With the number of Catholic families in northeast Wichita growing, Bishop Mark K. Carroll decreed the establishment of a new parish August 15, 1957, the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Rev. Patrick J. Holloran, SJ, president of Chaplain Kapaun Memorial High School for young men, was named pastor. Former parishioners of the Church of the Magdalen and Holy Savior chose St. Thomas Aquinas, theologian and Doctor of the Church, as their patron. Parish membership was 150 families.
By January 1958, a building drive received $22,000 in pledges, and in August 1959, a $350,000 school with kindergarten through eighth grade was dedicated. The Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (BVM) staffed the school. School doors were opened to 317 eager students September 1.
The school became the nucleus of parish life. Mass was celebrated in the gym and parish business was held in the school cafeteria. With steady growth to 295 families, plans were made to expand. Groundbreaking for a north wing of the school, which would include a chapel in the lower level, was held in January 1964. The first Mass was celebrated August 9. In September, Monsignor Robert J. Blanpied became pastor. Bishop Leo C. Byrne dedicated the new chapel in March 1965. On September 3, a tornado hit east Wichita, damaging the school and the adjacent convent.
The first pastoral council was named in 1966. St. Thomas Aquinas families now numbered 350, and over the next several years increased to more than 500 families. Rev. Edward York, a former United States Air Force chaplain and teacher, was named pastor in February 1969.
The Sisters of Charity left the school in 1970 and a lay faculty was hired for that fall. The first Mass in English (not Latin) was celebrated October 2, 1970. Rev. Philip J. Allen, associate pastor, was named administrator and became pastor in December 1972.
By the late 1970s, the parish had grown to 585 families. Space was at a premium. A cafeteria kitchen was needed by the school and the assembly room in the lower level shrank when the Altar Society installed a kitchen. Eleven couples began a feasibility study regarding the possibility of building a church. In October 1980, the Gloria Dei program was initiated to finance and plan for a new church. The goal was $2,000,000. Father Allen placed the program under the protection of Our Mother of Perpetual Help and parishioners began regular daily prayers and novenas to her. By November, the first million was pledged. Following a parish-wide “Impact Sunday,” the drive yielded $210,000 above the goal.
In April 1982, the old rectory was razed and parish and Gloria Dei offices were moved to the lower level of the school. Father Allen took up temporary residence in a home donated to the parish. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held May 16 in the rain. The cornerstone was laid January 29, 1984, for a church that would now be the center of worship for nearly 700 families. Bishop Eugene J. Gerber dedicated the church June 3 with 50 concelebrating priests in attendance. The “Aquinas Organ,” so named by its Philadelphia builder, debuted with three organists, full choir and orchestra. The steeple, figuring so prominently on the skyline, generated enough interest in the surrounding community that public tours of the facility were scheduled for the fall.
Rev. Sean J. O’Shea came to the parish in August 1985. He arrived just as the bishop was introducing to the diocese the stewardship concept of time, talent and treasure. His dream for Catholic education would result in the modernization of the school and the building of the “cloister” to connect the church and school. The rededication took place in January 1988. To help record the history of the parish and reflect on the “good news” of our community, the first issue of Reflections, the parish newsletter, was published in February 1986 and continues to this day.
With membership now at over a thousand families, a program for the future of our parish called VISION 2000 was formalized. The steering committee developed a definitive plan that would meet our needs after conducting a survey of the community. St. Thomas Aquinas School received the 1996 Banner School Award from the Diocese of Wichita and the need to accommodate the ever-increasing enrollment made expansion and enhancements to the school facility a priority. The VISION 2000 appeal began in April 1996, with a goal of raising at least $2,000,000. A novena in May was dedicated to a successful campaign and by August well over $3,000,000 had been pledged.
One goal of VISION 2000 was the institution of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the Chapel of the Nativity. A shrine, built to display the Blessed Sacrament for worshippers, was opened March 2, 1997. The Mission Outreach apostolate was also an outgrowth of the program and over the years has presented several hundreds of thousands of dollars to local, area and world-wide charities.
Students were given a few weeks extended summer vacation in 1997, which allowed all the construction to be accomplished for the opening of school in September. A reported 700 students were enrolled in pre-school through eighth grade, a record number in the history of the school.
On Sunday, February 8, 1998, Bishop Eugene J. Gerber made a pastoral visit to dedicate the new buildings. The latest addition of classrooms, a nursery and pre-school, a new cafeteria/auditorium, a new gym/parish activity center and offices were heralded as state-of-the-art. An open house, reception and parish dinner were held. Invitations went out to all former parish priests, principals, faculty and alumni. More than 900 guests attended.
With many tremendous tasks successfully completed during his nearly 15 years of pastoral direction of St. Thomas Aquinas parish, Father O’Shea’s retirement was announced at the end of 1998.
Rev. Daniel J. Spexarth began his pastoral leadership of the parish January 28, 1999, the feast day of our patron saint. The parish was now at 1550 families. A Wednesday evening Mass, daily confessions before Masses, and adult education classes were added to the calendar to promote spiritual growth. Changes to our church and parish grounds included raising the tabernacle to draw attention to the Eucharist as the center of parish life and a new parking lot and plaza dedicated by Bishop Thomas Olmsted August 15, 2002. The statue of Mary with the Child Jesus was erected as the focal point of the plaza. At the parking lot entrance, the statue of Jesus welcomes all to rest for a while to find relief from daily life. New traditions such as Lenten soup suppers and Easter egg hunts became part of parish life and a Web site to keep us up with the times was developed.
In 2003 our school was named Diocesan School of Academic Excellence, the first award of its kind, and in 2005 the parish developed a Vision Statement, Mission Statement and Parish Motto, as we endeavored to become ever more perfectly One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
During the summer of 2007 the parish celebrated Mass in the school gym while the church nave, sanctuary and vestibule were renovated in preparation for the parish’s Golden Jubilee celebration August 19, 2007. Honored at the jubilee Mass and the reception which followed were parish charter members and the priests who had served our parish over the years. For this special occasion, Father Dan and the parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas received the Apostolic Blessing of Pope Benedict XVI .
Rev. Matthew C. McGinness became the seventh pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish June 15, 2008. Father McGinness was installed by Bishop Jackels at a special Mass October 12, 2008.
At the 37th annual parish dinner honoring our patron, on January 31, 2009, Father Matt formally renamed the parish hall Allen Hall in honor of beloved former pastor Rev. Philip J. Allen, who had passed to his eternal reward September 17, 2008. The parish is currently engaged in strategic planning to take us into 2010 and beyond. The school’s grand jubilee celebration is planned for August 30, 2009, with all former parish priests, staff and alumni invited.
Now as we live in the present, but look to the future with Father Matt leading our parish family of 1400 households, we seek the blessing of Almighty God on our continued endeavors by placing our lives in his hands. We pray that all who grace our church with their presence will find our parish family to be a devoted, faithful and committed people of God who strive to do His holy will in all things.