Taking a step into St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel feels like taking a step into a home. This is not only because of its location in a restored Columbia house, but also because of the welcoming atmosphere.
The center serves as a place for University of South Carolina students who identify with Catholicism to practice their faith. Students are able to come for weekly masses and scheduled events as well as just to spend time with those who understand them.
“I had gone to mass at home with my parents from time to time, but everyone there was older and I did not feel completely in place there,” said Melissa Circelli. “When I started coming to St. Thomas More, I finally felt at home while at church.”
A junior at USC, Circelli began attending evening masses at the chapel on Sundays when she was a sophomore. She wanted to spend more time with her faith while in college. She never thought to visit the center when she lived right next door as a freshman.
Circelli credits St. Thomas More as part of the reason she began to feel at home at USC. She began feeling better about herself and noticed that she was always meeting new people.
“Today I decided to come sit at the center and study for an hour,” said Circelli. “In that amount of time I have met and spent time talking to three new people. I have never experienced a place quite like that anywhere else at USC.”
The feeling of welcoming is all around at St. Thomas More. The former house was turned into a place for Catholic students in 1954, but has still kept a homey atmosphere. The living room is full of couches and tables for studying and spending time with friends. Sit there for even ten minutes and you are bound to strike up conversation with someone new.
Students walk into the center only to be greeted by Father Marcin Zahuta’s German shepherd. Students are encouraged to play with him and to come by even just for a moment if they are in need of a hug from a dog.
“I always tell the students that they are welcome to come walk my dog whenever they want,” said Father Marcin. “I leave the leash hanging by the door and only ask that they spend a little less time with him than I do so he doesn’t forget who his owner is.”
As pastor to a primarily college community, Zahuta understands that his personality and his homilies should be in tune with his audience. He often walks through the house asking the students about school and their social lives. He does not spend time lecturing the students or admonishing them for activities they might take part in while in college. Instead, he tries to encourage them to learn how to interpret their own faith as young adults.
“Father Marcin understands that we are in college and we might find ourselves partying or drinking,” said Circelli. “We are all just trying to balance our social lives, our academic lives and our faith. His homilies relate to that.”
This is a sentiment that many students who frequent St. Thomas More agree with. The students find comfort in each other and encourage each other to keep up with their faith.
“When I was a freshman I just found a friend that was also Catholic, and we began going to mass together every week,” said student Brandon Marrone. “There are weeks where one of us doesn’t feel like getting up and going to church. But when we hold each other accountable, it helps remind us that we want to be there.”
The chapel is small, but the weekend masses tend to fill up quickly. At any given mass dozens of students are in attendance with some families and older members of the USC community sprinkled into the crowd. The staff does everything they can to make anyone who comes feel that they are in a place of understanding.
Following the evening mass every Sunday, St. Thomas More holds suppers for any student that wishes to come. These suppers give the students a place to feel like a family, especially for the freshmen who may not get home-cooked meals very often in their dorms. Sometimes meals are made by the students. Other times parishioners provide the meals, but everyone is involved in the set up and clean up.
“It feels like family dinner at home and I always try to go to them,” said Circelli. “A lot of the Catholic students are from northern states and don’t have the chance to eat with their families very often. It’s nice to feel like you have a version of that while you are away from home.”
In addition to these dinners, the center has other weekly activities. Thursday nights provide students with an alternative to “thirsty Thursdays” in bars downtown. For members of Greek life, missionaries help lead Bible studies on Tuesday nights.
St. Thomas More is open to all students whether they want to hang out in the living room in their free time and attend all of the weekly activities or if they just want to come to mass every once in a while.
“There is no feeling of judgement when you’re here,” said Circelli. “Everyone here is always friendly and willing to go to church with you if you don’t like going alone. We are all just balancing all of the things we have on our plates.”