An initial examination of the belltower did not appear to show signs of structural damage, but college authorities postponed the start-of-the-year Mass of the Holy Spirit, scheduled for Monday morning.
As the new school year began, students arriving at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, had two major obstacles to contend with — one originating in the sky, the other underground.
Tropical Storm Hilary made landfall in California as the first such storm to hit the state in 84 years. The storm was also notable for drenching many normally parched desert and mountain areas, causing widespread flash flooding.
New rainfall records were set throughout the state and flooding has been widespread, but, as of Aug. 21, officials have not recorded any deaths attributed to the storm, which they credit to effective planning. South of the border in Mexico, nearly 3,000 Mexican Marines were mobilized to provide aid and one person was killed by rushing floodwaters, The New York Times reported.
For Thomas Aquinas College, the storm brought high winds and three inches of rain. Students were moving into their dorms that day, and many took shelter there as they set up their rooms for the upcoming semester. Amid the wind and rain, a magnitude 5.1 earthquake rattled the mountains four miles southeast of Ojai, just a few miles from Thomas Aquinas’ campus. Newly hung photos began to fall from the walls, plaster chipped from the walls, and the buildings shook violently, reported Chris Weinkopf, executive director of college relations.
“By God’s grace, no one was harmed, and the damage, though widespread, was not serious,” Weinkopf said in an email to CNA.
“A beloved statue of the college’s patron, St. Thomas Aquinas, came down in the dining hall, St. Joseph Commons. Extensive plaster repairs will be needed in most if not all campus buildings. And in Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity Chapel — the crown jewel of the California campus — a bell became misaligned on its carriage in the 135-foot-high belltower.”
An initial examination of the belltower did not appear to show signs of structural damage, but college authorities postponed the start-of-the-year Mass of the Holy Spirit, scheduled for Monday morning. The morning’s Matriculation Ceremony, when members of the Class of 2027 are formally welcomed, took place as originally planned in the school’s auditorium. Around the same time, the County Building Department declared the chapel safe to use, allowing the Mass to take place that afternoon.
“The chapel is a relatively new building, having been completed in 2009, and it was designed to stand the test of time, even in an earthquake zone,” said Mark Kretschmer, the college’s vice president for operations.
The edifice is “built to withstand Southern California’s seismic uncertainties, at least to the extent that modern technology allows. We’re grateful to God and to the building’s engineers that it held up so well,” he continued.
The only concern that emerged from the chapel’s inspection, Kretschmer said, regarded the stability of the facade itself, and as such the college has cordoned off the chapel plaza out of an abundance of caution until the building’s engineer of record can examine the facade more closely.
The college is no stranger to the menace of natural disasters. The December 2017 Thomas Fire, named for the school, started less than a mile from campus and on its first day spread at a rate of one acre per second. It ultimately burned nearly 300,000 acres, including hundreds of residences in the town of Ventura, making it the largest wildfire in state history up to that point. The college survived the fire without the loss of any major structures.
“We are profoundly grateful that the region weathered both the storm and the earthquake so well, and especially that all remained safe,” President Paul J. O’Reilly said Monday.
“We give thanks to God, to all those who have kept the college in their prayers, and to county officials, who have been so thorough and thoughtful in their assistance.”
In 2021, the school installed a helipad on its campus to assist local firefighters. County-owned Firehawk helicopters can refill their water tanks at the school’s helipad, allowing them to respond to a fire in the nearby mountains and saving them a longer trip to the town of Fillmore.
Thomas Aquinas College’s campus in Santa Paula, California, was founded in 1971 with a New England campus in Massachusetts added to the college in 2019. The two campuses, which receive no funding from the government or the Catholic Church, have a combined enrollment of 439 undergraduate students. The college says it is dedicated to ”renewing what is best in the Western intellectual heritage and to conducting liberal education under the guiding light of the Catholic faith.”
In April of this year, the chapel at the college’s New England campus survived an accidental fire that destroyed the sacristy and caused major smoke damage throughout the newly renovated building. Although the church suffered extensive damage, its structure remained stable, something that Father Greg Markey, head chaplain, believes was the work of God.
After the fire was put out, one of the fire authorities told Father Markey: “You could have lost the whole church very easily. Somebody was watching over you.”