NORTHFIELD, Mass. — As students attend classes this year at Thomas Aquinas College, some are seeing the usual crop of live oaks on the school’s California campus give way to dense New England forests. They’ll also notice that instead of white stucco and terracotta buildings typical of southern California architecture, they’ll be surrounded by stately redbrick and white-columned structures usually associated with Ivy League schools.
In late August, Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) officially started its school year for the first time in its 49-year history on two campuses — on Aug. 26 in Santa Paula, California, and two days earlier, on Aug. 24, in Northfield, Massachusetts. On this day, TAC students, parents, faculty and administration gathered for a convocation Mass and matriculation ceremony for students attending classes at the school’s newly acquired campus located close to the Connecticut River in northwestern Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border.
For the opening of the school year in Northfield, TAC’s president, Michael McLean, was joined by Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of the Diocese of Springfield, Massachusetts, in welcoming the 58 students and eight faculty members as the founding members of the school’s New England campus.
TAC acquired the Northfield campus in 2017, after its previous owner, the National Christian Foundation, granted the 110-acre campus and its 22 buildings to TAC. The new merger operated on both campuses until 2005, when all operations were transferred to the Mount Hermon campus. From that time the property and buildings remained vacant until TAC acquired the campus and began the necessary renovations to the buildings.
According to McLean, TAC decided to open another campus because there was great demand for the kind of education that the school provides.
“Our enrollment has been maxed out here for the last eight or 10 years,” he told the Register. “We deliberately keep the enrollment around 400 students to keep the kind of academic and spiritual community we’re trying to maintain here. So we’ve thought off and on for a number of years about the possibility of replicating our work in California in some other part of the country.”
In 2018, the Massachusetts Board of Education (MBE) approved TAC to operate the campus as part of its liberal arts program. According to TAC’s website, the approval requires that the school submit status reports in its first five years of operation to indicate ongoing compliance with the MBE’s standards, which prohibit the school from accepting non-Catholics in the East Coast program.
McLean told the Register that while the stipulation does represent a “compromise and a departure from our practice here in California” (where about 5% of the student body is non-Catholic), “it did make it possible to open a campus in Massachusetts with confidence that our religious liberty will be protected, that we will be able to employ people who are sympathetic with the Catholic faith and Catholic moral teaching, and we can admit students who likewise share these convictions.”
Courage and Hope
In his homily during the convocation Mass and remarks at the matriculation ceremony, Bishop Rozanski praised the school for its courage in opening a new campus.
He said he was grateful to have the school in his diocese, noting that the school represents a sign of hope in a region where religion has been fading away.
“Relying on the promise of Jesus to be with us always and knowing of a deep hunger for the truth of the Gospel message and the presence of Jesus in our world,” the bishop said during his homily, “this campus will serve as a place to enlighten the minds and hearts of young Catholics so that they, too, from here, may go out to witness to the power of Jesus at work through them.”
In his comments during the matriculation ceremony formally admitting students to the college, Bishop Rozanski said that he had recently discovered that Massachusetts was the second least religious state in the country. (A 2016 Pew study on religiosity among the states shows the Bay State statistically tied for last with New Hampshire.)
“It is indeed fortuitous that Thomas Aquinas opens here in New England at this Northfield campus at this time,” he said. “It’s time when Massachusetts, and New England, and indeed our whole country need the light of the Gospel, need the rays of hope that come from faith, to give us new life, new hope, in the Gospel message.”
That same Gospel message will be communicated daily in the English Gothic-style chapel that came as part of the National Christian Foundation grant and was recently named by TAC in honor of Our Mother of Perpetual Help.
The campus’ chaplain, Father Greg Markey, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, is on loan by permission of Bishop Frank Caggiano, to provide the sacraments and spiritual guidance to students and faculty.
Father Markey said the chapel’s new name speaks to the role the faith will play in the life of the school.
“The chapel is such a sturdy, quarry-stone cut building,” he said. “It resonates with stability, and to consecrate the chapel to our Mother of Perpetual Help shows Our Lady’s stabilizing role in the college’s life.”
Also stabilizing life on campus, Father Markey said, the school’s sacramental life serves as another curriculum for the students — and his mission is to make sure they stick with it.
“I’m trying to get young people rooted in Christ through the ups and downs of college life,” he said, “so when they graduate, they are able to continue with a habit of prayer and relying on Christ and looking to Christ for the important decisions of the rest of their lives.”
Mass is celebrated on campus twice a day (in Latin, in the ordinary and extraordinary form), and the administration has placed a top priority on renovating the English Gothic-style chapel, including plans to install a high marble altar, to better serve the students and faculty for the coming school year.
Other buildings on campus are also taking on a Catholic character. The school’s administration building, for example, as McLean noted in his convocation address, is being named in honor of “the great administrator and martyr” St. Thomas More.
“More saints will be memorialized as our conversations with benefactors continue,” McLean also said in his address.
The school is only using about 20% of the buildings on campus, McLean told the Register, but the other buildings will also become functioning parts of campus life as enrollment grows and renovation funds become available.
Despite having two campuses, the school operates under the authority of a single board of governors, president and dean, and the campuses will coordinate individual fundraising and other operations, McLean said, but Thomas Kaiser, serving as associate dean, is leading the day-to-day administration of the program in Northfield.
Kaiser, McLean said, “outlined the general plan to add a class a year until we have four classes, and we can increase the size of each class. After eight or 10 years we’ll have an enrollment that approaches what we have here in California, if all goes well.”
And Kaiser is determined to make sure all does go well.
He seemed an obvious and ideal choice to lead the new venture. A veteran educator and administrator, Kaiser was part of TAC’s first graduating class, and he knows the curriculum from top to bottom: In his 37 years as a tutor — the college’s term for instructors — he has taught all the classes in the curriculum.
In contrast to the school’s original founding, Kaiser said, a good deal of the work is already done in this new venture, both physically, since the buildings are already in place, and organizationally, as the school has been operating its program for almost half a century.
“It’s going to be better than the first founding, because we have a tremendous amount of teaching experience in the program,” he said. “The program is set. When the founders started the program, they had a sketch, an outline, of what they wanted to do. As one of the founders, Peter DeLuca, once told me, those first years of the program, the tutors were always just staying a step ahead of the students.”
Like Kaiser, TAC tutor Josef Froula is a TAC graduate, but unlike Kaiser, this year is only his second at TAC. For that reason he’s grateful for Kaiser and the other veteran tutors on campus.
“Dr. Kaiser is an expert in biology, and he generously offered to meet with us once a week as we were teaching the course and [to] benefit from his wisdom and experience was priceless,” he said. “The same thing happens here. If someone is an expert in one area, that tutor can help other tutors who are competent but not as experienced.”
Fellow tutor Margaret Hughes is also in her second year of teaching at TAC. After a year at the California campus, Hughes said that, as a native of Stamford, Connecticut, she saw her arrival in Northfield as a homecoming.
“I grew up in New England and I love it here and I love the people here,” she said.
“I relish being a part of bringing this really good thing to my home.”
Concurring with Bishop Rozanski’s estimation, Hughes sees TAC’s presence in New England as a sign of hope.
“I think everywhere needs a reminder that we can trust our ability to reason and that our reason needs to be habituated properly,” she said. “When it is, we can know reality. I think New England needs a reminder of that, too.”
To Be Continued
According to Froula, besides relying on Kaiser’s leadership and experience with the program, the school is also maintaining continuity with the California campus through its incoming sophomores.
Last year, Froula explained, the school admitted about 30 additional students to its California campus. These students agreed to transfer to the Northfield campus as sophomores for the 2019-2020 school year.
“So already these sophomores have imbibed the spiritual and intellectual richness of the formation that TAC offers,” Froula said. “That will be a great benefit to the freshmen coming in this year.”
One of these TAC sophomores, Theresa Peek, said she wasn’t sure what to expect at the new campus, but said she felt more at home once she arrived.
“I love the old buildings and the feeling of history here,” she said. “I also like the outline of the campus — it feels really free and open. We had extra freshman last year, of course, and so we did feel a bit overcrowded on the California campus.”
A native of New Zealand, Peek has been living in Kansas and Idaho after her family moved to the U.S. a few years ago. For this reason, she doesn’t see the climate change — from California’s two seasons to New England’s four seasons — as much of a challenge. “We have snow in Idaho,” she said.
A bigger challenge, Peek said, will be to live up to leadership expectations as an “upperclass” sophomore.
“It’s going to be a challenge not having seniors and a large group of older students who’ve been there and done that,” she said.
“Instead, my fellow sophomores and I are going to be the ones who pass down the traditions.”
Peek, 20, spent a few years in public university back in New Zealand, but she’s always wanted to attend a Catholic college. In particular, she said, discussing the truths of the faith in class at TAC has been an enriching experience.
“TAC has allowed me to investigate deeper into my faith, knowing there are answers in a way that you can’t do when you’re surrounded by non-Catholics and a hostile environment of a non-Catholic college,” she said.
“You can ask philosophical questions without inviting any danger to your faith or the faith of others. If you were to bring up a question in a public college, ‘Why does God allow suffering?’ — well, you can’t really ask the question at all. But if you ask that question here, you’ll begin to find an answer based on the works of St. Augustine or St. Thomas Aquinas.”
Joseph O’Brien writes from
Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin. Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, a member of the author’s family is employed at
TAC East. Read more in our annual Catholic Identity College Guide.