It was the second Sunday of the fall semester and parishioners flocked to St. Thomas More. A newly added third row of risers elevated the choir in voice and spirit, and congregants crowded along the walls because the pews were so packed.
During a final hymn, Nolan Reilly was playing full organ. As the wind burst through the pipes to fill the church with music, Reilly sat puzzled as never before. He couldn’t hear the notes he was playing.
“What’s happening?” a cantor in the choir asked.
“I have no idea,” Reilly responded. Then his eyes welled with tears as he looked around to see the congregation singing louder than the organ played.
That 2014 Mass was a turning point for St. Thomas More, when the labors of what Father James Aubrey Goins had been planting in the church began to bear fruit.
Goins was assigned to St. Thomas More Catholic Church four years before, when there was no choir, a cantor sat in a metal folding chair next to a mic, and student ministry was “a guitar and pizza.” Now, nearly a decade after Goins’ arrival, a once ponderous parish is so vibrant it will soon expand into new quarters that will house its flock long after the father who helped resurrect it has moved on.
The first Catholic group on OU’s campus was created by students in 1920, according to the parish website.
“The Catholic students who chose to come to OU were sort of ignored for a while,” Goins said.
The following year, the Knights of Columbus built Columbia Hall at 535 University Boulevard – today a private residence – as a dormitory to male Catholic students. In 1926, the Diocese of Oklahoma contracted with the Sisters of Divine Providence to build Newman Hall – now owned by OU and used for storage – for female Catholic students on the corner of Boyd and Chautauqua. The same year, the first Catholic chapel was dedicated to serve the University of Oklahoma. The chapel was named Mater Admirabilis, or Mother Most Admirable, per the request of a Chicago woman who made a considerable donation to the chapel. The “graceful little Gothic building,” which is now privately owned, still sits at 717 West Boyd in Norman and is commonly referred to as “The Chouse” by locals.
All in all, OU’s Catholics remained largely ignored, Goins said.
A religious congregation took charge of the chapel until the first chaplains arrived. In 1959, Father Ernest Flusche requested the chapel’s name to be changed to St. Thomas More, honoring a saint who was a scholar and attorney, more fitting for the university setting.
In the 1960s, university housing began to grow south of campus. The diocese began plans to establish a parish and relocate St. Thomas More closer to students. In 1977, the parish contracted with OU architecture professor Raymond Yeh to design a new parish on the corner of Jenkins and Stinson.
The building was completed in 1979 when about 56,000 people lived in Norman, 17,000 students attended OU and about 2,000 of those identified as Catholics.
Forty years later, all those numbers have roughly doubled, and when the additions to St. Thomas More open soon, so will the seating in its sanctuary.
Still, a Catholic parish on a secular campus in the heart of the Bible Belt presents a unique set of challenges, but Goins also sees those as blessings.
“The fact that we are a minority has helped Catholics,” said Goins. “We have always been a tight-knit community.”
Other things, however, have changed.
“Drinking, smoking pot, promiscuity – those are not new temptations,” he said, speaking of today’s college students. “But in my day, you could do something, and it would be swept under the rug. Now, it’s probably going to be filmed and posted for all to see. It’s much more punitive in that way. I feel sorry for students in that regard.”
Additionally, atheism in Oklahoma was just getting started when Goins was in college. Now, Goins has to work harder to show students why it’s reasonable to be Catholic.
“We’re not psycho, superstitious or clinging to fairy tales,” Goins said. “It’s more work now – discipleship and conversations are more crucial.”
Goins himself needed a conversation with a priest himself to spark his interest in the church. As a young college student in the 70s, he knocked on the door of the priest at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in Chickasha.
“I’m looking for God,” Goins, then a freshman at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, remembers saying, “and I was wondering if I could talk to you.” He had never talked to a priest before.
“Well, you are looking for God,” came the response. “You don’t need to worry too much because God has found you and will show you the way.”
He would never forget that conversation, the exploration it prompted in a young college student who would go on to meet countless priests throughout the next years before converting to Catholicism, entering the seminary and becoming a priest himself on June 5, 1992.
From the start at St. Thomas More, Goins had big ideas and surrounded himself with other big thinkers.
Goins found Reilly, an undergraduate at the American Organ Institute at OU. Then an organist at St. Phillip Neri in Midwest City, he left to help with Goins’ plans to revamp the parish.
Reilly inherited control of the music ministry. He started a chant schola, a university type of program that brings singers to learn together. He built a choir. They launched the Choral Scholars program that offered scholarships to voice students to sing in the choir, giving students experience while making money doing what they train to do professionally.
“About one-third of the choir is non-Catholic,” Reilly said, “but a few of the scholarship singers have gone on to become Catholic. One of our paid singers went to seminary for a brief period.”
Reilly sees this – a major part of Goins’ initiative to help the parish grow – as a way to connect the arts and serve the university.
“Father Jim came here to spark something, to enable the parish to see its own gifts and to use them to infinity and beyond,” Reilly said.
Goins swore that anything you put into a music program, you get back.
“You’re never wasting money or time into something of quality,” Reilly said, echoing Goins’ teachings to his church family.
The lessons learned revealed themselves in an increase of weekly churchgoers. The Sunday evening Mass used to be the largest because it was the student Mass. When the full choir started to shine at the 11 a.m. Mass, students – and even non-Catholics – started showing up.
“They heard about the music. They heard about Father Jim’s speaking,” Reilly said of how the investments began to flourish.
“The numbers on any given Sunday – overflowing with people. On an Ash Wednesday Mass, we stopped counting at 1,000. There were people standing in the hallways to the bathroom.”
Now, as the parish expands, Goins was adamant about keeping the music and the arts at the forefront. The new church will have an old, traditional model. The choir will be in the back loft.
“The sound comes out through the top of the roof, not straight into the bodies,” Reilly said, speaking of the acoustics in the new building that will complement the voices of the choir and the sounds of the organ while removing the distraction of a 30-person choir. It’s all a design meant to keep “the people focused and the music beautiful.”
“Father Jim supports the staff, the art and beauty all within the context of liturgy,” said Dr. Damin Spritzer, an organist at the parish.
Beyond music, missionaries have been central to Goins’ plan at St. Thomas More, young adults right out of college, who devote a few years to serving the students on campuses.
One of the first people that former OU student Moses Llauder connected with at St. Thomas More was one such missionary. Llauder was a successful business student who thought he had his life planned out.
But after countless nights of battling stress and uneasiness, Llauder decided to start working on his spirituality.
“I left the Church earlier on, but I never really intellectually pursued the Church’s knowledge,” he said.
He called the St. Thomas More’s office, and the next Wednesday showed up for dinner and discussion.
“I had very immature expectations going in,” he said. “I had this idea in my head that everyone was going to be obsessed with Jesus and overly awkward.”
Then he met Dorian Arellano, who had a cap on backward and wore clothes that Llauder would wear.
“He understood my situation,” Llauder said of the young missionary. It wasn’t “awkward” or “weird.” The community was welcoming and understood where Llauder was in his faith.
Soon, Llauder came to the church offices to hang out after class.
“I think Father Jim is in his office,” one of the students told Llauder, “if you’d like to go talk to him.”
“That’s kinda weird,” Moses thought, “Do priests just talk to kids?”
He walked into Goins’ office. Frasier, Goins’ golden retriever, was sitting on the floor. Llauder didn’t know where to start.
“I used to be Catholic,” he remembers starting. “I don’t want to go to Mass though, because I don’t want biases of my experience in the church to interfere.” He felt going would be disrespectful to those who are Catholic when he was used to going through the motions and not trying to really understand what was happening.
“As a priest of the Catholic Church,” he remembers Goins saying with a solemn yet authentic voice like a father to a son, “I just can’t in my good conscience advise you not to go to Mass.”
After that, the two talked weekly – about life, the church, the rosary and what true love is.
“I asked him a really difficult question once,” Llauder said. “It was gnawing at me to know what true love is.”
“God calls us to love one another as we love ourselves,” Llauder remembers saying to Goins. “I find that hard because I feel like I don’t love myself the way I should or the way God wants me to.”
“Oh. Huh. Wow,” Goins slowly responded. “You started really difficult.” But after thinking for a moment, Goins gave a straightforward answer. “It’s simple.” And he left it there, a seed planted for the future.
“He was perfect for relating to a kid that is trying to seek the truth,” Llauder said.
Goins’ work as a father figure plays out in other ways.
Reilly remembers Goins once preaching the same homily for the third time at the 11 a.m. Mass on a particularly moving Sunday when a baby in the front row would not stop crying. Goins, mid sermon, walked over slowly to the pew, picked up the child and started gently rocking the baby in his arms.
The child fell asleep. Goins finished his homily with the baby in his arms.
“If it were anyone else, I would have thought it was a publicity stunt,” Reilly said. “But watching it happen – it was the most genuine reaction. We were all focused on what was happening.”
Goins develops close relationships with the students at the parish as well.
Llauder recalled how Goins would talk about Zak Boazman, a former student and now priest.
“When Zak came in and did his first homily… you could see Father holding back tears,” Llauder said. “He looked like a dad. It was the coolest…Those are my favorite moments, to see him in the act of love.”
Llauder married his bride, whom he met at the church, on June 22, 2019, St. Thomas More’s feast day. Goins officiated the ceremony. Llauder was excited for his family to see the man who led him back to the church.
Llauder remembers Goins speaking about him at the altar.
“Whenever he was talking about the people he loved, I remember his face. As he was talking about me, while looking at me, I just recall that face; just a reflection of Jesus’ love.”
Goins loves to officiate weddings. He lets the bride do almost anything.
“It’s your day, do whatever,” he said. “You’re the bride.”
The moment he loves the most?
“When the doors of the church open and the bride walks in – everyone sees the bride walk in. I watch the groom’s face as he sees his beautiful bride. It’s a great moment… And the brides are always beautiful, simply because they are the bride.”
Spoken like the father of the bride.
Goins wanted to build a bride’s church, a church where young people would want to get married, a church with a long aisle to extend the bride’s walk to her groom.
The metaphor is deeply woven into Catholic theology. In the ancient world, the bride waited for the bridegroom. Christians believe that the church is wedded to Christ, waiting for Him.
Goins lives this metaphor, laying down his life for his church, his bride.
“They were functional, but not beautiful,” Goins said of churches built after the Second Vatican Council, but speaking in a way that resonates with the sense of mission he’s brought to St. Thomas More. “The world needs beauty. The faith is beautiful, and it needs beautiful churches to express it.”
Accordingly, Goins wanted to build the most beautiful church the parish could afford. Donors from across the country funded construction of the new building. Students took part in “Ten Buck Sunday” where they could donate a little of their own money weekly, too.
When it opens, slated for Christmas Eve Mass, the church’s new ceiling will wear a veil of Marian Stars. A statue of St. Thomas More will stand out front, pointing at students who feel called to enter. The design will mimic the Great Reading Room in the Bizzell Memorial Library, blending anew staples of the parish and the university, the spiritual and the scholarly.
“Just as brides are beautiful,” Goins said, his house full of warmth, music and love, its future secure, “so should churches be beautiful.”