Worship and Community at the St. Thomas More Chapel

Notre Dame’s law school is sprawled, Gothic-architecture style, along the main drag of campus. It is proudly the nation’s oldest Catholic law school, and it is home to high-profile professors and excellent research and events. But high achievement can come at a cost. Stress, money, and other worldly pressures can distract from the goal of following Christ. 

Amidst the restlessness that can characterize their academic environment, a dedicated group of students and professors find their peace in the law school’s chapel. Located beneath Eck Commons, the chapel is dedicated to one of the Church’s most famous saints, a 16th-century English lawyer, statesman, and writer by the name of Thomas More. More, executed for treason after opposing King Henry VIII’s separation from the Catholic Church, is believed to have offered these as his last words: “I die the King’s good servant, and God’s first.”

More is a compelling example of what it means to practice law and live for Christ. He is a witness to the fact that the legal profession, for all of the jokes made at its expense, can be “the narrow gate” (cf. Matt. 7:13) for those called to it. 

To live out this vocation, it helps to have a chapel like this one in the heart of the law school. The first thing you notice upon entering is the physical beauty of the space. The tabernacle, constructed of gold and silver, sits directly behind the altar and under stained glass full of Eucharistic imagery. Hanging over the altar is a stunning crucifix. Mary, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Thomas More are represented in stained glass around the chapel, while a tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe rests on the corner wall. 

This beauty attracts people to worship here (author’s note: this place got me finally to daily mass). There’s a dedicated, tight-knit community that attends mass, making time each day at 5:15 pm (and 12:30 pm on Fridays) to participate in the Holy Mass and give thanks for His many blessings, and they offer their thoughts here.

Melinda Holmes, sacristan and second-year law student:

When I was deciding where to go to law school, the presence of a chapel and daily Mass inside the law school here at Notre Dame almost made the decision for me. There is something special about coming together with classmates and professors to worship. It is a reminder that faith should be at the center of everything I do. Right now, I’m a student, and having a chapel and community right here in the law school helps me keep my work and life centered around Christ.

Daniel VanNostrand, sacristan and a third-year law student:

Our community in the law school chapel is my favorite thing about Notre Dame. It says a lot that, given our close proximity to the beautiful Basilica, so many people choose to attend Mass in our relatively simple chapel. One of the things that I love about our space is that it is a part of our everyday lives; just an elevator’s ride down from where we do our homework. Being able to celebrate Mass in the middle of where we attend class, commune with our friends, and often eat meals helps to remind us that Christ is at the center of everything that we do. The legal profession is one often harmed by substance abuse and depression, by people lost in high-powered jobs without a grounding in what is truly fulfilling. Even in law school, we can get caught up in our readings, our essays, and cramming for finals, to say nothing of the many pressures we face outside of academia. 

But for half an hour a day throughout the week or an hour on Sunday, we can set all that aside and gather together to remember what is really important in life. The fact that students, staff, professors, and even family members and undergrads gather at our Mass also serves to remind us that the roles we fill on a day-to-day basis are more ephemeral than our status as brothers and sisters in Christ. We pray together, listen to homilies tailored to the practice of the law together, consume the Eucharist together, sing (as best we can) together, and often fellowship with one another outside the chapel after Mass. The bonds we form there carry out into the rest of our lives; many of my closest friends at NDLS were made at or after Mass. As the head sacristan of the law school, I also am privileged to organize our many volunteers in liturgical ministry. I am always amazed by the willingness of my fellow students to take time out of their busy schedules to participate as sacristans, lectors, and Eucharistic ministers; their dedication and willingness to serve speaks highly of them, and contributes to the character of our “different kind” of law school. 

It has also connected me with earlier generations of NDLS students, who return to our campus to worship at our chapel at various times throughout the year. As my friends and I ready ourselves to graduate in the too-near future, I have also spent time thinking about those who are following us. Mass at the law school looks so different now than when we arrived; the old regulars have gone on to live new lives, while new faces have begun to fill the pews. Things continue on, new voices learn the Salve Regina, and a community changes but never diminishes. In a way it is like the sanctuary lamps, changed on a semi-weekly basis but ever burning brightly in recognition of the Presence of our G-d.

Lydia Woods, third-year law student:

I have always wanted there to be a close connection between my faith and my studies. One of the reasons why I chose Notre Dame for law school was because I thought it would be a place where I could form that connection. Having a chapel in the law school itself, and being able to go to daily mass after classes or in the middle of studying has been really helpful in keeping me grounded in the meaning of my studies. However, I am most grateful for the beautiful and surprising friendships that have been formed and fostered by having a chapel in the law school and going to mass with my classmates. More than anything else, these friendships have been able to show me the meaning of the connection between my faith and my studies and work.

Michael Bradley, first-year law student (and head of the Rover’s board of directors): 

I have loved attending Mass in the Law School ever since my undergraduate years at Notre Dame. I’m drawn to the Mass there by the beauty and intimacy of the St. Thomas More Chapel and by the friendliness and familiarity of the Mass-going community––undergraduate, grad, and law students alongside professors and campus staff. For me, the chapel has been a meaningful site of prayers offered and comforts received. I think of it as the heart of the Law School.

Tim Bradley, a third-year law student (Rover alum and member of the board):

We are spoiled at Notre Dame when it comes to easy access to the Sacraments. In undergrad, I was able to attend the 10 pm weekday Mass in my dorm simply by walking down the nearest flight of stairs and down one hallway. During my time between undergraduate studies and law school, I realized that I had taken for granted the proximity to the Sacraments that Notre Dame provides for its students. I consider myself blessed to be able to attend a Catholic law school that takes its mission seriously. 

It is an extraordinary opportunity for us to be able to attend daily Mass with our peers and professors in the same building in which we study and socialize. Our community prays together, and that is no small thing. The daily celebration of the Mass taking place in the heart of the law school serves as a reminder, both to those who attend and those who do not, that the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life, and that while our legal studies are important aspects of our personal vocations, they are not, in the end, the most important aspects of our lives.

Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois (and occasional celebrant at the chapel):

As an Adjunct Professor at Notre Dame Law School, I do not reside at the University, so my weekly visits to the campus to teach on Friday mornings give me only a glimpse of life on campus. During these brief encounters with the unique culture of Notre Dame Law School, however, I have been impressed by the depth of commitment to the Catholic faith that is apparent in many students and faculty members as well. 

In particular, it is a privilege for me as a Bishop to celebrate the 12:30 Mass occasionally in the St. Thomas More Chapel on Fridays, after I finish teaching my class. On All Saints’ Day, November 1st, we had a standing-room-only crowd in attendance for Mass, which was preceded by one of the law students chanting the Litany of the Saints, with the congregation singing “pray for us” in response to the invocations to each of the named saints. This depth of religious fervor does indeed seem to be unique, as I have not seen anything similar in my own experience elsewhere as a law student or professor.

Nick Marr is a senior from San Diego, CA. He studies history and political theory. As a 10 year old, he argued with a Supreme Court justice about who was a bigger Notre Dame fan. It was neither his first nor his last argument. He can be reached at nmarr@nd.edu.