Jim Goins, leading St. Thomas More to new era

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 FAITH 

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. 

THE MOVEMENT

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.  

THE MISSION

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.

Goins understood. 

“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.”

THE FUTURE

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.”

Two years in a Mexican convent

My dad cried the day I stood next to the altar reading from the book of Ezekiel.

I was speaking God’s Word in Spanish during the courtyard Mass in front of the thirty-something women – all dressed in long, gray habits, veils that covered their hair – in front of my fellow aspirants and their religious families. It was the first time he saw me all week after dropping me off at the little convent in Guadalajara. He was the only atheist in the pews. 

I didn’t know that he cried that day. I didn’t know until a year later, the next spring break I spent at the convent I hoped to join.


My dad and I walked into the 7-Eleven at Plaza Guadalajara on a summer night in late June after I graduated high school. It was the first trip we’d taken together since he announced he wouldn’t be married to my mom anymore. I still hated him for that.

Martina was working the night shift at the convenience store. As she rang us up, my dad and I introduced ourselves and prompted conversation. We had an ongoing competition to see who could practice their Spanish most.

I was wearing the diamond cross on my neck. It’s the Tiffany’s cross my dad bought me two months before the announcement, and it’s clung to my neck since. I usually hid it under my shirt when I was walking the streets of Mexico. But the cross gleamed proudly on my chest that night.

“She’s gonna be a nun someday,” my dad said, pointing to my cross. Martina hadn’t been to church in years. We talked about the different ways we were raised Catholic. She wanted to take me to the convent in her neighborhood, Huentitán Abajo, when she knew I was serious about entering religious life. The next day, we were on the train with Martina to visit Las Hijas de Jesús Buen Pastor (The Daughters of Christ the Good Shepherd).

I knew I wanted to be a religious sister – not a nun, as my dad said. Religious sisters aren’t cloistered; they live in the city and work daily with the surrounding communities. I had known for a couple years at this point. But I hadn’t decided where. I applied to college per my parents’ request. The gift was my dad’s way of showing acceptance for my decision, but he and my mom agreed that I had to have a plan for after high school.

It didn’t look like a convent, not from the outside. The tall, stucco walls crowned with electric wire were anything but inviting. Martina pressed the call button next to the massive steel doors and explained who we were. Sor Lilia opened the door and invited us in.

Her habit brushed her ankles and her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. The gray in her tunic was two shades darker than her veil. Short-cut hair poked out of the coif that brimmed her face. Her belt drooped loosely around her waist. There was a pocket on either hip to fill with rosaries, a pocket watch, prayer cards and whatever else needed safekeeping throughout the day. It was almost impossible to see her bright blue eyes because she squinted every time she smiled. She always smiled.

Sor Lilia showed me around the convent. We sat and talked in the garden for hours. Other sisters who were watering the flowers and sweeping leaves introduced themselves. A Marian statue guarded the garden. She was beautiful, carved out of white stone. Her soft smile was inviting and comforting.

Classrooms and a playground lined one wall of the convent. They taught children up to fifth grade. 

The kitchen and dining room were situated on the adjacent wall. Three sisters cooked three meals for the convent of 35 – and whoever was visiting. They cooked for the school children. But only the sisters and postulates – who lived full-time in the convent, but had not yet taken their final vows – could eat in the dining room. A photo of Pope Francis blessed the wall above the dining tables. There was a TV across the room so they could listen to the pope’s speeches and announcements. On Wednesdays, they spoke only in Italian to ensure they could understand his words.

The other wall housed the sisters. Only they knew what it looked like inside.

I’ve said the rosary countless times with the sisters around that statue. I’ve taught those kids math and religious education. I’ve sang songs with them, dug holes in the playground with them. I’ve eaten in the dining room with the sisters. My hands have cleaned seemingly infinite dishes in that kitchen. I dreamed of living in the sisters’ quarters.

For a year I was under Sor Lilia’s wing. We talked weekly and went over the homework she assigned to me. I spent evenings in the chapel in Oklahoma reflecting on the questions that the homework provided. I dug into my prayer life, my history with depression and past boyfriends.  I was completely transparent. I craved to be back in the convent any time I wasn’t. I craved the joy that the sisters had. I craved religious life.

I visited the convent on weekend trips throughout the semesters my first two years of college, and stayed for whole weeks when I had breaks in school. Sor Lilia was moved to a convent in Veracruz so Sor Latziry took me in and helped guide me through my discernment, the period of time I was contemplating religious life. But I missed Sor Lilia. I missed her messages every week. I missed the blue eyes always hidden by a smile. 


“You’ve never used a mop before?” Karla asked. We became close friends as aspirants. We had the same birthday.

“Never. We’ve always used a Swiffer Wet Jet.” Karla, who grew up just down the road from the convent, didn’t know what that was. She critiqued how I wrung out the water and dragged the soppy mop around the tile. That became my new regular job there – and a joke between the girls.

When a sister had a birthday, the convent threw a party. At the last party I was at, there was wine. Lots of wine. Enough wine for 35 sisters, the six postulates who lived there and me. Enough wine to get me to teach all the sisters the two step and the Cotton Eyed Joe. Enough wine that the veils came off, and the women’s short hair – hidden since their final vows – bounced as they moved. Enough wine to keep us awake 30 minutes later than usual. We’d been up since 6 a.m., and we’d be up at 6 a.m. tomorrow. And every day after that. The next morning, we regretted losing those 30 minutes. 

The next evening, the sisters, the postulates and I gathered for dinner one day after evening prayer. There were stacks of dozens of fresh tortillas scattered across the table to accompany the chile verde stew I helped prepare.

Sor Laura asked how my family was, especially my dad. He’s the only family member any of the sisters had met. I explained that I was hesitant about him dating again – he had a girlfriend he hid from me for months. I explained that my brothers and I felt he had no regard for our feelings – that he didn’t care that he tore the family apart, and could carry on unscathed.

“He cares, Josie,” Sor Laura said. I shrugged. 

“A year ago when you were reading at the Mass, I sat next to your dad. He cried and cried while you were up there. He cares.”

My dad? I hadn’t even seen his eyes water before. The only time my mom saw him cry in the twenty-something years they knew each other was when his own dad was taken to prison.

I was silent. I didn’t know what to say, how to react to something I couldn’t imagine. Crying? Why? What moved him? What was he feeling? Was he proud? Was he reflecting our family’s recent years?

I never dared ask any of those questions. I would rather dream of an explanation than try to pry it out of him. But he cried. My dad cried.


The night I learned that my dad cried was my last night at the convent. It was the beginning of my last month as an aspirant. It was the last night I would see the sisters. The breakup was a month later.

For years, the convent was my plan, my dream. For years I was “the girl that’s gonna be a nun.” The sisters had given me the best years of my life at that point. They showed me the joy of obedience, taught me the beauty of poverty and living humbly and strengthened me to live chastely.

But, suddenly, I  began to dread the convent, the prayer, the assignments. I was overwhelmed with the idea that maybe I stayed an aspirant because it was easy. It was comfortable and reliable. It began to feel selfish. So it was decided, after talking with Sor Latziry, I would take a break.

I didn’t doubt God or His plan for me. But the pain of losing the sisters as my forever plan pierced me.

The next Sunday, one of my mentors at church asked how the sisters were. My eyes turn red and fill with tears.

“We broke up,” I told her, crying into her shoulder.

“I’m so excited for you,” she said. I tried to show her my confusion, but she wouldn’t unwrap her arms from my body. “You were so happy, filled with so much joy in your time with the sisters. Whatever God really has planned for you will be even better.”

I didn’t know something “even better” existed. I didn’t understand that moving to Mexico and becoming a religious sister was not my ultimate path to a joyful, fruitful and worthwhile life. All I  understood was that I had to find key elements to take from the convent and implement them in my new, secular life. 

Those two years have helped me never desire wealth, because I lived the freedom of owning nothing. Start dating, but never love a man that loved me any less than the sisters. Somehow forgive my dad for marrying a woman I had met only once. And celebrate all my birthdays drinking wine and dancing until bedtime. 

I’m Juan Barriga’s #1 Fan

Who’s Juan Barriga? Don’t Google the name, because the search results won’t lead you to an Ecuadorian doctor and that’s not quite who I’m talking about.

Juan Barriga is a Chilean alternative rock band. And I’m their favorite groupie. How’d I score that title?

Exit Music Bar in Santiago was hosting a live 90’s rock show, so a group of exchange students went for some drinks and entertainment on a Thursday evening in September. My friend Thomas invited his Chilean friends, who happen to be in a rock band of their own.

“So we have a show next week. Are you going?” Pablo Palacios, lead guitarist asked me as the band Bad Mojito was performing shitty 90s covers. It wasn’t hard to convince me to go. I’m always game for live music – especially when I get to see friends of my own play.

We continued to chat about music. I agreed to listen to some of their songs before going to the show, but only if Pablo Palacios, lead guitarist, tried some Steely Dan. I was quite surprised he hadn’t before.

It was a deal. And I went to their show in a bar outside of town. We sat in pillows on the floor; that’s the kind of venue it was. But the hippie vibes didn’t keep Juan Barriga from rocking out all evening. They got the crowd up and dancing and singing along. I went to every show of theirs I could after that.

I started to learn more about their music and the meaning behind their songs. I especially appreciated the time, talent and effort they put into their music. I memorized their songs, not because I wanted to, but because I had been playing their tracks so much.

“It’s so cool that you actually listen to us,” Pablo told me one afternoon. “You’ve gotta bring our music to the U.S. Make us big!” And from then on, I promised to promote Juan Barriga at any opportunity I had.

 

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OU Cousins

Somehow, I always gravitate to the Colombian crowd at the OU Cousins event. This year, I was gonna branch out. Maybe meet some Italians to practice my new language?

But there she was. Sabina Piñeros Torres. Bogotá, Colombia.

I actually met her the semester prior but didn’t realize she’d be staying another year in Oklahoma. We met at the OU Cousins speed dating event, started chatting just to catch up. An hour later, we were the last two people in the room.

“I was just coming here for the food,” she said. “I never had luck with an OU Cousin before.”

“That won’t do. Sabina, will you be my OU Cousin?” I said, promising her I’d be everything a cousin should be. Little did I know she’d be showing me more of her culture than I of my own.

I starred in her student films (her cinematography skills make me look pretty good). We went on monthly coffee dates. A

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