Last March, Aquinas College made a bittersweet announcement. The school, operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia for the last 23 years, announced that it would no longer be a four-year, liberal-arts institution.
This fall, the Nashville-based college is focusing its academic programming on bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the School of Education. Classes began Aug. 28, the feast of St. Augustine.
“We are returning to embrace more deeply what we do best — educating teachers and running Catholic schools,” Sister Anne Catherine Burleigh, spokeswoman for the Dominican Sisters, told the Register. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have 49 schools in 28 dioceses.
The decision did not come without much discernment. The reconfiguration means that more than half of the college’s past 257 students will complete their degrees elsewhere. Around 60 faculty members lost their jobs, as well.
“This was a difficult decision, and proceeded by much prayer, study and discernment,” said Sister Mary Agnes Greiffendorf, president of Aquinas.
Sister Anne Catherine explained that the religious congregation had been discerning for a while the best course for the community. Aquinas College’s School of Education, as well as the new Center for Catholic Education, established last year, are two ways the community has refocused strategically.
Teachers in Truth
Sister Mary Agnes is confident about the future. “I am excited to see where the Lord will lead us,” she said. “As we look to the future, we will be considering how we might best serve the Church in its mission of education.”
The Dominican Sisters of Nashville have served the Church by teaching in Catholic schools since the Civil War.
The congregation began Aquinas College in 1961 as a teaching school mainly for their sisters in formation and with a small lay student body.
In 1994, the sisters decided to build a traditional college, offering a number of liberal-arts degrees. A few years ago, the campus added residential housing to the campus.
“As Dominicans, we approach education as St. Thomas Aquinas did: as a gift and a mission,” Sister Anne Catherine told the Register. “It’s the call of evangelization. It’s bringing the love and truth of Christ to the world, whether you are teaching math, social studies or art. I think this is at the heart of the Aquinas [College] approach.”
Sister Mary Agnes agrees: “Aquinas College’s approach to education is unique because it is animated by the charism of the Congregation of St. Cecilia. We are a community of religious women engaged in service to educational institutions of all levels in more than 50 schools in 30 dioceses and seven countries. So we bring practical experience and dedication to Catholic education that flows from our consecration to God and zeal for the spread of the Gospel.” She continued, “Like our patron, St. Thomas Aquinas, we see Christ as the perfect Teacher; schooled by this Teacher through prayer, study and community, we are then each enabled to teach others.”
The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia have around 300 sisters, with 16 to 20 postulants entering formation yearly. They are located in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Italy, the Netherlands and Australia.
Last year, the congregation launched the Center for Catholic Education. Its mission is twofold: to serve as a resource for educators in Catholic schools on the elementary and secondary levels and to become a means of cooperation among those educators. In collaboration with Aquinas College’s School of Education, the center provides professional development sessions and retreat conferences for faculties of individual schools or on the diocesan level.
As Sister Anne Catherine explained, “When you look at national trends of Catholic schools, there is a movement to return to their reason for their existence, in the first part. Schools and administrators are asking what sets them apart from just a great education. It’s Catholic identity.”
To that end, the Center for Catholic Education serves as a resource center for educators who want to grow in their vocation to instruct. The website includes a long list of Church documents and resources for Catholic identity.
“It’s a way to support Catholic educators beyond the walls of Aquinas College. We are here to help,” said Sister Anne Catherine.
In addition, the college offers a summer program for teachers’ Catholic formation called “Witness, Inspire, Serve, Educate” (WISE).
Sister Thomas More, provost for academics, shared the college’s educational philosophy:
“The School of Education’s faculty not only present their research, but also their practical expertise, as they have been teachers in elementary and secondary schools and several have been elementary school administrators. … What makes us good at what we do? First, the grace of God, and, secondly, we pass on teaching in the Dominican tradition through our prayer, study and experience.”
“Blessed Paul VI in Evangelii Nuntiandi wrote, ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’ Our task is broader than forming teachers; our task is in forming witnesses, too,” she continued.
“The Dominican motto — ‘Contemplate and give to others the fruits of your contemplation’ — is part of this formation. In contemplation, we gaze on the truth, and gazing, in itself, requires a focus, silence and desire. The witnesses for the 21st century must be rooted in contemplation, and the teacher who is contemplative will be able to listen and respond to the spiritual, intellectual and emotional needs of each student.”
Instructor Katherine Haynes, Ph.D., who has taught at Aquinas for more than a decade, is looking forward to the future: “As a classroom instructor, I am excited now to be able to focus lesson plans with a specific intended audience in mind: Catholic education students.”
“The purpose of teachers has always been to guide their students to the truth, to excellence in execution, to fulfillment, and the word ‘Catholic’ means to follow that which is confessed at all times and places to be the genuine teachings of the Church,” she added, noting that truly Catholic education “means that the entire course of study is transformed into the purposes of God so that we can serve willingly with a ready mind, serve efficiently with an effective skill set, and serve joyfully.”
Olivia Casbarro, of North Carolina, chose Aquinas College because of the strong Dominican tradition of forming educators.
She said it has become a place where she is known by the school’s small faith-filled community.
Said the 22-year-old early-education major, “I don’t understand the whole picture, when it comes to the reconfiguration of Aquinas College, but so often the disciples didn’t understand the whole picture of Jesus’ act of redemption. While I may not understand, I do trust. I trust Jesus, and I trust that Mother Ann Marie [superior of the Nashville Dominicans] and her counsel are trusting Jesus.”
Reliance on Providence is key, according to Sister Mary Agnes: “The Dominican approach to education is marked by adaptability in bringing the light and truth of the Gospel to people of all times, places and circumstances. This has certainly been the case at Aquinas College.” She added, “We begin this year with hope, trusting that God will lead us as we seek to do his will. We trust that this college will continue to bear fruit for the Kingdom in the manner and time that he desires.”
Eddie O’Neill writes