The college has accepted a gift of 110 acres and 22 buildings that were once the campus of a boarding school. The purchase of the property from the National Christian Foundation will be completed on May 2 this year, and the first classes will be held in fall 2018.Thomas Aquinas College — the California school known for its Great Books program and traditional Catholic education — is opening a new campus in Northfield, Massachusetts, 90 miles northwest of Boston.
The move comes as applications have risen at Thomas Aquinas College, exceeding its capacity to take in students at its California campus, according to Thomas McLean, a longtime professor at the school and its current president. McLean said the school was committed to capping enrollment around 400 students, to ensure small class sizes and a close-knit campus community at its present location in Santa Paula, California — meaning that a major expansion would require a second campus. “It seemed more logical to try to do it at a greater distance,” McLean told the Register.
All that was hypothetical, though, until the National Christian Foundation approached Thomas Aquinas with its offer. In a news release announcing the expansion, the college noted that the property has a “history of education and evangelism.” In the 19th century, Protestant evangelist Dwight Moody founded separate Christian schools for boys and girls on the land. The schools merged into one in 1971 and vacated the current property in 2005. Then the Christian-owned craft-store chain Hobby Lobby owned it, before passing it off to the National Christian Foundation.
A board member for the foundation said it wanted to pass on the property to a worthy successor of Moody’s legacy. “We were very concerned about the mission of the organization,” said the board member, Emmitt Mitchell, who led the effort to donate the property to Thomas Aquinas.
After an exhaustive review — including a visit to its California campus — Mitchell said Thomas Aquinas College proved to be exemplary. In addition to property, the National Christian Foundation is contributing $5 million for expenses, maintenance, salaries and financial aid. The gift has to be matched by contributions from the college’s own network of donors. So far, it is more than halfway toward that goal.
In terms of land, the college is receiving about half of a 217-acre property. But even what it is receiving is more than ample for its needs, including a dormitory, classroom space, a library, science hall, auditorium, gym and a music center, according to the college. Initially, Thomas Aquinas College will occupy just 11 of the 22 buildings it is receiving, McLean said.
The college will end up sharing the property with The Moody Center, which is dedicated to the legacy of its namesake. The center will consist of a small museum and archive of records related to Moody.
Although Moody was a Protestant, McLean considers the college an extension of his mission — noting that its theology courses incorporate instruction in Scripture with traditional Catholic theology.
“We think there’s just a kind of harmony and compatibility in our approaches to education,” McLean said.
Thomas Aquinas will launch its East Coast campus in 2018 with an incoming freshman class of 36, accepting the same number for each of the next three years, slowly building to a student body of 350 to 400 students. The aim is to recreate the same kind of campus climate, with its distinctive intellectual and spiritual life, as students find on the West Coast. The curriculum will be the same, and veteran tutors — the college’s term for professors — from the California campus have agreed to relocate to Massachusetts.
When Thomas Aquinas College opens its East Coast doors, it will be entering a market that is flush with Catholic colleges. In Massachusetts alone, there are 13 colleges and universities: Anna Maria, Assumption, Boston College, College of Our Lady of the Elms, College of the Holy Cross, Emmanuel, Labouré, Lawrence Memorial Hospital of Nursing, Marian Court, Merrimack, Regis, St. John’s Seminary and Stonehill — and there are several more in neighboring Rhode Island and New Hampshire.
“Our program is unique, and none of them is doing exactly what we’re doing, so I think we have a niche,” McLean said. “We believe we’re going to attract our share of students.”
“I think in this case it would be iron sharpening iron, having multiple good Catholic colleges in the area. It can only bring good things,” said Father Michael Casey, a parish priest who is also a chaplain at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Connecticut. Father Casey said he plans to advise college-bound students to consider attending the new campus.
One educator told the Register she knows there is a demand for what Thomas Aquinas College offers from students who live on the East Coast and might be deterred by the distance of a California college.
Laura Berquist, the founder of the Mother of Divine Grace School, which provides a long-distance classic education to Catholic home-schoolers, said that an exit survey of 387 graduating seniors last year indicated that 47 were interested in liberal arts colleges like Thomas Aquinas. “They didn’t apply to Thomas Aquinas College, but it looked like they would be interested in that sort of education,” Berquist said.
Interest in the new campus extends beyond parents and high-school students. Locally, the town of Northfield is excited to see some life return to a campus that has been largely vacant for a decade. “It promises to help the town,” said David Dowdy, an English teacher and adviser to Catholic students at Northfield Mount Hermon School, which once occupied the campus Thomas Aquinas is moving into.
Dowdy, who had a son who graduated from Thomas Aquinas, praised the school for its academic excellence. “I’m completely sold on the education they have there,” he said. Having the college close by will also make it an easier sell to prospective students that he teaches and advises, according to Dowdy — not necessarily because it is so close to home, but because it will allow him to take students to campus events where they can see what the college environment is like firsthand. “To have this coming in our neighborhood is very exciting.”
There is also excitement among the broader Catholic community in the area, which falls under the Diocese of Springfield.
“I was very pleased to hear of the grant of land and campus buildings from the former Northfield School property to Thomas Aquinas College,” Bishop Mitchell Rozanski told the Register.
Bishop Rozanski, who has met with college officials, also said, “This property has a long and treasured academic legacy, one which now will continue under the able guidance of Thomas Aquinas College. I believe our diocese and so many others in our region will be blessed to have the presence of such a fine Catholic institution here in New England.”
Stephen Beale writes from
Providence, Rhode Island.