted the first Mass in their home and continued to do so while working with Litchfield to find property for a church building.
Litchfield hired an architect. Local cattle rancher Tom Doyle and Frank C. Brophy — the son of Brophy College Preparatory founder Ellen A. Brophy —financed and led construction.
The 125-seat mission church was built across the street from what is now the Wigwam Resort, which at the time served as a collection of guest houses for Goodyear executives visiting from company headquarters in Akron, Ohio.
St. Thomas Aquinas Mission Church opened as part of the Diocese of Tucson and later operated within the parish of Avondale, Goodyear and Litchfield Park created in 1956 by Bishop Daniel Gercke. The church and parish became part of the Diocese of Phoenix when it was established in 1969. Six years later, in 1975, St. Thomas Aquinas became a separate parish, with Fr. Eamon Barden as its first pastor.
THE MISSION CHURCH IS REPLACED
The Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law, a book of ecclesiastical laws developed centuries ago and formalized in 1917 that governs the worldwide Church, directs every diocese to be divided into “distinct parts or parishes,” (Canon 374 Sec. 1)
A parish is described as a “certain community of the Christian faithful stably constituted in a particular church.” Its care is entrusted to a pastor under the authority of the bishop.
(Canon 515, Sec. 1) Only after hearing from a diocese’s presbyterial council, can a bishop establish, dissolve or change a parish. (Canon 515 Sec. 2)
That 1975 act by Bishop Edward McCarthy marked the beginning of nearly a half century of exponential growth for St. Thomas Aquinas.
Although at the time 300 families called the parish home, more arrived as the West Valley began to expand.
By 1983, an activity center and rectory had been built on land purchased almost a decade earlier at the corner of Indian School and Old Litchfield roads. A new church, seating 725, was dedicated there in 1986.
The first Mass followed a procession carrying the Blessed Sacrament from the old Mission church to the new one.
That second church would serve for about a decade before the booming population led St. Thomas Aquinas to search anew for larger capacity.
The Diocese of Phoenix capped the search in 1999, closing on the purchase of the 37.5 acres where the present church now sits. The building is part of a campus that includes an activity center, dining hall, administrative offices and St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Elementary School. The church and school opened in 2003.
‘HEART AND SOUL OF OUR FAMILY’
Parishioners wore broad smiles and spoke glowingly of their church home and family, and its journey.
“It’s a huge day,” exclaimed Sandra Dowling, a member of the Parish Council.
A mother of four and grandmother of nine, Dowling said, “This church means everything to us. It’s part of the heart and soul of our family.”
“It’s really a community; it’s not just a church. They just love each other. They’ve stuck together. They’ve been through thick and thin. They’ve just done anything and everything to spread their love of the LORD and make sure this (city) knows (His love).”
Fr. Buenger said that spirit was first evident in those who founded and fostered St. Thomas Aquinas.
“We should be humbled by the men, women and children who built this parish from the ground up and who would want us to continue their legacy of making this a holy place, filled with God’s love and grace, where we serve Him in our humble service of others. As we go forward in these next hundred years, let us (ask) for the grace of humility and understanding of how God is calling us to be saints in our daily lives,” he said in his Homily.
Marie Wells, 84, said she sensed a certain atmosphere when she and her husband, Jim, also 84, arrived from Sedona in 1968.
“I knew it was a community we could generate and grow with,” she said.
The Wells raised seven children in the parish.
Joana Wells, one of their daughters, who now lives in the Denver area, used to run up and down the aisles of the Mission Church when she was a child.
“I was baptized in this church. I grew up in this community. It means so much to me,” she said.
St. Thomas’ centennial comes after some churches in other parts of the country have closed due to dwindling attendance.
The occasion was another reflection of the Diocese of Phoenix’s growth, said Bishop Dolan after Mass.
“It says an awful lot about the people of God here in Avondale. It says a lot about the people who have embraced the Catholic Church and, more importantly, the center of the Church — who is Christ Jesus. So, it’s an absolute joy,” he said.
A longstanding parish adds another element to the lives of the faithful, pointed out Fr. Dustin Dought, executive director of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of the Secretariat of Divine Worship.
“There’s a certain wisdom that a parish community has because of its age. It is a celebration of having been a part of a community, doing Christ’s work for decades.”
“This church has deep roots, a tradition, (and) a deep identity,” said Fr. Dought in a Nov. 3 phone interview.
A church’s dedication and anniversary, as well as the Feast of its Patron, are part of the Liturgical calendar, he noted.
“Just as we celebrate birthdays and baptisms, it’s important to celebrate communities on the date of their birth,” he said.
The Secretariat of Divine Worship carries out the work of the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship, which oversees all matters relating to liturgy.
While St. Thomas Aquinas is among the Diocese’s oldest Catholic communities, it is younger as a formal parish than a number of its fellow parishes.
Sacred Heart in Prescott, the Diocese’s oldest parish, was established in 1877. St. Mary’s Basilica, next to the Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix, is its second oldest, established in 1881. More than 20 parishes across the Diocese are over 75 years old, according to diocesan archives.
A century from now, Fr. Buenger hopes St. Thomas Aquinas will remain a beacon of God’s love in the West Valley.
For 100 years, he said, people have come to the parish “to hear the truth.” They also have felt God’s love in the hospitality of His people.
“They will come up to me (after Mass) and say, ‘Father, we just feel so at home here. This is amazing.’
“Love is why we are here, in this world; in this beautiful church. It is exactly what God wants from each of us: to love Him and to serve Him and our sisters and our brothers.”
WHO WAS THOMAS AQUINAS?
The patron saint of students and universities, Thomas was well-known for his writings in philosophy and theology, including “Summa Theologiae,” five volumes of thought on all the Christian mysteries.
He died in 1274 at age 49 and was canonized by Pope John XXII in 1323.