Father Thomas O'Gorman
First President, 1885-1887When Bishop John Ireland's long-promised seminary-college was rushed into its opening in 1885, his appointment as its first rector, Father Thomas O'Gorman, celebrated Mass for students and faculty and made this entry in his diary: "Classes opened September 9, in the afternoon, with a short class. There being no books, no desks, very little was possible." This educational omnibus included a theological seminary, a minor seminary, a junior college, a high school and a junior high school.
Children of Irish immigrants, Thomas O'Gorman and John Ireland were boyhood friends whose bond was to span 66 years. St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors wrote, "Throughout their ecclesiastical careers, O'Gorman stood to some degree in Ireland's shadow, and he did so cheerfully ... as priest and educator, he shared Ireland's conviction that the times demanded a thorough literacy on the part of both clergy and laity."
O'Gorman had distinguished himself as a preacher as a young pastor in Rochester, Minn., and he now found himself with the new and varied responsibilities of a priest, college president, dean of studies, superintendent of grounds and buildings, professor and disciplinarian — typical multitasking in 19th century higher education. After two years, he asked to be relieved of administration, but he remained a member of the St. Thomas faculty until 1890, teaching theology, philosophy, history, English and French.
He cultivated a scholarly interest in church history and ended his collegiate days as chair of ecclesiastical history at the Catholic University of America before he became bishop of Sioux Falls, S.D. He served in that position until his death in 1921.
Father Edward F.X. McSweeny
Second President, 1887-1888Father Edward F.X. McSweeny and his presidency are notable for several reasons. He was the first rector recruited by Archbishop John Ireland from outside the diocese, the brevity of his stint was due to his health not responding well to Minnesota winters, and his passage was so short that his name was commonly misspelled by contemporaries and by some later chroniclers of his 1887-88 tenure.
Ireland found McSweeny at Mount St. Mary's in Maryland, the second-oldest Catholic college and seminary in America, and thought him the ideal candidate to develop an outstanding program of seminary and collegiate education in St. Paul. Before he departed campus after one year, McSweeny did leave a list of recommendations for improvement in academic operations and campus life. He also complained, among other things, that the heterogeneous nature of the campus community, where French, German and Bohemian vied with English, Latin and Greek, was a detriment to the unity of spirit and vision he had experienced back East.
College historian Joseph Connors observed, "When one contemplates the lively intelligence, the breadth of culture, and the variety of interests reflected in McSweeny's essays, it is impossible not to give way to wondering what it would have meant for the diocese if he had become what Ireland hoped he would be: his chief educator. ... He was, above all, a stimulator, and it was regrettable that St. Thomas could not have felt the impact of his mind for a few years."
Father James Keane
Third President, 1888-1892Father James Keane is the youngest person ever to lead St. Thomas, being promoted from vice rector in 1888 at the age of 32.
His countenance was stern and not without reason. "He was a good administrator," recalled an observer, "an exemplary and scholarly priest and a preacher of more than ordinary ability and distinction. He was, however, reserved, aloof, stern and strict with himself and others." Keane had served two years as a professor of moral theology and bursar, and both the students and the faculty respected him. As well they might, for Keane spied on campus behavior from the seminary building's 90-foot tower with a large telescope, earning a deserved reputation as a disciplinarian. Like other early leaders of the college, he was an active supporter of oratory and debate. He also had an ear for music and might have founded St. Thomas' first orchestra before he became the school's third rector.
A unique extracurricular activity in 1890-91 was the first campus military organization, the St. Thomas Seminary Battalion. This student militia, organized by seminarians, had no uniforms and drilled with wooden rifles. The battalion ostensibly was formed because of a threat by American Indians, a reflection of events taking place farther west. The ragtag unit marched only once and that to derision.
Keane was appointed pastor of the parent parish of Minneapolis' Basilica of St. Mary in 1892 and later served as a bishop and archbishop in Wyoming and Iowa.
Father James C. Byrne
Fourth President, 1892-1899Father James C. Byrne served during a period (1892-99) in which the new St. Paul Seminary would be split off from the parent institution, and he would head a "college," a combination of high school, junior college and minor seminary. He would be the last rector of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary and the first rector (and president) of the College of St. Thomas.
Byrne was the first person from the Diocese of St. Paul to study at the College of Propaganda in Rome and the first Minnesota-born priest ordained for the diocese. In 1884, a year after his ordination, he was appointed secretary to John Ireland, whose reputation as a leading American prelate was growing and who expected the same indefatigable dedication and energy from his associates. Byrne was described as more a man of reflection than of action, a person enthusiastic about his new assignment. "He liked young people," wrote St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors, "was liked by them, had a strong interest in education, and a zest for scholarship."
While he was still Ireland’s secretary, Byrne wrote to Henry Brownson, son of American Catholicism’s foremost intellectual, Orestes Brownson, to order a set of Brownson’s works and announce that he had formed a Brownson Club in St. Paul. Presaging the Newman Club, a group of University of Minnesota students discussed Catholic issues in Byrne’s rectory on Sunday afternoons, and he taught Christian doctrine and English as St. Thomas rector.
Father John Dolphin
Fifth President, 1899-1903Father John Dolphin was the fifth leader of St. Thomas (1899-1903), and the immediate problems with which he had to cope included pressure on institutional resources caused by a surge in enrollment; a serious fire, often a threat in the early days of 19th-century schools; construction of a classroom building and residence hall; and seemingly perennial financial woes.
As one who served as a chaplain in the military for seven years, Dolphin was a fastidious and meticulous man with a passion for order and a respect for rules. But history will judge the priestrector by an act of kindness in January 1902 when he encountered on a campus sidewalk a young man, I.A. O'Shaughnessy, who had been expelled from St. John's University in Collegeville that very morning. O'Shaughnessy had not wanted to return to his home in Stillwater, so he took the train to St. Paul and walked to St. Thomas. Dolphin fed the rattled youth and listened to a tale involving a keg of beer and remorse. He admitted O'Shaughnessy to St. Thomas, and the befriended young man's affection for the priest would grow into a philanthropy of incalculable value in the institution's history.
Ill health dogged Dolphin. Beset by exhaustion and insomnia a result of overwork, he requested to retire and his request was granted by Archbishop John Ireland. The last years of his life were spent as pastor in a Portland, Ore., suburb, and the memory of his St. Thomas tenure and its curious historical importance revived as the O’Shaughnessy story was told in later years.
Father Humphrey Moynihan
Sixth President 1903-1921The first of two Moynihan brothers to lead St. Thomas, Father Humphrey Moynihan was a protege of Archbishop John Ireland. He was summoned by Ireland from the St. Paul Seminary across the street, where he had taught apologetics and English literature since its opening in 1894 while also serving as prefect of studies.
He served 18 years (1903-21) as the sixth leader of the college, the longest presidential tenure until that of Monsignor Terrence Murphy (1966-1991) and Father Dennis Dease (since 1991). St. Thomas developed a distinct personality under Moynihan, a college whose prime attributes — masculine, Catholic and American — also happened to be those of its founder. Like Ireland, Moynihan "developed a strong interest in civic affairs and demonstrated an ecumenical approach to those of other faiths that would make him a respected figure in the community," according to St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors.
Moynihan's disposition was kind and gentle, one that shrank from confrontation, but he kept on a determined, albeit sometimes-circuitous path. Under his leadership, the college added five major buildings, started a highly successful military training program, expanded the student body by 300 percent, enlarged the faculty from nine priests and six laymen to 23 priests and 23 laymen, started the first official St. Thomas publications, organized a vigorous athletic program, strengthened all facets of the curriculum, founded an alumni organization, conferred the first B.A. degrees and achieved full accreditation as a college.
He was, as the saying goes, "The right man at the right time."
Father Thomas Cullen
Seventh President, 1921-1927The seventh priest to head St. Thomas, Father Thomas Cullen made his reputation as a young pastor of Immaculate Conception (later renamed the Basilica of St. Mary), where he was described as considerate, self-sacrificing, charitable and energetic.
When appointed to St. Thomas by Archbishop Austin Dowling in 192l, Cullen was hesitant to assume a presidency for which he had no training. He had earned a bachelor's degree at the University of Ottawa and while he had intellectual interests, he was no scholar, nor did he have any experience in educational administration. To Dowling, however, Cullen possessed valuable management experience running Minneapolis' largest parish and was a devout and dedicated priest who had cultivated good relations with the laity, particularly those in a position to benefit the archdiocese's education fund.
St. Thomas was in a perilous financial position at the time. Enrollment was a concern, with few students completing the four-year program and barely a third of its professors with a postbaccalaureate degree. A major academic innovation of the Cullen era was the establishment of a law school, which got off to an auspicious start under Dean Thomas O'Brien, former chief justice of the Minnesota Supreme Court.
After six years of mounting academic problems, Cullen was hospitalized with exhaustion. Dowling appointed him to an open Minneapolis pulpit, and with his health restored, he was once again in the comfortable role of beloved pastor.
Father John Foley
Eighth President, 1927-1928At the time of his appointment as the acting president of St. Thomas in 1927, Father John Foley already was tired of educational administration, having served as dean of discipline, dean of students, athletic director and vice-rector. On campus since 1908, he was popular with students, among whom his small stature earned the affectionate nickname "Pee-Wee."
Little did he know that, three months into his tenure, he would confront an academic lifethreatening problem: the University of Minnesota voted to recommend severing all accrediting relations with St. Thomas. The decision came after two years of examining St. Thomas' academic standards, academic procedures and the conduct of specific courses. Too many students who had received passing grades at either the academy or the college were performing unsatisfactorily in University of Minnesota courses. St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors described St. Thomas' condition in 1928 thusly: "Its academic reputation lay under a shadow. Its physical plant was inadequate, its financial base woefully weak."
Archbishop Austin Dowling did not see on the college's campus or among his parish priests the administrative leadership necessary to rescue St. Thomas, so he called a special meeting of trustees in 1928 to approve his solution. Out of it came the shocking decision to transfer the college to the Congregation of Holy Cross, which ran the University of Notre Dame, for a five-year period.
Foley went gratefully into pastoral ministry, which he enjoyed for the rest of his life.
Father Matthew Schumacher
Ninth President, 1928-1933When the academic and financial problems of St. Thomas convinced Archbishop Austin Dowling that the solution lay in turning the institution over to the Congregation of Holy Cross, which successfully ran the University of Notre Dame, Father Matthew Schumacher arrived in St. Paul to assume the presidency in 1928.
He was a former chair of Notre Dame's Philosophy Department, the architect of his university's academic restructuring and a veteran of campus trouble-shooting. He set out to convince the various constituencies of the college — students, faculty, the diocesan clergy and the local Catholic community — that his congregation respected the traditions of St. Thomas and sought to bring to bear its expertise in Christian higher education to enhance the school.
Perhaps the most importance legacy of the Holy Cross years was an academic reorganization similar to that accomplished in South Bend. Institutional operations at St. Thomas were organized into studies, student life and business operation. Three "Schools" — Law, Education and Commerce — were retained, and the Liberal Arts College's 18 departments were placed in five divisions, a structure that has lasted to the present with minor modifications. Chronic financial problems proved more intractable, and it did not help that the new administration was greeted with the onset of the Depression.
A variety of issues, complicated by the death of Dowling and the appointment of a new archbishop, combined to frustrate renewal of the archdiocesan contract with the Holy Cross Congregation. In 1933, Schumacher and his associates returned to Indiana.
Father James Moynihan
Tenth President, 1933-1944Father James Moynihan gave a reluctant assent when asked by Archbishop John Gregory Murray to assume the presidency of St. Thomas in 1933, the year that sponsorship of the college reverted to the archdiocese after five years under the Congregation of Holy Cross. St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors noted that 25 years of untroubled campus life as a man of letters "helped to make (Moynihan) the wonderfully stimulating teacher he was," but he "had had practically no administrative experience, and apparently never wanted any."
Even 14 years after he had left campus and a restorative decade as president, Moynihan was unhesitant in identifying the classroom as his first love. He continued to teach while president, and some consider this continuing activity a key to his overall contribution to the development of the college. He embodied the intellectual ideals associated with a classic liberal education, one that attempted to define what it meant to be fully human.
While not enamored of administrative burdens, the 10th leader of St. Thomas continued initiatives begun under the Holy Cross Fathers to improve academic quality, particularly the strengthening of the faculty, and succeeded in enhancing standards even while the country itself endured a Great Depression. Even though St. Thomas was a part of the nation's austerity during the 1930s, Murray advanced $180,000 to the new administration and through appeals to clergy and laity as well as assessments on parishes, raised almost $500,000 for the college by the time of its golden jubilee in 1935.
Father Vincent J. Flynn '23
Eleventh President, 1944-1956Father Vincent Flynn's presidency (1944-1956) symbolized the transition of St. Thomas from an institution reflecting the 19th-century Catholic seminary-college hybrid to a standard liberal-arts college in the American tradition of higher education.
St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors attributed this evolution not only to overall trends affecting colleges in the 1940s and 1950s but also to several distinguishing features of Flynn himself. "He was the first St. Thomas alumnus to become president, and he was an alumnus of both the academy and college. More important, he was the first American-educated president, the first whose schooling at every level had been in American institutions. He was the first president who was a trained research scholar in the modern sense. He was the first president whose appointment was due, at least in part, to an expression of faculty opinion."
Flynn, who held a master's degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate from the University of Chicago, joined the St. Thomas English Department in 1935 and became chair in 1940. During his presidential tenure, the college built a long-overdue science building, absorbed veterans under two GI bills, dealt with recurring budget issues and slowly increased the voice of the faculty in academic policy. In his student newspaper column, Flynn discussed serious sociopolitical issues while occasionally inveighing against pet peeves, such as "fonetic" spelling, iron shoe cleats, gum chewing and red desk blotters.
Monsignor James Shannon '41
Twelfth President, 1956-1966Perhaps no one ascended to the presidency of St. Thomas with more potential than James Shannon, who breezed through the college in three years, graduating summa cum laude in classical languages and history.
Ordained in 1946, he earned a master's degree from the University of Minnesota and a doctorate in American studies from Yale in 1955. He joined the history faculty in 1954, and his appointment to head St. Thomas two years later, after the death of Father Vincent Flynn, surprised no one but himself.
It was, in the words of St. Thomas historian Joseph Connors, the beginning of "An Era of Good Feeling." A sense of renewal and progress buoyed morale among faculty and students, an optimistic mood heightened by a physical makeover of the campus and capped by a long-overdue new library underwritten by I.A. O'Shaughnessy.
In addition to construction, equally important strides were made in building and maintaining a strong faculty, adding promising educational programs and adopting professional management practices. Invaluable third-party endorsement came in the form of a prestigious 1962 Ford Foundation grant designed "to create regional centers of academic excellence." The grant, which had to be matched, led to the most sophisticated — and successful — fundraising effort at that time in the college's history.
Shannon was named a bishop in 1965 and left the St. Thomas presidency the following year. After resigning as a bishop in 1968 and leaving the priesthood, he lived out his later years locally as a highly respected leader in community foundations.
Monsignor Terrence Murphy
Thirteenth President, 1966-1991Monsignor Terrence Murphy, the 13th president of St. Thomas, once called his predecessor, James Shannon, "the second founder of St. Thomas," a title that could just as well be applied to Murphy.
Murphy's extraordinary tenure as the institution's longest-serving president (1966-1991) was of two parts. The first, marked by campus unrest over the Vietnam War and polarization in the church in the wake of Vatican II reforms, has been described as one of endurance and gathering strength. The second saw St. Thomas transform itself from a liberal arts college for men into a multicampus coeducational university, growing from 2,167 students to 9,120, from 257 faculty and staff to 1,324 and from a $3.5 million annual budget to $84.4 million.
Aided by its strong Board of Trustees, St. Thomas became an urban, entrepreneurial university, discerning community needs and developing programs to meet them while still nurturing its Catholic character and liberal arts core. "We did take risks," Murphy once recalled. "We hoped they were prudent risks but ... there was no assurance they were going to work, and not every one did. But enough worked and worked well to give overall success."
Murphy restructured St. Thomas into a number of graduate schools and an undergraduate division, and in 1990 changed its name to reflect what it had become — a university. When he stepped down the following year and accepted the new title of chancellor, Murphy was recognized as one of the nation's most effective college or university presidents, and his institution had earned new distinction in academic reputation.
Father Dennis Dease
Forteenth President, 1991-PresentAs Father Dennis Dease reached his 10th anniversary as the 14th president of St. Thomas in 2001, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching reclassified the university from a Midwest regional university to a national doctoral institution, symbolizing a new educational plateau as a distinguished urban teaching university with a growing national reputation.
"A teaching university," Dease once explained, "is a place of active, inquiry-based learning that effectively combines liberal and professional education," a hybrid model that is neither a classic liberal arts college nor a traditional research university. Dease became president after serving as rector of the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis. Under his leadership, St. Thomas has added six major buildings to its St. Paul campus; established a four-building Minneapolis campus, including a law school; opened a residential campus in Rome; founded nationally renowned centers in Catholic studies and Irish studies; and significantly increased study-abroad opportunities.
Dease received the National Catholic Educational Association's highest honor, the Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, in 2008. A Catholic Spirit newspaper ad celebrating the accomplishment included a message from the St. Thomas community that said: "You have been our leader for more than 17 years, an extraordinarily long tenure as a university president. When we consider the remarkable evolution of St. Thomas during that period, 'extraordinary' doesn't seem an adequate adjective to describe the impact of your leadership. It has been visionary. It has been transformative. And it has been inspiring."