Thomas Aquinas College Goes Bi-Coastal
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In what ranks as one of the most generous collaborations between two colleges, the Moody Center, a training institute for evangelical Protestants, has transferred ownership of almost all of its Northfield Seminary campus in Massachusetts to California-based Thomas Aquinas College, one of the most faithful Catholic colleges in the United States. And it was not a sale — it was gift. A gift as in, “Take our campus. Please.”

According to the Recorder newspaper of Greenfield, Massachusetts, the National Christian Foundation, the umbrella organization that owned the property, signed over about 30 buildings and half the campus’s acreage to Thomas Aquinas College. Emmitt Mitchell of the Moody Foundation, Michael F. McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College, and Larry Edge, manager of Northfield Campus LLC (an affiliate of the National Christian Foundation), assembled at the Northfield school to sign the documents that deeded the property to Aquinas.

Speaking of the transfer, Edge said, “This has been a labor of love.… We feel very confident that we are heading in the right direction as we pass the campus off to Thomas Aquinas College and the Moody Center. Both will really be a part of this community and help this community.”

Mitchell characterized the search for new owners as a kind of spiritual and intellectual quest. “I thought ‘First of all, we need to find someone who has a mission, which is similar to what Moody had,’” Mitchell said. “We needed management that could see the big picture, that could understand the advantages that Northfield gave them and take advantage of them so that this becomes a diamond.”

McLean has announced that the college has already hired four faculty members for its New England campus, and expects to enroll between 350 and 400 students. That number may seem low, but it is on par with enrollment at Thomas Aquinas’s campus in Santa Paula, California. And there’s a method to Aquinas’s apparent madness.

The Northfield campus solves a dilemma that has been perplexing the college’s administrators for some time. In a press release President McLean wrote, “To maintain an intimate community of learners at the college, we have thought it important to keep the student body on our California campus at 400 or fewer.” As a result, every year Aquinas has had to turn away lots of promising applicants. A second campus enables Aquinas to double the total size of its student body without compromising its commitment to offering students all the advantages of studying at a small school.

It was Dwight Moody, a renowned Protestant revivalist preacher, evangelist, and Biblical scholar, who in 1879 founded the Massachusetts school as the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies. Two years later, in 1881, he opened nearby the Mount Hermon School for Boys. The two schools consolidated into a single coeducational preparatory high school in 1971 — the same year Thomas Aquinas College was founded — and maintained both campuses. In 2005, the school moved to the Mount Hermon campus and Northfield’s buildings stood vacant.

Northfield has some fine examples of late 19th-century architecture, including the handsome Sage Chapel, which can accommodate approximately 700 worshippers. The chapel was built in the medieval English Gothic style, and the traditional design of the interior will make it relatively simple to adapt the chapel to Catholic worship. An altar, a few statues, a communion rail, holy water fonts at the doors, and the Sage Chapel is good to go.

The school is located in western Massachusetts, on the Vermont border, about 90 miles northwest of Boston. I know this part of the country: it is a mostly rural stretch of the Connecticut River Valley. It’s not take-your-breath-away gorgeous like the Rockies, it’s more old-fashioned, romantic, New Englandish beautiful. And the location is great for students who don’t want to be in an urban setting, but don’t want to live like hermits, either. Northfield is within easy striking distance of other college towns such as Amherst and Northampton, cultural centers such as Williamstown, and winter sports venues such as Brattleboro.

If you aren’t familiar with Thomas Aquinas College, the school follows the Great Books approach to education. The faculty guides students through the most important texts in every field — from science and mathematics, to philosophy, theology, and literature. In 1971, when Aquinas was just a start-up, so many Catholic colleges and universities in the United States were losing or compromising their distinctive Catholic character. The founders of Thomas Aquinas College dedicated themselves to passing on to future generations what they defined as “the great intellectual patrimony of our civilization and the wisdom of the Church’s greatest thinkers.”

Since then, year after year, Aquinas has ranked among the best colleges in the nation. The Princeton Review gave Aquinas a score of 96 for academics and 95 for quality of life on campus. The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College hailed Aquinas for its “impressive intellectual rigor that is matched by a commitment to orthodox Catholicism.” And Aquinas made U.S. News & World Report’s Top 40 list of “Great Schools, Great Prices.”

Over the years, members of the college’s alumni have received awards from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities Younger Scholars, as well as countless fellowships to study for advanced degrees.

Aquinas also fosters the Catholic devotional life of its students, faculty, and staff. Mass is offered twice daily, and the first Mass of the day is the traditional Latin Mass. No classes are scheduled during Mass times so everyone on the campus has an opportunity to attend. The college chaplains hear confessions daily. In addition, recitation of the rosary and the Liturgy of the Hours, retreats, holy hours, and processions on major feast days are integral to life at Aquinas.

Not surprisingly for a school that places such emphasis on the spiritual life of its students, more than eleven percent of Thomas Aquinas College alumni have entered the priesthood or the religious life. And now that Aquinas has a new campus, the Catholic Church in America can expect that the college’s vocations will double. I don’t know how that rock-ribbed evangelical Dwight Moody would have felt about those stats, but St. Thomas Aquinas would have been thrilled.

(Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Saints Behaving Badly and This Saint Will Change Your Life.)

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