For centuries, Oxford University in England has provided its students with the option of living, eating and worshipping in residential colleges next to renowned scholars.

In that tradition, Aquinas College of Nashville, Tenn., plans to tie its expansion in enrollment and academic programming with its first residences and a "house" system, where students will join together with staff and faculty in spiritual and social communities.

"We want our students to experience the joy of just being together," explained Sister Mary Sarah Galbraith, Aquinas’ president.

Aquinas College is run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, an order that still wears their traditional habit and remains faithful to the teachings of the Church. Like many other faithful orders, they are growing, with 20 new postulants arriving at the Nashville motherhouse annually; they now number about 265. Their average age is the mid-30s.

Sister Mary Sarah herself attended Aquinas in its formative years, in the early 1960s, when it trained both nurses and sisters to teach in Catholic schools across America (and now Canada and Australia).

While working on her doctorate in history at the University of Sydney, she learned about the house system. When the order brought her back to Aquinas College, already in the midst of planning its expansion, she proposed the house system as an option for both the students who commute daily from Nashville and surrounding communities and those, starting next year, who will reside on campus.


Communities, Not Buildings

As the idea developed, it became clear that tying the idea to physical buildings, as at Oxford, would both delay a good idea needed now and limit the number of houses to three very big ones. So the "houses" will not be buildings, but eight communities. Each student will be assigned to one for his or her entire four-year stint.

"Residential and commuting students will participate in common meals, prayer, seminars and activities as part of the house system," said Sister Mary Sarah.

Staff and faculty are also being invited to join the houses, and many have responded enthusiastically, thus providing both parental figures and academic mentors in a more familial context than the classroom or office.

The house members will plan their own activities, but Sister Mary Sarah emphasized the aspect of worshipping, learning and playing together. "How we use our leisure is a crucial part of living our faith," she said. She foresees talent nights and inter-house competitions on the sports fields and elsewhere.

Though its first residence will open to 30 students this fall, Aquinas hopes to have three new buildings operating by 2017 to accommodate its entire current enrollment of more than 700. By that time or soon thereafter, however, the college hopes to have doubled its student body. With the residences and house system in place, the college hopes to draw students from across the country. A fundraising campaign is well under way, with $39 million as its goal.


Franciscan U. Concept

Sister Mary Sarah points to Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, as another school with a house system. According to Tom Sofio, Franciscan’s communications director, the program was instituted in 1974 by then-president Father Michael Scanlan. "It was intended to address the pervasive loneliness and lack of direction he saw among the undergraduate students," said Sofio. "He described the ‘college freshman in a cinderblock dormitory’ as ‘the loneliest person on earth.’"

Out of some 2,000 Franciscan undergraduates, 935 belong to one of the school’s 23 men’s or 23 women’s "faith households." Each has its own patron saint, its own spiritual and social rules and chosen social service. Madonna of the Streets, for example, is a women’s household that has chosen street counselling outside of abortion facilities as its social ministry. All members commit not only to communal worship and prayer, but also to correct one another when someone seems to be faltering in schoolwork or community life.

Recent Steubenville grad Maggie Andreola joined the Regina Angelorum faith household as soon as she arrived on campus four years ago because she wanted to have the older sisters she never had in her own family.

She and her "sisters" met at different times during the week for the Rosary, Mass, breakfast and for fellowship. Andreola attributes much of her spiritual growth at Franciscan to her faith household. "When I came here, I didn’t have that much of my own spiritual relationship with Our Lord. I grew so much. I don’t think I’d be the person I am today without the emotional leadership, the spiritual leadership and the psychological leadership of my faith household."

Aquinas College is hoping for the same results.

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.