St. Thomas Aquinas Church celebrates its centennial

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Looking back at history 100 years ago, you would find 1919 to be a year of transition. The Treaty of Versailles officially ended WWI as soldiers returned home, the Mexican Revolution was winding down, and the era of Prohibition was getting under way. It was the year that also marked new beginnings such as the passing of the 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, the formation of Grand Canyon National Park and the foundation of a Litchfield Park landmark, St. Thomas Aquinas Mission Church.

During the 1970s, St. Thomas grew to the point it became a separate parish; far too large for a church which seated only 125.

As a new site was selected to accommodate growth, the original church was sold to the Litchfield Elementary School District and its furnishings sold off to raise money for the new building at Old Litchfield and Indian School Roads. Among the items sold was a bell cast in 1924 from St. Louis.

Today St. Thomas Aquinas is substantially larger, having relocated near Thomas and Litchfield roads in Avondale, and hosts an elementary and high school. The original mission church is now owned by the City of Litchfield Park.

To honor the church’s history and the central role it has played in the community, the Litchfield Park Historical Society held an event with historical and cultural exhibits and activities commemorating the centennial of the cornerstone dedication on Sunday, Nov. 3 at the original St. Thomas site on the southwest corner of Neolin Avenue and Wigwam Boulevard.

In 1919, As Litchfield Park blossomed in the desert, its population was estimated at about 1,000, and many of the Catholic Mexican workers were in need of a place of worship. The only other Catholic church in the vicinity at the time was St. Henry’s, 17 miles away in Buckeye. Seeking to fill this need, Southwest Cotton Company helped initiate construction of a Catholic church. Community leaders Frank and Sara Serrano, managers of the general store and post office in Litchfield Park, are said to have helped select the site of what would become St. Thomas Aquinas Mission Church.

Until the church was built, they held Mass in their home. Thomas Doyle, a local cattle rancher, sold Southwest Cotton Company the land for the church, which was later sold to the Tucson Diocese for $1.00. As Mr. Doyle was also instrumental in facilitating the building of the church, it is believed Bishop Gercke of the Tucson Diocese chose the name of the mission church in Thomas Doyle’s honor.

The cornerstone was laid on Nov. 3, 1919. The building would be sold to the Diocese for $2,829.35 as reimbursement for building costs, but it was not completed until 1923, four years after the project began. The delay in construction was likely due to an economic depression which hit in 1920, nearly bankrupting Southwest Cotton Company’s parent company, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Despite such setbacks, noted Pasadena architect, Reginald D. Johnson was hired to draw up the plans. An MIT graduate like Paul Litchfield, Mr. Johnson was known regionally for his mastery of the Spanish Revival style in his homes for wealthy clients, but also became deeply involved in contemporary styled affordable housing. He was also involved in the design of houses of worship in the Los Angeles area, which ranged in size from chapels to cathedrals. A number of his buildings have earned historic designations, one of which is Saint Saviour’s Chapel at Harvard-Westlake High School in Studio City, which bears a striking resemblance to his design for St. Thomas.

Once complete, the mission church was overseen by Immaculate Heart of Mary, the first Spanish-speaking church in Phoenix, until 1943. Responsibility was later handed over to Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Glendale, then St. John Vianney in Goodyear. Then in the ‘70s, it moved and expanded into its current home near Thomas and Litchfield roads.

Editor’s note: Ms. Hegarty is the vice president of the Litchfield Park Historical Society and Museum.

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